The hosts of the popular True Crime podcast series, Redhanded, are releasing a book of the same name on September 12, 2021. While you can read our advanced review here, the publisher has been gracious enough to allow us to run an excerpt for you too.
Check out this exclusive excerpt from Redhanded:
So, what makes a killer tick? The only logical answer then is lots of things. It’s a perfect, or should we say imperfect, storm. There is no definitive reason. A killer can spring from an abusive childhood, a genetic makeup, and a personality disorder all working together at once. There is no pathology unique to a killer; rather, killers are the culmination of genetics, experienced trauma, environmental factors, society, culture—everything that makes us human.
Where does that leave the rest of us? We’ve talked a lot in this book about what makes a killer tick, but what makes us tick when it comes to our fascination with killers? From serial killers to family annihilators and the seemingly out-of-the-blue murders featured on Snapped, we’re hooked.
Now of course, a fascination with killers is something that exists on a spectrum—from reading this book and listening to RedHanded the podcast all the way up to buying yourself a John Wayne Gacy clown painting or purchasing a strand of Richard Ramirez’s hair. (Yes, some people do take it that far.)
There’s a crime fanatic in all of us, and even though people like to say that true crime is just so hot and mainstream right now, there’s nothing new about it. Victorian media moguls realized in 1888 how much better their newspapers sold when Jack the Ripper had been out and about. They churned out weekly illustrated Penny Dreadfuls featuring grisly, sensationalist stories of murder and the macabre, filling up their greedy coffers and satisfying the morbid masses. And the commercial crime consumption never stopped.
The American true crime writer Harold Schechter calls our collective fascination with murder, and with serial killers in particular, “a kind of cultural hysteria.” But what is it rooted in? To us it feels like the story of killers is the story of our own deepest fears—the fear that something may happen to us, or possibly even a loved one, at the hands of a stranger. And the even more insidious dread that we may be capable of hurting someone else—and what that would really mean for us.
Humanity has always been obsessed with fear; we’re biologically hardwired for it. If our first ancestors hadn’t known fear in the face of a razor-toothed Smilodon, we as a species certainly wouldn’t have lasted long. We are obsessed with fear and death, and our obsession with true crime is a sort of controlled fear. Perhaps it just gives us a little boost of delicious dopamine or maybe it makes us feel more prepared for if we were ever to find ourselves in a dangerous situation. Or even, as artist and serial killer memorabilia collector Joe Coleman explained in an interview with the BBC in 2016, “It’s a cathartic way of releasing the demons in a way that’s positive rather than destructive.”
As true crime podcasters and authors, we are asked in almost every interview, ever: why are people obsessed with true crime? This idea of true crime being a kind of catharsis, although controversial, is probably the best one out there. Perhaps our fascination with killers is actually an outlet for us to play out in our minds our darkest and most disturbing thoughts, and thereby sweep them away afterward without having acted on them. Maybe.
We also think that cultural historian and author of The Red Barn Murder, Shane McCorristine, explained the timeless nature of true crime fascination best when he said that it is an “opportunity to suffer death from a distance, to get as close to the abyss as you can while not falling in.”
And serial killer Dennis Nilsen agrees. Many passages from Nilsen’s prison diaries were published in the 1985 book Killing for Company by Brian Masters, and one extract in particular stood out to us:
Their [meaning, us] fascination with ‘types’ (rare types) like myself plagues them with the mystery of why and how a living person can actually do things which may be only those dark images and acts secretly within them. I believe they can identify with these ‘dark images and acts’ and loathe anything which reminds them of this dark side of themselves.
Killers aren’t mythical monsters we can other-ize and just ignore. They are an amplification of our worst impulses. They are a projection of our darkest fascinations. Killers are—as is the true crime genre itself—the perfect mirror to hold up to society to reveal who we really are. Whatever the reason, true crime allows us to plumb the depths of human depravity, explore our deepest fears, get right up against it, then simply close the book and walk away. After we have read about the very worst things one human can do to another, we can shake off the shivers and go back to our everyday lives lying on the sofa, watching 90 Day Fiancé, and eating peanut butter straight out of the jar.