Three years ago, Manson ― who died Sunday after nearly five decades in prison ― became engaged to Afton Elaine Burton, a 26-year-old woman who went by the name Star and ran a website called Release Charles Manson Now.
The romance fizzled out. The couple’s marriage license expired in February 2015 amid tabloid rumors that Burton wanted to marry the killer so that she could put his body on display for profit after his death ― a claim her parents later denied.
Whatever Burton’s reasons for pursuing the relationship, when news broke about the pair’s engagement, the Internet couldn’t stop talking about the sexual phenomenon called hybristophilia or, as it’s sometimes called, Bonnie and Clyde syndrome.
“Hybristophilia is a sexual disorder in which arousal is contingent on being with a partner who has committed an outrage, such as rape, torture or murder,” Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, explained in an interview with HuffPost.
But hybristophilia isn’t always what drives women and men to feel an attraction to killers. In fact, Ramsland told HuffPost it’s rarely to blame.
“There are many other motives. Some women also seek fame by proxy, or believe they can tame the ‘wild beast’ in a violent man. A paraphilia is not typical,” she said, using the term for an abnormal sexual desire. “The woman engaged to Manson had [reportedly] hoped to exhibit his body ― that’s not a paraphilia, it’s exploitation.”
Other women who dated serial killers actually did take the leap and get married.
Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who raped and murdered more than 30 women, received tons of fan mail from female admirers while in jail. In 1980, while still on trial, Bundy married one of his admirers, twice-divorced mother of two Carole Anne Boone. (Bundy was executed for his crimes in 1989.)
In 1989, Richard Ramirez, aka “The Night Stalker,” was sentenced to death on charges that included 13 murders, five attempted murders and 11 sexual assaults. That didn’t deter freelance magazine editor Doreen Lioy from marrying him seven years later. (She called him kind, funny and charming.)
While there’s no one-size-fits-all profile for the type of women who would fall for a serial killer, they’ve usually experienced troubled childhoods, said Sheila Isenberg, an English professor and the author of Women Who Love Men Who Kill.
“Without exception, the women I interviewed for my book had all been involved in early abusive relationships,” Isenberg said. “Their families, first boyfriends, husbands or someone else had abused them either sexually, physically, emotionally.”
According to Isenberg, getting involved with an imprisoned criminal gives the women some semblance of power.
“It’s a chance to be in control, often for the first time in their lives,” Isenberg told HuffPost. “They make the decisions, they are the ones with the freedom to come and go.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but “becoming involved with a violent convicted murderer feels safe for a woman who’s had an abusive past,” the writer said. “He’s behind bars; she’s not.”
Many of these women believe they’re the only one who can reach the ‘real’ person underneath the monster being falsely portrayed.
In some ways, the convicted criminal is “the perfect boyfriend” for these women, Ramsland added.
“The woman knows where he is at all times, and while she can now claim that someone loves her, she does not have to endure the day-to-day issues of most relationships,” she said. “She can keep the fantasy charged up for a long time, without having to cook, clean or report in to someone.”
That fantasy often includes the belief that only they know what their boyfriend is really like, said Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based psychologist.
“Many of these women believe they’re the only one who can reach the ‘real’ person underneath the monster being falsely portrayed,” Amitay said. “Only they can give their boyfriend the love and support he deserves, reveal his ‘true self’ and prove that he’s innocent, or at least misunderstood, to the public.
They may even take credit for ‘reforming’ him, as if their love was all he needed to change, the magical ingredient.
Still, the desire for fame cannot be underestimated, Ramsland said. If you’re looking for quick celebrity status, dating a convicted murder will get you that.
“These people go on talk shows to proclaim their love and insist that the convicted murderer got a raw deal or is ‘different’ now,” she added. “They may even take credit for ‘reforming’ him, as if their love was all he needed to change, the magical ingredient.”
In cases of death sentences, the women’s part of the story continues after their partner is gone.
“These women get to participate in the drama of a trial and the appeals process ― and perhaps even the execution,” Ramsland said.
As for Burton, in January, her parents claimed she tried to see Manson while he was severely ill but was thwarted by the hospital. In her father’s words, the former couple were “still friends.”