By Caroline Reilly
Since I was old enough to go out on my own, my mother has been talking to me about Ted Bundy. In high school, when we had off campus privileges starting in our freshman year, she explained to my 14-year-old self about the serial killer who was good looking, and charming, and who would use rouses to lure women into his car and then kill them. Bundy would remain an abstract boogey man for much of my youth and well into college – I had only a vague understanding of his crimes, but remained acutely aware of the ways in which he found some of his victims. My mother’s words still flash through my head any time a man asks me for help – any time a man leans in and asks what time it is while I’m in line at the grocery store, or gets too close to me on a train platform to ask if I know when the next departing line leaves. But it wasn’t until my own body, sick with an unfamiliar and confusing disease, became the most frightening thing in my life, that I really began to delve into the psyche of Bundy and others like him.
Let me back up a little.
Despite having a relatively low tolerance for horror movies until I was in college, I have always loved a good mystery. I grew up on a steady diet of Scooby Doo and the Boxcar Kids book series. When I got older, my tolerance for horror movies and thrillers hardened and I fell in love with the genre watching Silence of the Lambs. I couldn’t get enough of TV shows like Twin Peaks, True Detective, Sherlock Holmes, Law & Order and Criminal Minds. Still, one fact remained the same; the end of the movie, the unmasking of the monster, the unraveling of the mystery was always my least favorite part of the journey. There was excitement in the uncertainty, something to hold on to in the suspense. Don’t get me wrong, I always root for the bad guy to get caught, but there was nothing that kept my attention more than watching the clues unravel.
That is, until my own body became the mystery.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis – a chronic reproductive health condition that can cause acute back pain, pelvic pain, fatigue, nausea, and infertility. It left me housebound in chronic pain for months at a time. It was an excruciating time, both physically and mentally. After an inept surgeon performed a botched ablation surgery on me, he put me on a course of harsh hormones that catapulted my body, essentially into early menopause. I had to stop going to school, and I became unable to do much on my own. I was plagued by the fear that this would be my forever reality; that I would never be able to have children, and that my life would be painful, lonely, and unlivable. I later found out that the course of treatments my first doctor had prescribed were ineffective, and that I wasn’t alone. Hundreds, even thousands of women in online communities I joined were being put through the same hell. I also learned that many of them were finding relief with what’s known as excision surgery – the gold standard in endometriosis care, which very few doctors can correctly perform. I did my research, and found a renowned excision specialist who performed an almost 5-hour surgery on me, removing disease from my bladder, my colon, my bowel, my cul de sac, and separating my uterus and my bladder which had begun to fuse. I am happy to say that that surgery was a success – and I am on the road to recovery, with the help of some physical therapy, which addresses the pelvic floor dysfunction that comes from living with endometriosis and some therapy, where I am working through the trauma of the whole experience.
A lot has changed in the last two years – and living in constant fear of the mysteries of my own body, my own pain, my own disease, changed the way I felt about basking in the mystery. Now I wanted desperately to face horror and say, I have the answer, I know how this story ends, or why it never does, and what’s more – because of that knowledge, I’m not afraid.
“It seems an unlikely refuge – immersing oneself in one kind of darkness to escape another, but the phenomena of turning to true crime in a time of trauma is not unique to me.”
Oddly enough, it all started with a true crime book where they never catch the monster. I read Zodiac when I was recovering from my first surgery, and was immediately hooked. Despite remaining unsolved to this day, reading about the dissection of Zodiac – his motives, his underlying issues, the trail that they hoped would lead to him – demystified the monster. He was no longer something unknown that went bump in the night, he was concrete; human. There was something empowering about staying up late and reading Zodiac without a chill running down my spine – I may not have known what was going on inside my body or how to fix it, but I was facing another horror, and I wasn’t scared.
It seems an unlikely refuge – immersing oneself in one kind of darkness to escape another, but the phenomena of turning to true crime in a time of trauma is not unique to me. In Jes Skolnik’s New York Times op-ed on why she’s drawn to true crime as a domestic violence and rape survivor, she says, “People who have survived trauma are often avidly attentive to true crime films, TV shows and podcasts because they help us reflect on the violence we’ve experienced and put it into context. None of us glorify or fetishize serial killers, or see ourselves as far removed from those who inflict violence or those who are subject to it.” And she’s right. She goes on to reflect on how true crime podcasts, like the wildly popular My Favorite Murder, don’t offer the same neatly tied up resolutions that TV procedurals might, and that this de-glorification, this refusal to oversimplify, makes them a perfect medium for trauma victims, who want their own pain, and their own lives, not to be seen as exceptional or ghoulish, but as a well woven aspect of society.
Interacting with true crime in this way is not at all dissimilar to thinking about and confronting death through death positivity. Death, like serial killers and true crime, is an issue fraught with mystery and taboo – likewise it is an issue that becomes less monstrous, less shadowy when we face it head on, and look for explanations, truths, and facts. It’s also important to distinguish this kind of interest from a more voyeuristic interest in serial killers and true crime, which diminishes the suffering of the victims in favor of a fan-club-like worship of serial killers, that has a dark and disturbing presence in some online communities.
“Interacting with true crime in this way is not at all dissimilar to thinking about and confronting death through death positivity. Death, like serial killers and true crime, is an issue fraught with mystery and taboo.”
For me, the ability to read about the psychological profiling of someone like Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson, or Jeffrey Dahmer, was a way to break down the mystery – to remove the unknown from the equation, and to expose these men for who they were; unexceptional in every way except in their capacity for brutality. There is something about understanding the difference between an organized and disorganized killer, or learning how some killers are driven to do the things they do for reasons out of their control, like the Vampire of Sacramento, who drank his victims’ blood because he thought his own would turn to powder without it – that makes me feel less afraid. It was a raw comfort in a time when the most frightening thing in my life was my own body; to be able to say I may be terrified of what is happening inside me, but I am not afraid of this boogey man, of the serial killer stories that are used to scare us as children, or restrict our movements as women, because I understand them – they are not mysteries to me.
Even in my recovery, I turn to true crime to prove to myself I don’t have to be afraid. I’m now making my way through Whoever Fights Monsters, by the late FBI agent Robert K. Ressler, who coined the term serial killer, and consulted on Silence of the Lambs. In it, he moves step by step through how they came to understand behavioral profiling of serial killers, and he explains in detail interviews he conducted with some of the country’s deadliest men. The irony of it all though is, these men are all just that; men. Not unlike the ending of the Scooby Doo cartoons of my childhood, these villains do not possess supernatural powers, but rather they epitomize evils that are very much of this world. The same way death positivity has taught me that hiding from death only serves to empower death phobia, my trauma has shown me we don’t need to look to mystery or the supernatural to face evil, and turning away from the “monsters” that exist among us doesn’t insulate us from their harm; it only empowers the mystery of it all.
Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She recently presented at the Death and the Maiden conference on how anti-abortion movement co-opts death-phobia to advance their agenda, and is interested in the ways in which death positivity and the reproductive justice movement intersect. She is also an avid true crime fan, and wants to further explore the ways in which women connect to the genre as a source of strength and healing. You can find her writing on abortion rights, women and pain, and more at Bitch Media, Bust, Frontline (PBS), Scarleteen, and Rewire. You access her nationally recognized writing on teen access to abortion here.
Caroline is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.