Women love a bad boy—or so the stereotype goes—with his leather jacket and a cigarette dangling from the corner of a smirk. But, some women take that idea to the extreme and fall for men who are more than just bad. Violent criminals who are locked up for life often attract the attention and devotion of women who hear their stories; serial killers are the recipients of hundreds of fan letters, and death row inmates get married to women who will never hold their hand. Falling for a convicted criminal may seem strange to the everyday person, but for these women, being with men who have done the unspeakable is desirable. They’re drawn to killers because of their sexual fantasies, emotional trauma, or desire to profit off of the fame that these high profile cases acquire; they rationalize their attraction and the behavior of their convict lovers, carrying out long romances and marriages that often last until one of them dies or is put to death. As out there as it may seem, it’s not a particularly rare phenomenon.
However, the media grabs onto these stories and sensationalizes them, devaluing the choices these women make and painting them as pathetic and in need of help when, in fact, women who have relationships with convicted killers are just as complex as anyone else, and their reasons for entering these relationships are individual and sometimes surprising.
A fair amount of the convicts who gain the attention of women are those who have committed severely violent or heinous crimes, most often rape and murder. Serial killers and mass murderers are the most loved of the bunch, due to the media attention the cases receive and the life sentences in prison.
The difference between a serial killer and a mass murderer is a technical one, but worth mentioning. According to the FBI, a serial killer is a person who has murdered three or more people with a cooling off period in between kills, the murders taking place to satisfy some abnormal psychological gratification, often sexual but not always. A mass murderer is a person who has murdered multiple people, four or more, within a relatively short period of time with no cooling off period. Mass murders tend to happen at the same location, or in several locations quite rapidly in a short amount of time, whereas serial killers tend to work in multiple locations over longer periods of time.
One of the most well-known cases of killer romances is the case of Charles Manson and Star, AKA Afton Elaine Burton. According to Time Magazine, Burton was a teenager when she first became infatuated with the imprisoned killer, and her attraction to his infamy seems to be the main cause in their romantic relationship. Manson, the charismatic cult leader serving life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder among other federal crimes, attracted the attention of many women after receiving a large amount of publicity for his attempts to start a “race war.”
During his career as a cult leader, he had many young women who were enamored with him and became his followers; two went to jail alongside him. He had a demonstrated ability to be charismatic and charming. After his sentencing in 1971, he received numerous letters every month for decades from women, praising him and expressing romantic interest. One such woman was Burton, who started correspondence with him when she was just seventeen, and used her money to move to California in 2007 to visit him in prison. They stayed in touch, Burton visiting Manson every weekend for hours at a time. In one interview with Rolling Stone, Burton expressed her feelings for Manson, speaking about how in love they were and expressing her belief that Manson is innocent for the crimes he was convicted for. “I’ll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married,” She told Rolling Stone. “Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you that.” They became engaged in November of 2014 and Burton filed for a marriage certificate for the two of them. At the time, Manson was 80 and Burton was 26. After a few months of engagement, the wedding was called off, a sudden and shocking move to everyone who had been following the story.
Most believed that Burton would come to her senses and realize that her relationship with Manson was wrong, but it was Manson who made the realization. In February of 2015, Charles Manson called off his engagement to Afton “Star” Elaine Burton because it was revealed that Burton only wanted to marry Manson for access to his corpse. According to The New York Post, Burton wanted the marriage so she could have his corpse after her fiancé died in order to display it in a glass crypt and set up a memorial to him and his crimes. She planned to charge a fee to anyone who wished to come and view the body. Her wish to create this shrine and to profit off of his death caused Manson to call off the wedding and sever ties with Burton. It is unsurprising that her attraction to his infamy may have initially drawn Burton to Manson. But her desire to become a part of that legacy caused their relationship to spiral into something that disturbs public sensibilities in a quite different way.
Another reason that women are drawn to killers romantically is hybristophilia—a paraphilia, or abnormal sexual desire, in which the subject is sexually aroused by being with a partner who has committed crimes such as robbery, rape, and murder. This condition is also commonly known as “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome” and is frequently found in women who date or marry men who are known to have extremely violent behavior, convicted serial killers included.
Veronica Compton was an ordinary woman before she met Kenneth Bianchi, one of the infamous Hillside Stranglers, but after their relationship began, her life would never be the same.
Kenneth Alessio Bianchi was one of the Hillside Stranglers and he, along with his cousin Angelo Anthony Buono, raped and murdered 12 young girls and women between October of 1977 and January of 1979, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. They were caught and put in jail awaiting trial, and it was then that Bianchi came into contact with Veronica Lyn Compton. Compton, an aspiring playwright and poet, sent Bianchi a copy of her screenplay and asked him to read it and help with the characterization of her main character, a female serial killer. Their relationship began in early 1980 and became so intense that Compton testified for the defense in Bianchi’s trial. According to “Serial Killer Groupies,” a documentary directed by Joy Krause, during the trial she provided false testimony of the crimes to attempt to exonerate Bianchi. The documentary also mentions her disclosure to the jury that she wanted to buy a mortuary with another convicted killer for the purpose of offering necrophiles the opportunity to act on their desires in a friendly, nonjudgmental environment, for a price. Her testimony was thrown out of court and Bianchi was convicted for his crimes.
This marked a turn in the relationship between Compton andBianchi. She would be arrested in October of 1980 for the attempted murder of a woman she had lured into a motel and tried to strangle. She concocted the plan with Bianchi as a way to convince the police that he was innocent, planning to strangle her in the same fashion as the Hillside Strangler crimes to provide evidence that the police had arrested and charged the wrong man. According to several blogs that are dedicated to chronicling and debating the crimes of notorious killers, Bianchi allegedly slipped Compton a sample of his semen to plant at the crime scene in order to exactly replicate his previous crimes, though there is no official record of that. Regardless, Compton failed at her murder attempt and was caught, serving 22 years in prison. She was released in 2003 on parole and has since vanished from the public eye, but her story lives on with the popular crime show Criminal Minds. In season 4 episode 2, titled “The Angel Maker,” they retell the Veronica Compton story in part: a woman married to a killer executed by the state recreates his crimes with the help of his semen, smuggled out of the prison before his death.
We are fascinated by how someone could be in a relationship with a convicted killer, because the desire seems unimaginable. But profit was by far the most shocking motive that I came across in my research. Women who date and marry notorious murderers and rapists are most often painted by the media (in news articles and tabloids, TV dramatizations and popular culture) as pathetic and sick, in need of therapy and medication. Yet, these easy categorizations do not tell the whole story. Some of these women are actually a lot smarter than they are given credit for, and their motivations more complex. They go into these situations knowing that the men who have been in prison for years are lonely and in need of attention, and emerge with both a romantic relationship as well as the plan to use their boyfriend/husband’s infamy to make themselves a pretty penny. By flattening them and their motives, you take away the agency they have in making their own decisions. The continued underestimation of women, and the media’s pattern of devaluing their choices—no matter who they may be—needs to be rectified. Falling in love with a psychopath or a murderer may seem like a bad idea from an outside perspective, but the whole story is not captured by a sensationalistic headline or by painting these women as desperate or deranged. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.