Ethics of Attraction: Serial killers on the screen and why we’re sexually attracted to them

deadline for submissions: 
October 31, 2024
full name / name of organization: 
University of Worcester
contact email: 

When Zac Efron was cast as Ted Bundy in Netflix’s 2019 production, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, this decision received a mixed reception. Some argued that Efron was too much of a ‘queasily parodic hottie’ for the role (Bradshaw 2019). Meanwhile, there was a counter argument to state that Efron’s starring role was in fact clever mimicry of Bundy’s alleged sex appeal and charisma, two defining qualities that enabled him to become such a prolific violent offender. Significantly though, Efron is far from the only conventionally attractive and high-profile actor to be cast in the role of a violent criminal. In cases of actual serial killers (that have since inspired fiction) and fictional serial killers (that are entirely fiction from the outset) alike, there are questions to be raised around casting.

These casting decisions – that see Jodie Comer cast as the lethal Villanelle in Killing Eve, and Paul Spector cast as an unsettling stalker in The Fall – unavoidably create a space in which viewers become attracted to the very characters that, in real-life, they would be repelled by. There comes an added complication, too, when these are not characters at all, but rather characterisations of real-life individuals, such was the case with Efron/Bundy and, more recently, Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer (Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story).

This collection will look to interrogate these decisions, both through an academic lens and a personal, introspective one. In the first instance, we are looking for academic essays that provide theoretical perspectives on the attractiveness of these characters and the moral ambiguities that an audience might feel on responding to this attractiveness. Submissions might consider:

  • Is there a deliberate manipulation of audience members taking place when conventionally attractive actors are cast as “evil” killers?
  • Are there instances wherein casting conventionally attractive actors as serial killers is entirely justified? For example, in cases where the real-life killer that an actor is portraying was reported as being conventionally attractive themselves.
  • What moral ambiguities might be created for a viewing audience in cinematic productions that see conventionally attractive actors cast as serial killers, either factual or fictive?
  • If moral ambiguities are created for a viewing audience, through the attractiveness and popularity of an actor cast in a violent role, does this worsen or better a viewing experience? Do audiences stand to feel a heightened repulsion towards a killer character because of the actor’s levels of attractiveness?
  • Do high-profile actors worsen or increase the Hollywood-isation of real-life serial killers?
  • What are the sociocultural implications of deliberately avoiding casting conventionally attractive actors in these killer roles? Does this amount to a form of discrimination in the film and television industry?
  • Is there a way in which to consume serial killer narratives in an ethical manner, without explicitly sexualising the characters involved?

Note: Here, when the term “conventionally attractive” is used, it is referring to individuals that conform to a beauty “norm” insofar as what society deems socially acceptable. This is changeable, dependent on sociocultural viewpoints. This, too, is open to interrogation, and academic essays that critically consider this phrase – and indeed, what “conventionally attractive” is – are also welcomed.

In the second instance, we are looking for personal essays that provide first-person, introspective responses to having experienced this attraction – to a violent offender as portrayed in film or television – and what audience members’ responses are to this type of attraction. Is there a moral discomfort in experiencing the attraction? Is it easy to distance oneself from the morality of a serial killer/violent offender in media productions, thereby making any attraction an easier response to manage? Have there been instances where audience members have suspended their viewing altogether, simply to avoid the moral ambiguity of feeling attraction towards an actor in one of these troublesome roles?

In the first instance we invite abstracts of 250 words to be received by the end of October 2024, along with a short biographical note, which should be emailed to Dr Charlotte Barnes: c.barnes@worc.ac.uk. Please use the subject heading “Ethics of attraction”. Academic essays of approximately 6,000 words, and personal essays between 1,500 and 2,000 words, will be required by Spring 2026.