Tortured romance: Why are women besotted with serial killers?

What attracts apparently sane women to men on the outer fringes of violent criminality, asks Paula Andropoulos

14 February 2021 - 00:00 By Paula Andropoulos
Ted Bundy, pictured here in court, was responsible for the murder of at least 30 women.
Ted Bundy, pictured here in court, was responsible for the murder of at least 30 women.
Image: Donn Dughi/State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The fact that most law-abiding citizens are fascinated by serial rapists and mass murderers is more than apparent in what we like to listen to and watch. We season our mundane existence with podcasts and documentaries that cover the real-life crime sprees of men like Philip Markoff, the Craigslist killer, and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.

To an extent, we're complicit in romanticising the murderous-but-charismatic sociopath, a weird predilection that's complicated tenfold when directors cast erstwhile teen heartthrobs in these horrifying roles: Zach Efron is worryingly pretty playing serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; but then, by all accounts, so was Bundy himself.

One of the most fascinating and consistent features of the true crime sagas that have become Netflix staples is that even the most heinous men who kill are met with romantic attention from besotted women after they've been apprehended for their crimes.

Not every killer is suave or sympathetic in the style of Bundy or Paul John Knowles, the notoriously handsome "Casanova Killer"; many of these men plainly exist on the margins of society, exhibiting weird mannerisms, or poor hygiene, and — uniformly — a total dearth of remorse.

And yet, so-called "prison groupies" invariably feature in the footage from murder trials, lolling around US court pews wide-eyed and turned on, even as state witnesses describe, say, how the accused dismembered the bodies of the women he brutalised and killed.

These are the women who take our universal fixation with convicted criminals to its limit: the lesser-known deviants who write and send pictures to serial killers, and sometimes go on to marry them. On the record, they avow their beloved's innocence; behind closed doors, their relationship to criminality is decidedly more ambivalent.

Richard Ramirez, the subject of the latest Netflix documentary in this vein (Nightstalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer), inspired a bizarre following of amorous young women. From the time of his capture in 1985, they sent him sexually provocative photographs, showed up in creepy droves at his trials, and wrote to him to express their admiration.

Richard Ramirez aka The Nightstalker and his wife, Doreen.
Richard Ramirez aka The Nightstalker and his wife, Doreen.
Image: Mrokovo/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ramirez was a self-described Satanist and a violent sadist, murderer and paedophile, who killed at least 13 people, and is known to have abducted and raped children. He married his prison pen-pal Doreen (née Lioy) in 1996, while he was on death row.

Lioy was a freelance magazine editor, a demure, dowdy, totally innocuous-looking woman. She sent him upwards of 70 letters over the course of their correspondence and began visiting him on death row four days a week as their attachment grew.

Her family was mortified; Doreen was disowned and widely pathologised by the press, none of which deterred her from donning a white dress and taking Ramirez's last name on the day of their nuptials.

Carole Ann Boone, Bundy's wife, was a divorcee and single mother when she met him in Washington — before he was arrested — when they were both working at the state department of emergency services. Bundy only proposed to her after he'd been apprehended; indeed, in an archetypally conceited manoeuvre, Bundy declared them married before the judge in one of his court hearings, while Boone was giving testimony.

As you likely already know, Bundy was responsible for the murder of at least 30 women, probably more. He was a known necrophiliac and kept the severed heads of some of his victims as souvenirs. But Boone was a staunch proponent of his innocence, deaf and blind to the forensic and circumstantial evidence against him.

She is likely to have helped facilitate his escapes, the second of which culminated in the deaths of three more women; and she relocated when Bundy was sent to death row so that she would be able visit him regularly — in fact, the two conceived a daughter together.

Boone only left Bundy for good when he finally confessed, on tape, in a last-minute bid to evade the death penalty; and there is speculation that her resentment had less to do with Bundy's acknowledged guilt than it did with his chummy, flirtatious relationship with Diana Weiner, one of his civil attorneys.

'BONNIE AND CLYDE SYNDROME'

Hybristophilia is a paraphilia — an extreme, typically antisocial sexual proclivity — that converges around the perpetrators of violent crime, including cult leaders and serial killers.

Sometimes called "Bonnie and Clyde syndrome," it's characterised by feelings of sexual arousal in response to another person's cruelty or depravity, and it is widely attributed to the women who seek out and write to convicted killers, although it hasn't (yet) been the subject of extensive scientific research.

As such, nobody is certain of the origins of this perverse affinity, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as a mouse falling in love with a snake. Some forensic psychologists regard it as a correlate of low self-esteem; others see it in a more sinister light.

Dr Louis Schlesinger, of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has said that some "prison groupies" are thought to enjoy having a sense of control over "powerful" figures, knowing where they are at all times.

According to this line of thought, men behind bars are in some ways the ideal partner for women who've been radically disappointed in the past. Indeed, author Sheila Isenberg (Women Who Love Men Who Kill) posits that all of her interviewees had themselves been victimised by men before going on to glorify murderers.

Simultaneously, though, Isenberg characterises her sample of hybristophiles as fame-hungry and attention-seeking, motivated in no small part by media attention. It could also simply be that these men afford women with latent violent impulses of their own a vicarious window into their criminality.

Or else, the women in question might revel in the oddly sad sensation of being uniquely exempt from men's violence and misogyny: if he loves you enough, he won't kill you; and, in any event, he's already firmly behind bars.

If there is any truth to this last hypothesis, then it might be that seducing a convicted serial killer is simply a convoluted approach to vetting potential partners, and evading the pervasive and undetectable cruelty of men at large. 

LOVE AMONG SOUTH AFRICAN PSYCHOPATHS 

Gert van Rooyen (aka Bokkie) and Joey Haarhoff

Him: Paedophile, serial killer

Her: Accomplice

Current status: Faced with arrest after the escape of their latest kidnap victim, Van Rooyen killed Haarhoff before committing suicide.

Gert van Rooyen and Joey Haarhoff.
Gert van Rooyen and Joey Haarhoff.
Image: Sunday Times archives

Thozamile Taki (aka The Sugarcane Killer) and Hlegiwe Nene

Him: Serial killer

Her: Girlfriend

Current status: He's sentenced to 13 life sentences for the murders and an additional 208 years. She was charged as an accessory but acquitted.

Thozamile Taki and Hlengiwe Nene.
Thozamile Taki and Hlengiwe Nene.
Image: Thembinkosi Dwayisa

Simon Majola and Themba Nkosi (aka the Bruma Lake Serial Killers)

Him: Serial killer

Her: Accomplice

Current status: Sentenced to more than 1,300 years in prison between them. They gave testimony against each other.