I love to kill people. I love to watch them die. I would shoot them in the head and they would wiggle and squirm all over the place, and then just stop. Or I would cut them with a knife and watch their faces turn real white. I love all that blood.
These were the words of Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker”, who cut a swathe through the terrified population of California in the mid-80s. His appetite for murder was insatiable – on one night alone, 17 March 1985, he shot someone dead in their home, then gunned down another random victim as they got out of their car. During the course of his grim spree as a killer, he executed couples, sexually tortured and assaulted women and left Satanic scrawls on the blood-splattered crime scenes. When he was finally snared after an epic manhunt, California breathed a sigh of relief. Except, that is, for the many, many women who abruptly became infatuated with this remorseless rapist and multiple-murderer.
Ramirez had been the product of a strange and ugly upbringing. His older cousin was a Vietnam veteran who’d proudly shown him photographs of women he’d raped during the war, and shot his own wife dead right in front of the boy. Later, Ramirez’s brother-in-law would take the youth on “peeping Tom” outings to peer at women through their windows at night. From this, Richard Ramirez would escalate to a frenzy of slaughter, yet – despite the widespread fear he brought to the community, despite his unashamed bloodlust – he somehow attracted legions of groupies who would write him love letters throughout his trial and eventual imprisonment on Death Row.
Even one of the female jurors in his trial, Cynthia Haden, fell in love with him while the grotesque details of his crimes were laid out for the court. Afterwards, Haden made talk show appearances to openly defend Ramirez from critics, calling him a “caring guy” who hadn’t had a “fair trial”. On top of that, Ramirez married one of his fans, a woman named Doreen Lioy, who flooded him with letters during his incarceration and was giddy with excitement when they finally tied the knot at San Quentin.
A widespread adoration of serial killers is a glaring cultural phenomenon. Ted Bundy, the notorious sex attacker, murderer and necrophile, was inundated with fan mail as he awaited execution for his nightmarish past. Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper", who committed such savage crimes against so many innocent women, reportedly receives numerous Valentine’s cards every year. In the words of one newspaper article, the Ripper is “bombarded by naked selfies from pen pals”.
On one level, it’s fame – or infamy – that draws such women in. Criminologist Jack Levin, author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, puts it simply: “They love the celebrity status. These are the same women who might correspond with a rock star or a rap artist.” While they’re likely to be ignored by genuine celebrities, the perk of corresponding with a serial killer is they’re actually likely to write back, and even forge a long term relationship.
There’s also the dangerous allure to consider. The thrill factor of getting close to a man capable of dreadful acts, while secure in the knowledge that the object of their weird adoration is securely locked away. Ramirez, with his wild Byronic hair and slyly smirking expression, certainly cut a rock star-like figure in court, and clearly reveled in his own dark mystique. “You do not understand me, you are not expected to, you are not capable of it,” he said during his widely broadcast trial. “I am beyond your experience, I am beyond good and evil.”
Violence is just exciting. If I was to have a killer as a boyfriend it would make me excited, you know?
Some would have found this to be tedious, pseudo-intellectual self-justification, but many others clearly found his proudly demonic manner beguiling and sexually attractive. The sense of taboo-breaking transgression that comes from corresponding with a man like this, and playing out some fantasy relationship with them, can be a rush.
The age of social media has only exacerbated this phenomenon. On sites Tumblr, fans of serial killers create elaborate online shrines to their favourite criminals, creating digital collages of mug shots and trial photos, and posting images of letters they’ve sent and received. In an interview with Vice, one such fan confessed that “Violence is just exciting. If I was to have a killer as a boyfriend it would make me excited, you know?”
But, it’s also important to remember that for other women, it’s less about the illicit thrill, and more rooted in the strange kind of emotional security an incarcerated killer can provide. They, after all, aren’t going anywhere, and they’re likely to be grateful for the attention. As Sheila Isenberg discovered when researching her book, Women Who Love Men Who Kill, many brides of Death Row inmates hail from dark, turbulent pasts, abused by parents and earlier boyfriends and husbands, and relish the ability to enact a more old-fashioned courtship through letters and formal prison visits.
But perhaps it’s the granddaughter of two of Ramirez’s victims who best sums the phenomenon up for the vast majority of the public. Speaking on television to Cynthia Haden, the juror who’d fallen for the Night Stalker, the victims’ relative had little sympathy for the psychological reasons behind the attraction. “That is not a normal thing, to be attracted to someone who is so evil,” she said. “And so dangerous.”