by Marit Pepplinkhuizen
When I say I’m fascinated by serial killers, the sentiment is often frowned upon or provokes sardonic laughter in my interlocutor. Dexter, the show about a serial killer who killed according to a ‘code’ - only killing people who had killed other people - was my favorite TV series, and after watching the Ted Bundy Tapes I would definitely say that this is now my favorite documentary. I’ve recommended the Ted Bundy Tapes to a lot of my friends and family, but after viewing the documentary, they still don’t understand my interest in him. They tend to find me even weirder than before, or downright disapprove of my fascination.
Let me be clear: what Ted Bundy did is horrifying; not only did he murder in a brutal manner, but he also destroyed the lives of the families and friends of his victims. I cannot even imagine the pain one goes through when a loved one is murdered. Yet, I cannot help but cringe when people dismiss the fascination with serial killers as strange, just because I should condemn his acts. Of course, I condemn his acts. At the same time, however, I believe considering serial killers can teach us something important that would be lost if we only focused on how evil they are.
Ted Bundy is not a monster. He is amoral. Let me explain why this distinction is important. First of all, I think pathologies can teach us what it means to be human. Thus, if there is a human being we all agree that is not acting like a human being (I think that is what we are actually saying when we say he is ‘evil’), then we can use that case to see what it is that we view as being particularly human. In this case, being ‘good’ or ‘moral’ is what we seem to find distinctively human. Otherwise, we would not refer to Ted Bundy as a ‘monster’. With that characterisation, we want to set him apart from ‘us’.
Being a good person is without a doubt something that is crucial for our social interactions. Yet, is it distinctively human? Sure, we could say it is hard to see moral acts in animals (even though it seems that certain apes come pretty close to acting morally - see the work of Frans de Waal). Yet, what is a more
important question, to my mind is if being a good person is good in itself. A famous example to demonstrate this is Immanuel Kant’s ‘thou shalt never lie’. This adage is faulty in a lot of situations. Should you also not lie when you are hiding Jews and the Nazis come to your house to ask if there are Jews in your house? According to Kant, you cannot lie even in this situation, because you should never lie. Since you told the truth, you did the right thing. But because of your ‘moral’ behavior, people will be killed in the gas chambers.
Thus, the serial killer functions as a metaphor to think about morality. Ted Bundy actually resembles Nietzsche’s Übermensch, who is beyond good and evil. I am aware how controversial this statement is, especially if you translate Übermensch directly as ‘superhuman’. Yet, this is not the correct translation. The Übermensch is ‘over man’ - no longer a human being. It is an entirely different creature. I believe this is also what the creators of Dexter alluded to when Dexter says: “I am not human. I am something else entirely. I am Dexter.”
I do not believe that Nietzsche celebrated the Übermensch as being somehow better than the human being; after all, that would be some sort of moral qualification again. You could go so far as to say that we actually deem ourselves superior to the serial killer because in saying that he is evil, we are saying that we are good. I would say that condemning the acts of a serial killer is an example of the shallow manner in which we let right and wrong determine our lives. And I get really anxious when everyone seems to be on the same page about which acts are right and which are wrong, especially when they do not provide any arguments, but only say ‘it is just wrong’. Whenever there is this kind of majority opinion on anything, there should be some alarm bells going off in our heads.
The author very much welcomes reactions to this opinion piece.