We all have to make hard choices in life, but Tucker, the tall, bleach-blond boy in the TikTok video I’m watching, appears to have a particularly difficult one on his plate: kill and rape boys and put them underneath his house, or don’t.
At least that’s the ultimatum he’s given himself in the looping, 15-second clip set to “Weak” by AJR. Illuminated by the harsh 12-o-clock lighting of an overhead fan, he dances between the two options that appear as floating text to his right and left. Whichever chunk of text he dances his way toward wins. First he fakes left, then dives right to indicate his choice. “Killing and raping boys and putting them underneath the house” has won by virtue of a swan dive. “Ted Bundy gets all this hype,” the caption reads. “Might as well give JWG some love.”
For those of you not creepy enough to know who JWG is, that would be John Wayne Gacy, the infamous serial killer clown who did, in fact, rape boys, kill them and store their bodies under the floor of his house in suburban Chicago. Ever since his capture in 1978, Gacy has been regarded as one of the most evil, abhorrent criminals of all time, but here, in Tucker’s video, he’s just an underrated sidekick — the murderous David Spade to Ted Bundy’s Chris Farley. Watching the video on its endless loop, you get the sense that Tucker thinks he — “he” being a guy who told police he became “sexually aroused to the point of orgasm” when he stabbed his first victim — is kind of cool.
Apparently, his fans do, too: “XD looking cuteee,” reads one of the comments. “Happy to see your video!” says another. With only 34 likes, Tucker’s JWG tribute is hardly popular by TikTok standards, but it is one of the more morbid iterations of a dark fad that’s been making its way across the app. For the past few months, hundreds of teens and tweens have been role-playing serial killers and their battered victims, paying homage to each in bizarre, tone-deaf videos that air for an audience of millions.
There are many species within this genus of TikTok, but the teen-boy murderer modeling videos are by far the cringiest (or best, depending on who you are). In these videos, youngish men dress as killers — usually Ted Bundy — throw on an unsettling, old-timey track and then pose for the camera with a Zoolander-esque earnesty embodied only by the exquisitely square-jawed and extremely symmetrical. Not a lot of explanation goes into them, but the general sentiment seems to be this: “I’m going to kill you, but hotly.”
George Garaway, a teenage TikTok celebrity with 441,000 fans, is the king of these videos. His acts of serial killer role-play rack up hundreds of thousands of likes, with comments ranging from “Okay that was hot” to “How can someone be that hot?” to “Why he gotta be so hot?” All of which are surprising given that in most of them, he’s playing Bundy, a man who brutally raped and murdered more than 30 women (and likely, many, many more).
In another riff, young girls pretend to put on makeup and get ready for a “date” with a killer, but, spoiler alert, the date doesn’t go well. Almost invariably, the videos end with a shot of their bodies being dragged away or a close-up of their remorseful faces covered in fake blood and bruises. No context is given for either; it’s just straight-up, “I was hot, but then my spinal fluid was drunk like milk from a bowl made from my skull!”
Then there are the teens who stan serial killers, but don’t do much else. One kid dresses up as Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold and just sort of exists in the frame for 15 painful seconds. Another, a Richard Ramirez aficionado, has turned her account into a shrine of adulation for him, posting videos of her staring off into the distance while she lovingly “thinks about Richard all the time.” “I’m Richard Ramirez’s groupie,” her bio reads. “if you don’t respect, you will fuck!”
A final category of video is just teens claiming their friends or family are somehow related to serial killers. In early August, a girl went viral after alleging she was Bundy’s granddaughter, a “joke” that earned her enough popularity to spawn hundreds of similar entries into the TikTok universe. Now, a hefty chunk of the comments on TikTok’s serial killer videos are from people who insist their dad was on Ed Gein’s paper route or that their step-cousin’s periodontist served Richard Ramirez a hamburger one time in the 1980s. Kids these days really want that serial killer bloodline, it seems.
TikTok doesn’t show when a video was uploaded, so it’s unclear who started this trend or exactly when our nation’s youth started Chippendale’s modeling as Bundy (though it likely has something to do with the popularity of the Netflix documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and mega-cutie Zac Efron’s portrayal of him in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, both released earlier this year.) What is clear, however, is how popular content like this is. A search for #TedBundy reveals that the hashtag has been viewed 17.3 million times, while #JeffreyDahmer, the digital domain of another “hot” serial killer, clocks in at 1.2 million. As of press time, #SerialKiller has been viewed 24 million times, suggesting that the usually irreverent and lighthearted TikTok is no more immune to the recent surge in true crime mania than a Lifetime Channel-watching white Karen in the Midwest (true crime’s biggest market, to be sure.)
