A few days ago two teens were arrested after a crime spree through the South. Cheyenne Phillips, 13, and Dalton Hayes, 18, (their names already sounding like characters in a movie) are the latest in a long line of young couples famous for outsmarting the law. But what sounds like a wild ride by missunderstood teens is actually a psychological condition called Hybristophilia. It’s a loose catch-all term for people (usually women) that are sexual aroused by serious, often violent, crime. It’s commonly referred to as “The Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome.”
Celebrated in everything from Oscar winning movies to Serge Gainsbourg songs, Bonnie and Clyde have become folk heroes in the popular imagination. It’s easy to forget they were murderers and thieves.
America loves serial killers and true crime. Turn on A&E and there’s a never ending stream of shows on cold cases, murder trials and psychopaths. We want to know how, sure, but we really want to know why. Why did Jeffrey Dahmer kill? Was he just crazy or abused as a child? We need some explanation to help us understand evil but an explanation doesn’t really exist to explain it, which only increases our fascination.
But Hybristophilia takes this fascination to a pathologically sexual level. About a year ago I stumbled upon a troubling subculture of Hybristophilia-related Instagram and Tumblr accounts dedicated to young girl’s undying affection for school shooters and serial killers. Pictures of the murderers are often accompanied by images of self mutilation. (It makes one wonder how Instagram rationalizes censoring nudity and not pictures of young people harming themselves, but that’s another discussion.)
Cheyenne Phillips and Dalton Hayes
Hollywood knows a good story when it sees it and the list of films based on romantic, sexual outlaw-lovers is long. Perhaps the best being Terrence Malick’s masterpeice Badlands. It tells the semi-true story of two lovers on the run after Kit (Martin Sheen) kills Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) father. Holly’s voiceovers narrate their story in soft, loving remembrances juxtaposed with the violent reality of their lives. The film is an insight into the control men have over women and the sexual attraction to domination that are the psychological hallmarks of Hybristophilia. But the Bonnie and Clyde story is nothing new. Women love outlaws. At least a certain kind of woman.
Hybristophilia also extends into real life when women marry men convicted of violent crimes. Even the greatest of all crazies Charles Manson got hitched last year. Some even suggested Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular podcast Serial might be predicted on a bias fondness for the convicted murder at the center of her story.
As more details emerge in the Cheyenne Phillips and Dalton Hayes case, it will be interesting to hear how some will explain the question of why. It most certainly has something to do with power, restlessness, sex, fear, boredom and possibly love.
The band Big Star has a classic song, “Thirteen,” which investigates the anguish and heartache of being 13 — misunderstood and head-over-heels. It’s told from the perspective of a kid to object of his affection, whose father is disapproving of their relationship. One line stands out as perhaps summing up much of the romanticization of sexual attraction to dangerous criminals. The narrator of the song simply asks his girl, “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”