Why Do Women Fall In Love With Serial Killers?

Photo: Bettman/Getty Images.
Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, followers of Charles Manson, attend court.
It's well known that when Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer responsible for the rape and murder of over 30 young women, was put on trial in 1979, he was sent fan mail from women all over the world.
According to Stephen Michaud, the co-author of Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer, Ted received countless letters containing marriage proposals and pictures (some of them nude). Each day of his trial, women – referred to as "groupies" – would show up to the courtroom with their hair parted in the middle and wearing hoop earrings, on the assumption that this was the style worn by his victims. Some even dyed their hair brown to match the hair of those he murdered.
Advertisement
In 1980, while still on trial, Ted married one of his admirers. He was executed for his crimes in 1989.
Ted Bundy is the most famous case but, over and over again, throughout history, “bad” men have won themselves legions of female fans. Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed the murders and post-mortem mutilations of 17 young men and boys, received love letters and gifts from women. Richard Ramirez, a serial killer dubbed the "Night Stalker" who raped and tortured over 25 victims and caused the deaths of at least 13, also married one of his many female admirers.
More recently, Anders Breivik, the terrorist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, mainly children, was reported to have received “love letters” from girls as young as 16.
A condition called hybristophilia exists to explain those who are sexually aroused by the object of their affection's wrongdoing. The internet has perpetuated this term and today, there’s even a hybristophilia tag on Tumblr. Clicking on it opens a gateway to hundreds of posts exalting Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer”, Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson and, among others, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Some users from the community have even made their own memes. Because, 2017.
Hybristophilia is often referred to as “Bonnie and Clyde syndrome” after the famous crime duo who, along with their gang, were responsible for at least nine deaths and countless robberies. Bonnie was an unusual criminal and, before meeting Clyde and joining him in a life of crime, was a prize-winning student. It was noted by a fellow gang runner that Bonnie herself never fired a weapon and, more tellingly, had “no voice in the decisions” made by Clyde. She remained devoted to Clyde until their deaths in 1934.
Advertisement
So who are these women who fall for the world's worst men? Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of new book The Love of a Bad Man is trying to shed some light on the matter. Her book consists of 12 short stories – snapshots, if you will – of the complicated lives of real-life women who had relationships with men remembered as some of the most evil people to walk the planet.
Each woman in the book is given her own voice, some more fictionalised than others, depending on the amount of evidence Woollett was able to uncover. Eva Braun, mistress of Adolf Hitler, is one; Myra Hindley, girlfriend of Moors Murderer Ian Brady, is another. Woollett covers Sadie Atkins, one of the Manson family; Marceline Baldwin, wife of Jim Jones of the Jonestown massacre; and Karla Homolka, who helped her husband Paul Bernardo rape and murder three women and girls in Canada.
We spoke to Woollett about why she wrote the book and how she went about getting inside these women's heads.
Why did you want to write this book?
I’ve been drawn to true crime stories since I was a pre-teen. The stories that attract me most tend to be those committed by people from relatively normal, non-abusive upbringings; the 'How?' and 'Why?' in these cases is more interesting and mysterious to me. I’ve found myself fascinated by female criminals for similar reasons; there’s that sense of unlikelihood, since women – for various reasons – are less associated with crime, especially violent crime.

He proposed to Caril and she turned him down. Not long after that, he killed her family and forced her to run away with him, killing more people along the way.

Advertisement
How did you research these women?
I read biographies, true crime books, court transcripts, newspaper articles, letters – anything relevant that I could get my hands on, really. I also watched documentaries and original footage of them when possible (Eva Braun notably had a lot of home movies). For voice and mood inspiration, I read novels and watched movies set in the times and places these women lived in, as well as listening to music that they liked, or that was popular during their times.
Did you notice any common threads between all these women?
If there was one thing that was common to all these women, it was probably insecurity, and a willingness to have their sense of self determined by the men they were involved with. I think insecurity is a very human thing, though; you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t insecure in some way, or hasn’t been at some stage in their life.
In general, young adults especially have a lot of insecurities and are less solid in their sense of self. The majority of the stories in The Love of a Bad Man feature young women – even teenagers – and the women who don’t fall into this category often met their partners when they were young, or else had involvements with abusive men prior to meeting the titular bad men.
How closely did you decide to stick to the truth?
Much of the time it had to do with the information that was available. It was easier to stick to the truth with subjects like Myra Hindley and Eva Braun, for example, who’ve had loads of books written about them. With these ones, it was mostly a matter of choosing anecdotes or points during their lives that best represented who they were, what they did, and how they got there.
With others, such as Janice Hooker and Veronica Compton, there was very little information available, so my imagination had more of a free rein. I may never know how close I got to the truth with these stories.
Advertisement
Did you intentionally set out to give these women a voice? For us to empathise with them?
Voice was extremely important to me. I wanted each voice to be unique and persuasive, and for each of these women to feel as real as the next. People, when they tell their own stories, generally try to garner sympathy, and to present themselves in a vulnerable and human way. As I was writing these stories in first person, this was something I kept in mind.
What do you think the attraction is to bad men?
It’s hard to say where the figure of the 'bad man’ ends and the ‘antihero’ begins. There’s a huge crossover there and, as a result, bad men are often romanticised – tragically flawed, but human; dark and sinister, but exciting. As long as antiheroes are seen as attractive, bad men will be too, on some level.
In real-life terms, though, it’s often less a matter of being attracted to exclusively ‘bad’ men, and more the crumbs of goodness they offer: attention when no one else is giving it; plush kittens; boxes of chocolates; moonlit drives; intelligent conversations. It’s harder to see the bad if there’s good mixed in.

