I Love Serial Killer Stories But I Don’t Feel Good About It

What is it about serial killers that capture the public imagination so much? Last year, shows like Mindhunter and The Ted Bundy Tapes dominated Netflix, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film that reimagines the Manson murders, dominated the box office. As someone who avoids the thriller/horror genre at all costs, even I have somehow been pulled in by the allure of serial killer stories (and true crime in general).

⭐⭐⭐

Maureen Callahan’s latest book, American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century, certainly capitalizes on the serial killer craze of 2019 and introduces the reader to a new killer in much more recent a past.

Israel Keyes may not have the notoriety of the Zodiac Killer, but his story is just as troubling. Methodically stashing bodies and “kill kits” from Alaska to Vermont, Keyes earned the reputation as “one of the most ambitious, meticulous serial killers of modern time1.” In 2012, he confessed to murdering three people and is suspected to be responsible for upwards of eight more. This story follows the FBI’s investigation into the murder of Samantha Koenig, Keyes’s final victim and details Keyes’s startling confessions following his arrest. 

I totally understand the hype around this book. It’s a page-turner from beginning to end and a guaranteed favorite for Investigation Discovery fans like myself. 

So why only 3 stars? 

This story falls into the same narrative trap as the Ted Bundy Tapes: Callahan gave Keyes exactly what he wanted. Keyes obsessed with the famous serial killers from the 1970s and took personal inspiration from the likes of Ted Bundy. During a search of his home, police found several biographies about serial killers. Keyes – while claiming to not want media attention for the sake of his family – clearly thought highly of himself, and wanted others to as well. Now, like Bundy, he has his own slasher story in American Predator.

However, Callahan’s choice in subject matter is not inherently the problem. (I’m suspicious arguments that suggest simply writing about a topic encourages copycat behavior.) The larger problem is how Callahan chose to write about her subject. 

American Predator is written in a way Keyes would have wanted for himself. Keyes is the star. The smartest person in the room. The most dangerous killer of the century.

In this story, his victims are reduced to bodies twice. First by Keyes and second by Callahan. We see Keyes’s victims as he saw them – little more than faces and names. The attention of the story is on the spectacle of his cruelty rather than the human cost of his actions.

I have no problem with this kind of writing in fiction. Fiction is meant to explore the dark sides of humanity, and the people involved are not real. But in true crime, with real people and real violence, the way we address the topic needs to be more thoughtful. 

After the Boston Marathon bombing, there was a paradigm shift in the way reporters talked about mass shooters and terrorists. The scope of stories shifted from shooters to the victims. They minimized how many times they said shooters’ names, showed their pictures less frequently and resisted the temptation to overindulge in armchair psychoanalysis. You can find a good example of the new approach to reporting in the coverage that followed the Pulse Nightclub shootings. Reporters stayed focused on the actions of the gunman while denying him a personal celebrity. I think it is time for a similar reorientation in the true crime genre – especially with the treatment of serial killers. 

I would have liked to see more of this approach in American Predator. I wanted to know more about the victims. Who they were and how they lived. I don’t think it would have impacted the entertainment value of the story, but it would have eased the icky feeling I felt after finishing the book. 

What do you think? What do you think is the best way to write about true crime? Comment below! 

7 thoughts on “I Love Serial Killer Stories But I Don’t Feel Good About It

Add yours

  1. Very interesting review! I don’t read books like this often (and haven’t read this particular one), but when I do I want to know more about the victims as well. Media in general has a tendency to focus on the criminal and often ignores those who suffered, when it should be the other way around – the criminal shouldn’t be glorified or immortalised especially at the expense of the victims narrative – which I think would more powerfully show the dark side of humanity anyway. I love your view on this topic, I have had a lot of similar discussions on this topic in regards to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote! Though it is an older text with fiction entwined, it is another book that allows this discussion to truly be thought about! Excellent review, very insightful!!

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    1. Thank you so much! I totally see what you are talking about with a general fixation on crime in the media. I would love to see the approach from Only Plane in the Sky – compiling oral histories of tragic events – applied to serial killer stories as a way of capturing the humanity, grief, and tragedy at once.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! Indeed, it can be harmful for victims + their families (who are secondary victims anyway) when their own narratives are igored! That would be an incredibly interesting approach to take, a very powerful one indeed, I agree it would definitely capture everything you listed – it would be wonderful to see that approach used in, as you said, relation to serial killer stories! 😊

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      2. Such a well-worded, engaging review, Madison, and a pleasure to read!

        There’s a thin line to walk between reporting on serial killers to create awareness or dive into a psychological analysis (which I find to be extremely interesting, if a bit nauseating, and one of the reasons I binged Mindhunter) and writing for showcasing.

        It’s sad to note that many times true crime book take from the media and capitalize on shock factors as they glamorize these killers. Makes me think on how preoccupying it is the way serial killers are romanticized in the media meant for general public consumption. What does that say about us?

        Not only that, but every time a heinful act is committed, the focus of the story told by the media tends to shift towards the killer vs the victim. Definitely loved your points in the review.

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  2. Great review and your points are spot on. I love true crime But I often feel conflicted with how every detail relates to the perpetrator. Their motives, psyche, personality etc. I always end up wanting more from the victims.

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  3. It’s absolutely past time for a more serious and thoughtful approach to true crime. In addition to looking at the impact of these crimes on family, friends, and the community, the political context needs to be explored as well. Despite the sensationalist title, Amazon Prime’s new, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, is excellent at exploring both the intimate impact of his crimes and the larger political and gendered context in which they occurred. Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts is an extremely powerful, personal approach and feminist exploration of violent crime and its impacts. On my list of books to read are: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper and Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

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    1. Oooh! I will have to give those a look? I am also fascinated by your recommendation to include political context in addition to the situational context. I always find it interesting how intertwined politics and crime are in real life, but that relationship is seldom explored in true crime media.

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