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Why Do Women Fall in Love with Convicted Killers?

Many people have an unusual obsession with the macabre, but a select few take this obsession to a new level. We offer some thoughts on why some women fall in love with convicted killers and other criminals.

Photo by Wally Fong/AP

Some women are positively crazy for serial killers. Ted Bundy was a mass murderer who wrote fan letters, reportedly received hundreds of love letters from young women when he was incarcerated. Richard Ramirez had dozens of groupies visit him and send him letters during his trial, and he would even go on to marry one of these groupies after more than a decade of courtship. (You can imagine the courtship process is certainly slower when one of the parties is on death row.)

Charles Manson also had his share of groupies, and he carried on a long-term relationship with 26-year-old Afton Elaine "Star" Burton. Burton had been visiting Manson in prison for years and created several websites proclaiming his innocence before the duo obtained a marriage license in 2014, when Manson was eighty years old. The wedding was reportedly called off when it became apparent that Burton was scheming to use Manson's corpse as a tourist attraction after his death.

While misunderstood, there are many possible psychological factors as to why why some women fall in love with convicted killers. One place to start is to observe that most of history's prominent serial killers have been men and their respective groupies have been primarily young women.

Hybristophilia

Photo via State Archives of Florida

If you do any research on why some women fall in love with convicted killers, one of the first terms you'll come across is "hybristophilia." Like most paraphilias, this term applies to those who gain sexual gratification from atypical sources. In this case, we're of course talking about those who are sexually aroused by partners who have committed heinous crimes like rape or murder or other immoral acts like adultery. 

While the term can be applied to a relatively broad array of fetishes, the "groupies" and adoring fans that obsess over serial killers are a prototypical example of hybristophilia. Keep in mind, however, that this is far more advanced than the "young girl falls for the bad boy" trope: hybristophilia is a mental illness, and a potentially lethal one at that.

Depending on who you ask, hybristophilia may be the underlying cause for pretty much every woman involved with these men. Other experts may claim almost the opposite, however: that the women who love American serial killers like Charles Manson and Kenneth Bianchi (the Hillside Strangler) aren't necessarily obsessed with them for sexual reasons. There are other, possibly unrelated factors that may explain this phenomenon.

Desiring the Spotlight

Photo via Bettmann Archive

Humans universally desire fame and crave attention, whether it's positive or negative. It seems somewhat obvious, therefore, to make the connection that some women may attempt to establish a relationship with convicted murderers in order either to gain some fame by proxy or to receive attention from someone who is famous. It's been well documented that many people are willing to do almost anything for fifteen minutes of fame, so it should be no surprise that some people are willing to enter a relationship with a killer just for the chance of some media attention.

Star Burton, the fiancée and would-be wife to Charles Manson, is a prime example of this trope. Though her family has denied the claims (who wouldn't?), investigative journalists like Daniel Simone claim that Burton's ultimate plan was to put Manson's body on display, which is a disturbing scheme to say the least. After all, to a certain crowd, well-known serial killers and cult leaders like the patriarch of the Manson Family are in the same tier of celebrity as Hollywood A-listers, though I'm not sure how lucrative (or legal) it would be to lock Brad Pitt in a glass case and charge admission to view his dead body.

Taming the Monster

Photo via Getty Images

Another factor that helps explain why women fall in love with convicted killers and other criminals is the often-misguided notion that these men are wild beasts that just need to be "tamed." In fact, this phenomenon applies to many people who enter into abusive relationships, as the abused partner may feel like they can transform their partner from a criminal or abuser to a compassionate human. 

Other angles to this idea include the notion that a partner feels compelled to nurture the "troubled child" they see within the killer, or the biological precedent of viewing a prominent murderer as some sort of "alpha male." These theories, of course, only explain a small portion of the many complex psychological factors that are at play in an abusive relationship, but they give us a glimpse into why some women may be drawn into relationships with convicted murderers.

The Idyllic Relationship

Photo via Getty Images

One final theory as to why so many young women fall in love with convicted killers is that they may be deluded into believing the relationship is legitimately healthy. Ironically, young people who have been in abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships in the past are especially susceptible to thinking there is some sort of security in dating someone on death row. After all, you're never left wondering where your partner is if they're always stuck inside the prison walls.

Prison relationships, therefore, allow both parties to enjoy the most picturesque elements of a relationship—first "dates," marriage proposals, conjugal visits, public personas, exchanging gifts, etc.—without facing the realities that come with maintaining a "real" relationship. From the outside looking in, it seems obvious that there is nothing good to come from starting a relationship with a convicted serial killer, but to troubled young women and men, the delusion of love can be difficult to overcome.

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