The authors also found some intriguing individual differences among the participants. Generally speaking, the foregoing effects were more pronounced for those who scored highest on a “disgust-sensitivity” scale. That's measured by asking participants how much they agree with statements like, “Even if I were hungry, I would not drink a bowl of my favorite soup if it had been stirred by a used but thoroughly washed flyswatter,” or “If a friend offered me a piece of novelty chocolate shaped like dog poo, I would not eat a bite." It turns out that the more squeamish you are, the more likely you'll be to ascribe value to celebrity-owned objects.
All of this leads back to the puzzle of murderabilia. If essentialist reasoning indeed drives the market in celebrity odds-and-ends, then why on earth would anyone want to collect evil objects? Which qualities would they hope to acquire from a teaspoon of dirt that had been collected from the Wisconsin grave of Ed Gein, that tanner of human hides who inspired the character of “Leatherface” in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? What kind of person would proudly hang a mediocre oil painting by “The Gainesville Ripper” Danny Rolling—who stalked, raped, murdered, and then theatrically posed the mutilated bodies of Florida college students for police—over their cozy guestroom bed?
Although no studies have been done on the special attributes of murderabilia aficionados, one possible lead may be found in a study of gender differences in readers of true-crime books. Inspired by the curious observation that Amazon reviews in this genre seemed disproportionately authored by female buyers, psychologists Amanda Vicary and Chris Fraley conducted a set of controlled experiments confirming their suspicion that women are more attracted to tales of rape, abduction, and murder than are men, who, given the choice, opt for war stories instead. What’s more, books that contain more details about these crimes are preferred over those that gloss over the forensic facts. Vicary and Fraley believe that these somewhat surprising findings can best be understood by the fact that, although men are actually far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes, women are significantly more fearful of becoming victims. So the strategic information in true-crime stories, with hints on survivability, may render them more appealing to women.
Serial-killer groupies are almost always female as well, and some scholars have argued that these women’s obsession with hideously violent men can be understood as an anachronistic evolutionary strategy in which the most fearsome males in society were, in the ancestral past at least, often also the most valuable mates. I don't mean to insinuate that murderabilia collectors are predominantly women. A murderauction.com administrator informed me by email that last month’s registrations at his site were about 25 percent female, but the online forums are “almost always dominated by women,” at least as he can judge by users’ names. It's also the case that women score significantly higher than men on disgust-sensitivity measures. Considering this alongside the true-crime findings of Vicary and Fraley, it’s conceivable that murderabilia collectors, both men and women, are actually more fearful of such sensationalized crimes than non-collectors. Perhaps they suffer the subconscious illusion that the moral monster would harm others while sparing them, on account of their unique connection through objects infused with the killer’s essence, a frightening, unpredictable force they are trying to better understand.
Either that, or the simpler, scarier hypothesis—collectors genuinely admire serial killers for what they do.