Why We’re All So Obsessed With Murder Houses

published Oct 31, 2019
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It’s a common trope in horror films: The legendary house in town, either abandoned or home to the loner no one has seen for decades. It holds macabre secrets and hidden nightmares that neighborhood kids use to fabricate lore for their own amusement, to inject some thrills into their mundane subdivisions. But sometimes, these homes cross from fiction into reality: Tragedy really does erupt inside the home, capturing both our imagination and terror.

For me, this home is John Wayne Gacy’s former property. Growing up in Illinois, where the tragedy lingered, it’s always been a deep-seated fascination. In fact, this story started with an email to my editor asking if I could write a story about how a house built on the land recently went on the market. I couldn’t think of anyway to swing it that would remotely fit onto Apartment Therapy’s wheelhouse; still, I felt a weird compulsion to cover it. My editor said no—obviously, as you’re not reading a piece about the JWG house—but she did ask me to hold a mirror up to my interest and discover exactly why this home and other sites of tragedy evoke the feelings they do.

One answer, according to Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, is that these homes and their stories ignite normal human drives (e.g. exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, and masochism). They give us the excitement of risk without the actual danger.

“A murder house is the accoutrement, the setting. It conjures up that this is a place where a horrible thing happened,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that [you] want it to happen to [yourself], but that means that [you] have a curiosity, maybe even a titillation, around that kind of content.”

It’s not all excitement, though: Dr. Saltz adds that it’s an opportunity to experience empathy—good and bad—in ways we don’t normally face in day-to-day life:

“[You] can imagine what the victims felt here, the terror, but [you] can also imagine what the perpetrator felt here, the power, the control,” she says. “People might not parse it that way consciously, but if they allowed themselves to they might find that both sides hold a fascination.”

While I’m primarily interested in visiting or researching these places as some sort of entertainment, I wouldn’t necessarily want to live there. However, many people do. Take, for example, Nikki N: She didn’t have any clue that her unit was the site of an 1986 axe murder or that the Midwestern bar she lived above were infamously haunted until a friend told her. While others in the past may have run for the hills screaming in terror at the building’s sordid past, it didn’t bother her that much. For one, she already expected disturbances (paranormal or not) to be par for the course living above a bar. In other situations, noises and strange encounters could have tipped her off, but she says that she largely accounted any spooky instances to the amount of people coming in and out all times of the night.

“When it’s in a bar building, you don’t know if it’s the drunks or the ghosts,” she says.

Additionally, she actually found the history to be kind of cool. Nikki, like many Millennials, is a true-crime obsessive and spends her free time consuming tales of untimely ends retold in great, often gruesome, depth.

According to Amanda Vicary, associate professor in social psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, true crime has changed from a stigmatized fascination to a mainstream interest and industry in the past five years, largely because of digital publishing:

“Fifty years ago, there were only true crime books or magazines,” she says. “Today, there are entire television stations devoted to true crime and a huge amount of podcasts to choose from. People who may have found crime interesting in the past, if they weren’t readers, wouldn’t have even had the chance to realize their fascination. Nowadays, whether you read, watch TV, or listen to podcasts, you can easily get your regular dose of true crime info.”

As of writing, two of the top ten podcasts (“Crime Junkie “and “My Favorite Murder”) on iTunes were devoted to recounting true crime news stories. A entirely new channel Sky Crime TV airs solely true crime documentaries. And it seems like our culture is moving this interest closer and closer to home. Just last month, Quibi, a mobile-only streaming service set to come out in early 2020, announced “Murder House Flip,” a new show documenting makeovers for homes where grisly crimes took place. According to the synopsis, the aim is to “bring healing and solace to families living in the aftermath of tragic events.”

But it just so might be that these renovations are unneeded: According to a new study by Clever Real Estate, one in four supernatural believers reported they’d be more likely to purchase a home if someone died there, was near a cemetery, or was supposedly haunted. And those who wanted to live in a haunted house said they’d even pay a premium for it: Half of them said they would pay up to more for a spooky site. Unsurprisingly, this is quite the Millennial thing: the age group is 13 times more likely to buy an allegedly haunted house than baby boomers.

While Francesca Ortegren, a research associate who worked on the study, says that it could be that Millennials have consumed so much media about murder and serial killers that these homes are not stigmatized but revered. However, she has another explanation: Affordability. Since, historically, there has been less demand for these stigmatized spaces they’ve been hard to sell and therefore generally be prone to concessions:

“Millennials are just more likely to buy anything because they just need something that’s affordable,” Ortegren says. “[They’re] more willing to put up with these strange characteristics of houses.”

If the rather desperate financial outlook for millennials won’t scare them off, neither will murder.

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