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Killing Us Slowly: What's Behind Our Fascination With True Crime?

From documentaries to podcasts to feature films, it seems we can't get enough of true crime. So what is behind our obsession with the morbid and macabre?

Miami, Florida, 1979.  A stifling summer heat weighs heavy on the city.

Outside the city's main courthouse stands a swarm of reporters -- some 250 -- all with their notepads and cameras at the ready waiting for a glimpse of one of the United State's most prolific serial killers.

Inside, standing before a packed courtroom with his arms stretched wide like a crucified Jesus is Theodore Robert Bundy, better known as Ted.

The 33-year-old law student has been charged with the murders of university students Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman. Later, before his execution, Bundy will confess to 30 homicides.  While the real number remains unknown, some estimates run to more than 100.

READ MORE: Don't Let Ted Bundy's Victims Get Forgotten In The Zac Efron Hype

But back to the courtroom.

Bundy is acting as his own defence. His confidence and narcissism -- two particular personality traits which he managed to use to his advantage in avoiding detection from authorities for so long --  led him to fire his publicly-funded defence team.

As he stands before the court waxing lyrical, he smiles at the accusations thrown at him.

Look at me, he begs the gallery. Does he look like a murderer? Then how could he be one? Case closed.

READ MORE: Literally Just 18 Dudes On Netflix To Lust Over Who Aren't Ted Bundy

Bundy during his trial. Source: Getty

There, in the back of the courtroom, hanging off his every word, are scores of women. They're not his relatives or his friends or even his lovers -- they were as Bundy biographer and friend Ann Rule would later recount "Ted groupies".

She added: "I watched the Florida girls who lined up outside the courtroom in Miami, anxious to get a place on the gallery bench behind his (Ted's) defence table.

They gasped and sighed with delight when Ted turned to look at them.
Bundy's Back

On January 25 Netflix dropped the documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The release coincides with another Bundy film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring former teen heartthrob Zac Efron as America's most notorious serial killer. Both are directed by Joe Berlinger.

According to early reviews, the film was received to rapturous applause at the Sundance Film Festival. And so, nearly 50 years on from his heinous crimes, Bundy is still managing to garner gasps of delight from crowds.

So, despite knowing all the evil Bundy committed -- why are we still hungry for his story and others like his?

READ MORE: A True Crime Series About Ted Bundy Is Coming To Netflix

Bundy chats to his defence team ... whom he promptly then went on to fire. Source: Getty
'A Safety Net'

Steven Booth is the publisher of several true crime books, including Violent Mind: The 1976 Psychological Assesment Of Ted Bundy.

He told 10 daily that reason behind society's obsession with true crime is a question he is constantly puzzled by. While he's only got his own anecdotal experiences to go off, he said he believes the fascination may be driven by a need to "feel safe".

"By watching stories about monsters, we learn how to deal with the past, present, and any future traumas in a way that we hope will make us safe then and now," he said.

Booth went on to describe the vital role empathy plays in how we relate -- or at least attempt to -- serial killers.

People with empathy may have a vicarious fascination with violence for the sake of violence, but their empathy won't let them get very far with their violent fantasies.

Booth's sentiment is echoed by Dr Carolyn McKay, a criminal law lecturer at The University of Sydney.

"There's a bit of voyeurism in all of this," Dr McKay told 10 daily.

"We want to understand the alleged perpetrator and the experience of the victim. We, however, feel safe being able to watch and hear the story from the safety of our own home or on the phone and know that it's not happening to us."

Feminine Fixation

Not long after Netflix dropped its documentary on Bundy, the streaming service sent out a tweet reminding its audience that despite Bundy's "alleged hotness" there were "literally thousands of hot men on the service  -- almost all of whom are not convicted serial murders".

Both Booth and McKay told 10 daily that when it comes to true crime 'fans', women tend to make up the majority of the audience.

"At the risk of overgeneralising horribly, women seem to like serial killer shows because they are driven or want to control fear," Booth said.

Booth went on to talk about his wife, who he said: "watches true crime obsessively".

"She told me that watching these shows makes her feel better about her life by seeing people in worse circumstances," he said.

McKay said she found it "interesting to see how engaged women, in particular, are with true crime".

Bundy in court. Source: AAP

While she said there seems to be a number of theories that could explain the fascination, the one which "speaks to her" is the idea that watching true crime helps to reflect a woman's feminine experience.

"We often feel vulnerable in society and we are taught from an early age to be scared in the night and to be scared to walk the streets," she said.

"These shows tend to embody the experience of being a woman in society -- we are scared of violence and being attacked -- but these shows gives an idea while in the safety of our own home of how to deal with situations like that."

Feature Image: AAP