If you’ve been watching the new Netflix biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, reading the latest True Crime hit The Pretty Girl Killer or hooked on a great who dunnit podcast, this thought has probably crossed your mind: Why on Earth were so many women obsessed with this clearly guilty serial killer?
Turns out, brutally violent male criminals often have many female love interests, and no, they’re not always women who were in relationships with them before the crimes came out who decided to stay faithful. Sometimes they learn about these men once they’re on trial or in the media and already incarcerated. Many psychologists theorize that a condition called hybristophilia is to blame.
Hybristophilia is one of countless paraphilias, or abnormal and/or extreme sexual desires. “Basically, it’s a sexual attraction to someone who’s committed some sort of outrageous and extraordinary crime,” says Jeffrey Ian Ross, PhD, criminologist and professor at the University of Baltimore. Think: mass murderers, sexual murderers, and cult leaders.
Hybristophilia is thought to have been behind Ted Bundy’s courtroom groupies and his girlfriend-turned-wife Carole Ann Boone. It’s also been used to explain the frequent love letters written to killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, and Richard Ramirez (who even ended up marrying one of his admirers).
There haven’t been any studies on the condition, so most of what’s known is anecdotal. And while it’s not common within the general population, it’s a regular occurrence for male prisoners. “I can’t tell you how often I see this happen,” says Louis Schlesinger, PhD, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College Of Criminal Justice. “In nearly every penitentiary across the country you’ll find female employees, like lawyers, therapists, and guards, getting involved with inmates.” (Even Bundy was rumored to have started a relationship with one of his lawyers.)
This same seems to be case in the story of Christopher Wilder, subject of The Pretty Girl Killer: the surf-loving son of a decorated naval war hero born in the suburbs of Sydney, who became the most wanted man in America – a psychopathic serial killer who slaughtered more than sixteen young women in the USA and is the prime suspect in the infamous Australian Wanda Beach murders.
Wilder was handsome and charming, and time and time again he managed to convince beautiful young women that he was a fashion photographer looking to help them start a career in modeling. What followed were some of the most brutal, sadistic crimes the world has ever seen – as well as a years-long police operation, dogged by missed opportunities and bad decisions, to track the killer down.
So…what could be so appealing about a guy who’s probably completely evil, dangerous, and also lives behind bars?
A lot, apparently. While hybristophilia is technically a sexual attraction, what’s behind it isn’t necessarily sexual in nature (like, thoughts of having sex with someone violent like a serial killer). The sexual attraction is brought on by other characteristics the criminal might have and/or components of their life that make them appealing partners, says Schlesinger.
“Criminals can make the ‘perfect’ boyfriend in a way,” says Schlesinger. “These women know where their boyfriend is at all times, and they only have to share positive encounters with him.” Weirdly, it’s a controllable and “safe” relationship option.
Think about it: Most of these women only see these men for occasional visits in their prison, during which, the man is on his best behavior, says Ross. If he’s not, she may never come back again. “They also don’t have to deal with any of the disappointments that can come up in day-to-day in relationships, like cleaning up after a boyfriend or getting annoyed by drug or alcohol use,” Ross notes.
There’s also a feeling of being needed. Clearly, these women provide criminal men with much needed attention, and in turn, they get a sense of purpose—usually to help them through a trial, says Schlesinger. (Sounds a lot like Carole Ann Boone, right?)
Women who pursue these relationships may also be interested in getting attention from family, friends, and the media themselves. “They might want to be in the limelight as well, regardless of the reasons associated with it,” says Ross.
There’s also a thrill that comes with interacting with individuals who are notorious, and some women may be drawn to these men for their apparent dominance or masculinity, says Schlesinger. Not to mention, many serial killers, fitting Wilder‘s bill, are master manipulators and can appear charming and enigmatic. “For many of these women, interacting with criminals provides a distraction from what they find to be a boring life,” says Ross.
It’s unclear whether women who find themselves attracted to men like this believe them to be guilty (and are actually attracted to that idea itself), or think they’re innocent. It’s also not known if there are experiences that would predispose a woman to have hybristophilia, though many experts and authors on the subject have speculated that a history of abuse is likely.
But also, don’t panic if your girlfriend is thinking Ted Bundy’s kind of dreamy (you’re not alone; there are whole message boards devoted to this). It doesn’t automatically mean she has hybristophilia. Having a fascination with true crime is one thing, but actually acting on it and writing letters to known killers or otherwise seeking relationships with them is another, says Schlesinger.