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Serial killers in movies are one of the scariest & sickening stories to ever grace our screens. Here's the doc about genetics vs. nature.

Are serial killers born or made? The doc about genetics vs. nature

Often considered a subgenre of horror movies, serial killer movies are one of the scariest & sickening stories to ever grace our screens. The idea that a serial killer might be hiding in plain sight, that it could be someone you very well know – it’s downright terrifying & this genre feeds on this terror you feel. 

Whether it’s the unhinged baby-masked murderer from Happy Death Day, or serial killer disguised as a priest in The Night of the Hunter, serial killer movies have some of the most terrifying moments from horror movies. Eyes Without a Face presented a creepy expression of affection, while The Killer Inside Me looks at the very specific personality of an irredeemably evil serial killer

Part of why serial killer movies can be so scary is because of the premise: the villain in the story is not a ghost or a similar fantastical or mythical creature, but humans beings just like you & I. Same flesh, same bones . . . the only thing separating us is whether or not we’re able to murder people in cold blood. HBO’s documentary Crazy, Not Insane sheds some light on the personalities of serial creatures.

Interviewing the not-so-mythical creatures

In the HBO documentary Crazy, Not Insane, American psychiatrist & author Dorothy Otnow Lewis summarises the entire debate about serial killers in one sentence, “I think any one of us, myself included, could kill.” Directed by Alex Gibney, Dr. Lewis brings to screen what she’s dedicated her career to studying murderers & their motives.

We’re told in the documentary that Dr. Lewis has interviewed over 100 murderers, death row inmates, and serial killers. These cases include some of the most famous serial killers known to us – from Ted Bundy to Arthur Shawcross.  As a matter of fact, she interviewed the notorious Bundy right before his execution. 

In her professional interests & inclinations, Dr. Lewis has explored themes like childhood trauma, Dissociative identity Disorder, among others, in a quest to demystify the minds of serial killers. As a result of her prolific research work, she’s taken a deep dive into the psyche of a serial killer to seek answers about the lack of empathy in serial killers, the lack of guilty . . . you get the drift.

She first shared her insights in her 1998 book Guilty by Reason of Insanity: A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers. In an interview with The Guardian, she was quoted as saying, “You realize that when you are talking with these people who have done some really extraordinarily violent acts, that there’s an environment that created that. These people were not born dangerous. They were not born evil.”

With that, she seems to have confirmed some of our greatest fears. Serial killers are not born; it’s a mix of environmental factors that activate the evil in us. In her own words, “You get a combination of factors, environmental and intrinsic, that create a very violent person. I don’t think anyone is born evil. Or else, maybe you’d say we all are born with a capacity for evil, and you handle it differently.”

Dr. Lewis’ diagnoses of these serial killers, she claims, are always backed by evidence in the form of, inter alia, old records, artwork, physical scars, accounts of family members, medical records. It wasn’t a uniform process, however. As per the press notes, Ted Bundy “was unusually candid with the psychiatrist, revealing new details that upend the conventional wisdom about him.”

Gibney also opens up the conversation to adjacent themes, “We discovered that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. Further, it appears to encourage homicidal behavior. The states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without.” There’s a lot to learn & wonder about, but serial killers can surely be one of us.


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  • I enjoyed your article about the documentary focusing on serial killers. We don’t like to think any of us could be a killer, and there is this narrative in media that people with mental health issues are more likely to harm people i.e. The Joker. However, it’s my understanding that people with mental health issues are mostly non-violent, and that violence comes from something else. As they say after in one of my favorite shows, Once Upon A Time, Evil isn’t born, it’s made. Great Article.

    November 29, 2020

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