To be perfectly fair here, those numbers are molecular in comparison to TikTok’s bigger fads — #rocktober, for example, has almost 700 million views — so it’s not like everyone’s “giving serial killers some love.” Likewise, not all videos with serial killer hashtags are teens luridly stanning murder (most are just random anime clips and people talking to camera about nothing). Even so, the trend still has many TikTok users and Concerned Citizens of the Internet™ worried about the messages content like this sends. Their spunky glitz and apparent catatonia toward rape and murder makes it seem normal — cute, even — to glorify violence without batting an eyelash at its victims, and the social lift TikTok’s juvenescent murder models get from doing so seems to mutate real people’s trauma from “horrifying experience” to “hot commodity.”
“Media needs to be done in a very cautious manner due to the potential of contagion and romanticizing the topic,” Christina Conolly, Chairperson of School Safety and Crisis Response at the National Association of School Psychologists, has explained to MTV News. “We do not want individuals thinking that this may be a ‘cool’ thing to do to become famous.”
But it’s hard to avoid the whole “cool” thing if you’re a murder teen like Garaway who garners thousands of encouraging and emphatic comments like “Can you do this more often, please?” every time you make love to the camera with your best Bundy impression. (Or if you’re like TikTok user RobbieRocket and your uber-popular serial killer videos are precisely what’s earned you a following in the first place.) Our culture has been obsessed with murderers for a long time, but never before have so many people — especially young ones — thought it was so “cool” not just to study, but to inhabit them. What gives?
Garaway wasn’t available to offer his take, but experts like Melissa Hamilton, a senior lecturer of law and criminal justice at the University of Surrey, have some theories. “These reenactments are a form of acting that is normal to humans,” she says. “We like to role play, which explains the popularity of acting and drama classes and why millions of people suit up in character as villains, monsters and animals for Halloween. There’s something appealing about becoming, at least for a bit, something or someone else.”
There’s a specific appeal that comes with becoming a killer or pretending you’re their victim, though. Both of these have been shoved into the limelight of seemingly every TV show, podcast, movie and meme as of late, imbuing them with the sort of cultish celebrity normally reserved for rock stars and Hollywood elite. Though we might not agree with what they did, the pervasiveness of serial killers keeps us tuned in to their frequency, rapt by the prospect of solving the mystery of who they are and why they’d do such heinous things.
Not everyone relates to that sentiment of course, but Hamilton says it’s relatively common to. “The fact that serial killers gain notoriety and attain cult status is understandable given the extreme nature of their crimes,” she says. “To others, the sheer audacity of what they did makes them seem like individuals willing to flaunt societal values and norms, take extreme risks and behave as mavericks.”
Adam Lynes, a criminology lecturer at Birmingham City University who specializes in serial murder, critical violence studies and media analysis, says this can frame killers as anti-heroes; people who aren’t willing to stand for the conformity and humdrum mundanity of everyday life. Though what they’ve done is objectively awful, their rebellion against the status quo is vaguely relatable, a quality that becomes not only aspirational, but intoxicating to explore.
No, really — murder can be like a drug. “Observing or engaging in deviant behavior can trigger pleasurable neurochemicals in our brains,” explains Hamilton. “As one who becomes interested in deviance continues to engage with it, higher levels of deviance is required to achieve the same kind of neurological ‘high.’ This is similar to needing increased dosages of mood-altering substances to achieve a similar level of inebriation.”
In other words, getting hooked on a killer — as you’re wont to in the current murder-crazed media landscape — can sometimes mean you do increasingly strange things to feel close to them; strange things like lip syncing to a song about tag while pretending to run from Bundy. “Killers become less scary when we put ourselves in their shoes,” says Hamilton. “Role-playing them helps us gain a sense of control and safety over something we fear.”
According to Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, this might be particularly important for women and femme folk, who make up the majority of victims of violent crime (and a roughly equal percentage of serial killer role-players on TikTok). “In an indirect way, they’re trying to understand how to not become a victim,” he says. “They want to understand how not to get fooled.”