If there was one thing that was common to all these women, it was probably insecurity, and a willingness to have their sense of self determined by the men they were involved with.

How many of the women you write about do you think were brainwashed and how many do you think were equally as evil as their male counterparts?
I find the term 'brainwashing' problematic, since it has an association of brainlessness and total powerlessness, which I don’t think is completely true to life and the complexity of individuals. The most skilled manipulators, I believe, are those that tap into something latent within the manipulated person and channel it, while allowing the manipulated person to retain a sense of agency and even, in some cases, strengthening their ego. This was a dynamic within many of the relationships that I researched.
Advertisement
That’s not to say these men weren’t psychopaths, but it wasn’t always a clear-cut distinction between ‘brainwashed follower’ and equal villain. Most, if not all, of these women probably wouldn’t have committed the crimes they did if they hadn’t become involved with these men; on the other side of the coin, most of these men wouldn’t have been such successful criminals if they didn’t have dedicated women helping them.
Caril Ann Fugate's story is perhaps the most shocking covered in the book. Did people feel sorry for her because of her age?
Caril Ann Fugate was actually 13 when she became involved with Charles Starkweather. He was older than her by five years but, intellectually and emotionally, was very unsophisticated. He proposed to Caril and she turned him down. Not long after that, he killed her family and forced her to run away with him, killing more people along the way.
Looking at the evidence, it seems evident that Caril was an unwilling accomplice (a recent book by Linda M. Battisti, The Twelfth Victim, explores Caril’s innocence). At the time, though, Caril wasn’t seen as innocent; it was the 1950s, and she was a girl who’d had premarital sex, living in a placid Nebraska community, which had just been shaken by these violent murders. While likely suffering from PTSD, a lot of people found her cold and ‘snooty’ when she took to the witness stand. She was tried for first-degree murder and sentenced to life, though was paroled after 17 years.
Do you think any of the men actually cared for the women that you've written about?
There’s certainly evidence that some of them cared, and had genuine affection for their women: serial killer David Birnie exchanged over 2,000 letters with his partner Catherine Birnie (the couple were nicknamed Australia's Fred and Rose West) before she cut off communication with him.
Raymond Fernandez publicly declared his love for his partner Martha Beck before they were executed. If ‘care’ is defined as the willingness to put someone’s needs and happiness before one’s own, however, a lot of these men wouldn’t pass that test; a lot of people in general wouldn’t!
Advertisement
Were there any cases you researched which were actually very different from what you'd thought of them before?
Bonnie and Clyde were a lot less glamorous, and a lot less competent as criminals, than in the legends surrounding them. They were constantly getting injured, living in dirty conditions, eating poorly, and risking their lives for relatively small amounts of money. Both of them missed their families and, by the end, weren’t having much fun living on the run.

Most, if not all, of these women probably wouldn’t have committed the crimes they did if they hadn’t become involved with these men; on the other side of the coin, most of these men wouldn’t have been such successful criminals if they didn’t have dedicated women helping them.

Who was the most interesting to research?
A woman I didn’t include in the book, Carolyn Moore Layton, who was the mistress and closest advisor of Reverend Jim Jones (of Jonestown infamy). She ended up inspiring the novel I’m working on now, Beautiful Revolutionary. A fascinating woman, and one who definitely fits into the ‘normal, non-abusive upbringing’ camp.
Do you have any favourite true crime books or podcasts to recommend?
Hazelwood Jr. High by Rob Urbinati is a play based on the murder of middle-schooler Shanda Sharer by four female classmates in 1992. It’s a brutal, pitch-perfect inquiry into the dark heart of girlhood, with a lot of the dialogue coming from actual court transcripts.
Paul’s Case by Lynn Crosbie is a book I referred to a lot while writing The Love of a Bad Man. It’s a weird one, genre-wise – part true crime, part poetry, part theoretical fiction, part indictment of the justice system. Not a book for everyone, but it blew me away.
Advertisement
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images.
Manson family members and murder suspects Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten.
While researching my story Charlie's Girls, I watched the 1973 documentary Manson. It’s comprised of original footage of the Manson family, and interviews with members and associated people, and it’s also so wonderfully ’70s – full of dreamy musical interludes and psychedelic visuals. Of all the things I’ve encountered about the Manson family, this was by far the most immersive.
I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown. If you’re looking to read a fresh, comprehensive history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I’d highly recommend this one.
Finally, I’ve just started listening to My Favorite Murder. I’ve never been a podcast person, but this was recommended to me a few times – with good reason!
The Love of A Bad Man is published by Scribe (£9.99).
Advertisement