It’s Actually Okay if You’re Attracted to Zac Efron as a Serial Killer
The internet has a lot of thoughts on this kind of fantasy; here's what psychologists have to say.
It wasn’t long after the trailer dropped for Zac Efron’s upcoming Ted Bundy biopic that the inevitable happened: people began thirsting over the serial killer with shiny hair, piercing blue eyes, and a captivating wink. Of course, it’s likely that most weren’t drooling over Bundy himself, who was executed in 1989 after admitting to killing 30 college aged women (whom he reportedly raped and tortured), as much as they are into Efron, who brings the same confidence and charm to Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile as he does to all his roles.
Nevertheless, the idea of crushing on someone who is supposed to be a murderous monster isn’t exactly easy to digest, which explains why so many people were quick to post “friendly reminders” about Bundy’s horrific legacy. And while most are probably able to separate Efron-as-Bundy from the infamous murderer himself, it would seem as though others are also finding themselves attracted to the IRL Bundy, thanks to Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer: The Bundy Tapes, which shows him to be the cleancut, suit-wearing smooth talker who captivated news viewers throughout multiple prison breaks and then his trial in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Netflix even posted a now-viral tweet reminding viewers that hot men who aren’t killers also exist. (Thanks for the heads up, Netflix.) But here’s the thing: It’s not all that strange to be attracted to Zac Efron as a sociopathic killer — or even to feel a pull toward the idea of the killer himself. It’s actually pretty normal.
Attraction isn’t an exact science, nor does it always follow logic, which is likely why some people find themselves consistently drawn to emotionally unavailable partners, or why others keep on dating new iterations of the one person who broke their heart. Clearly this isn’t all about conscious choice. And fictionalized representations create an even bigger disconnect between reason and attraction, explains Sarah Watson, a Detroit-based licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist.
She tells InStyle that one might find a character like Efron’s Bundy attractive simply because we don’t know him in real life. “There’s no risk to being attracted to someone like this,” Watson says. Despite Bundy being a real person, Efron’s portrayal of him on the screen creates a separation that makes it safe to explore. We know deep down we wouldn’t ever date or hook up with him in real life, so it feels like risk-free experimentation. “Fantasy allows us to escape reality; we know that this could never really happen, which allows a freedom in the attraction,” she says.
A similar phenomenon occurred shortly after Netflix released its popular series You, starring Penn Badgley as the boy-next-door-but-also-violent-stalker, Joe Goldberg. Previously airing on Lifetime (and based on Caroline Kepnes’ novel of the same name), You brings viewers into Joe’s perverse and, at times, romantic world, as he stalks and then actually dates Beck (Elizabeth Lail). Even as the first season catapults toward a violently horrific end, many viewers couldn’t help but find themselves drawn to Joe, despite but also because of his darkness.
Dr. Shannon Chavez, a licensed psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles, tells InStyle: “When these films make a leading character attractive, there is intention around creating a love/hate conflict for the audience. These characters are attractive so that the audience continues to be interested in them and has to grapple with the emotions around good vs. bad and hero vs. villain.”
Even with the objective knowledge of this character’s badness, or a horrible IRL backstory, there are going to be people crushing on Joe (even if Badgley himself tells us not to), or getting hot for Efron’s abs in the Bundy trailer. And it’s common to fantasize about something that you wouldn’t really put into practice. “Studies have shown that a majority of adults fantasize about stuff they never have or want to try in real life,” Dr. Michael Aaron, a licensed psychotherapist and sexologist with a practice in New York, says. “It's actually quite normal. Fantasies allow us to tap into aspects of ourselves that are risky and dangerous, unconventional, or too far fetched to enact in real life.” Dr. Aaron adds that “no one should feel ashamed of their fantasies,” as doing so “only makes them more...obsessive.”
Watson agreed, telling InStyle that there should “never be shame in fantasy.” She says fantasizing about dangerous or “bad” scenarios is “your brain’s way of being able to take a risk without consequence. It allows your erotic self to be present [and] focused. It brings arousal and excitement, and is totally normal.” And Chavez points out that “fantasy doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior.”
We’ve seen this uncomfortable-fantasy scenario play out on the screen, too. Take, for example, a recent season 2 episode of Showtime's SMILF in which Bridgette (Frankie Shaw) fantasizes about a man in a hotel bathrobe wearing a Harvey Weinstein mask. Weinstein, of course, has been accused of sexual assault by 87 women, and the former Hollywood producer was indicted last May on multiple accounts of rape and sex crimes charges. Fantasizing about someone like Weinstein doesn’t mean that Bridgette wants to be assaulted in real life, just as Dr. Aaron noted, or that she actually wants to hook up with an alleged predator.
As psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann recently wrote for InStyle, “The things that turn us on often have to do with power, control, and dominance, which can feel like murky waters to wade into. But rest assured it’s perfectly natural to fantasize about (or enjoy watching porn about) sexual scenarios you would never want to engage in in real life. Your porn preferences do not have to be politically correct.”
The concept of getting off on something you “shouldn’t” be doing practically fuels the entire porn industry. But political correctness is an interesting lens through which to explore this topic. By casting Badgley, and writing him as the attentive boyfriend, You reminds us that evil doesn’t always present itself as expected. Sometimes, it’s right next to us — it’s a friend, a crush, a boyfriend. (Statistics would agree: most instances of violence are committed by someone known to the victim — especially when the victim is a woman.)
“We want to think [serial killers] are two-dimensional beings. We want to think they’re easily identifiable in society,” Extremely Wicked’s director, Joe Berlinger, told Vulture. “But Bundy himself says, ‘Killers don’t come out of the shadows with long fangs and blood dripping off their chin. They’re people you know that you like, that you admire.’” Largely, they are white. In fact the way evil is “supposed” to look drove much of the discourse around Ted Bundy when he was arrested, and the coverage that followed painted him as a charming, handsome man who didn’t “seem” like a serial killer. Meanwhile he, like other white murderers, has been awarded a legacy of fame and public fascination that is deeply steeped in privilege.
While it’s important to interrogate the presuppositions we make about people in the real world — who seems safe, what a “bad guy” looks like, and why — fantasies don’t need to uphold the same moral standards. Fantasies, by nature, do not exist in the same world as our everyday reality — which is precisely what makes them safe.
Maybe you can’t stop watching the Extremely Wicked trailer, or you’ve taken a screenshot of Zac Efron removing his shirt in the prison cell. Maybe you found yourself sort of turned on by Joe watching Beck through her curtainless window, even knowing that he has just committed murder. As Dr. Chavez says: “The complexity of these characters is human, and sometimes human nature is complicated and ‘evil,’” — and, we might add, kind of hot.