Lynes isn’t so sure it’s actually serial killers themselves we’re so afraid of (so few people die by their hands that death-by-Dahmer isn’t really a legitimate concern). Rather, he explains, it’s everything else we’re afraid of: climate change, systemic racism, ICE, fascism, limited access to education and clean water, floating trash islands, Big Pharma, etc. Killers and their victims just give those things a face — a blank canvas on which to project our worldly anxieties upon. In doing so, we can experience the dangerous thrill they bring from a safe distance. As has been stated a million times in a million different ways on the rising popularity of true crime, there’s a real relaxation in knowing you can strut right up to a monster, poke it between the eyes and then walk away unscathed.
By that logic, TikTok’s murder teens aren’t making these videos because killers are “hot” or because they actually want to be them; they’re just, as Lynes explains, “processing structural violence in a language they understand.” Talking with some of TikTok’s murder teens and young adults, it appears there’s at least some truth to that. Anne Rodriguez, a 21-year-old in Belgium who goes by annerofficiall on TikTok, says she makes serial killer role-play videos to get inside the mind of a person whose actions and behavior seem impossible to understand. In doing so, she both gets closer to the object of her interest and decodes them enough to do so.
She really gets into it, too. Her TikTok existence is almost exclusively dedicated to role-playing killers both fictional and real, an undertaking she often does with menace and intensity behind her signature black-and-white filter.
If you didn’t know her, you might get the idea she actually wants to be the killers she portrays, but she insists that’s not the case. “I’m trying to get the feeling of what they felt while killing without actually killing someone,” she explains. “I’ve always had an interest in strange things, and I’m trying to find out what’s going on in the brains of people who do this.”
But, when I ask whether her pursuit of those feelings might be a way to process the fears and anxieties she has in her daily life, she shrugs it off as an overly psychological read of something that’s nothing more than a personal hobby. “I just do this for the cosplay and because serial killers are interesting,” she says. “Read into it as much as you want. It doesn’t affect me.”
Still, none of this really excuses the flippancy with which real people’s lives and deaths are being treated in serial killer role-plays. As such, TikTok has seen a backlash from many of its users against them, most of which comes in the form of fakeout videos that start like a typical role-play then flash-cut to a PSA asking people to stop making content like this.
Seventeen-year-old Destiny White recently posted one of these on her page. Made “sick” by the romanticization of rape and murder she was seeing in serial killer role-plays and worried what effect that would have on TikTok’s many young users, she decided to leverage her audience and airtime to speak out. “It upsets me because there are, even if not many, still survivors out there who have trauma and don’t want to remember such things,” she says. “Real women were raped and killed. People should show more respect for those who lost their lives.”
Videos like hers and the comments that accompany them have actually had some effect, particularly on creators like Garaway. After he was called out, he made some apologies in the comments section of his videos and removed the killer-specific hashtags, which seemed to curb the backlash a little. That said, he didn’t stop making them. And neither will Rodriguez. “I’m not glorifying anyone,” she says. “I know what they did and that it was bad, but what I do is also a reminder that it happened and that that kind of stuff is still happening today.” She doesn’t particularly care if it bothers you, she adds. If it does, or you don’t get it, don’t watch.
Harsh, but really, who could blame her? We’re all obsessed with what drives someone to kill and the victims who get caught in the crosshairs of their dark desires. Look at Mindhunter, Dexter or Silence of the Lambs. These are items of mass consumption, viral media moments whose deep dive into the inner workings of a killer’s mind have held our attention and drained our bank accounts into Hollywood’s waiting jowls for years. Not to mention, who among us hasn’t super-stalked Wikipedia’s serial killer entries late at night, noses glued to the screen, scrolling through paragraph after annotated paragraph of who they killed and how?
The only real difference between TikTok’s murder teens and the many killer k-holes that existed on the internet far before TikTok ever did is that the latter takes place behind closed doors, while the former loops publicly, in front of millions. Essentially, morbid, app-wielding teens are simply repackaging the same sentiment in a new, flashy, disturbingly well-lit and edited way. So maybe we don’t really need to overanalyze it beyond that. Maybe these videos are like what serial killer and true “JWG” expert Helen Morrison once described murder as to those who commit it: “Just an action.” ‘Nuff said.