Why the Idea of “Serial Killer Glasses” Is a Comforting Fiction

A man in a white sweater in '70s-style aviator glasses.
He’s actually a really nice guy.

Since the 1970s and 80s, when the crimes of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy captured the nation’s imaginations, stories of gruesome serial killers have been on an apparent decline. And yet the popularity of shows like Mindhunter and Criminal Minds indicates that, despite the downturn of actual serial killers, our fascination with these murderers hasn’t gone anywhere. To wit: A recent Racked piece asks “why do we think serial killers all wear the same glasses,” asserting that “these killers are often exhaustively scrutinized and even fetishized in the media” leading to a recognizable visual profile. Glasses constitute one of the more specific elements of that iconography. “A pair of shiny lenses, perched on the bridge of a serial killer’s nose, becomes a subtle metaphor for his walled-off nature, for her sociopath’s aloofness,” writes Tori Telfer. “Glasses become a mask that’s acceptable for the killer to wear in public.”

As Telfer notes, the list of serial killers who wore glasses is a long one and includes Dahmer, BTK killer Dennis Rader, the Zodiac Killer, and many more. Yet despite Telfer’s assertion that there are certain “serial killer glasses” that always signify “creep” and “outsider,” most of the serial killers (besides Dahmer, Rader, and the Kindly Killer Dennis Nilsen) sported completely different frames. For example, the glasses of Ed Kemper, the Co-ed Killer immortalized in Mindhunter, share a closer resemblance to John Lennon’s distinctive wire-framed round lenses than Dahmer’s—and the more recognizable pair Kemper wore in his jailhouse interviews were boxy and dark-framed. The Canadian Butcher Baker’s lenses have a distinctive black bar across the top, distinguishing them from the ubiquitous clear aviators on which Telfer hinges her argument—frames made famous by Dahmer, and everyone else in the ‘70s. “Those eerie, teardrop-shaped lenses seem to symbolize someone who is forever surveilling us,” Telfer says.

This argument is almost convincing until you notice that a Google image search of clear aviator glasses doesn’t produce images of eeriness reminiscent of Dahmer or Rader’s face. Instead, there are pages and pages of trendy millennials modeling rose-gold variations of the frames. Rather than serial killers, clear aviators these days just reference the ‘70s and shag carpeting—their resurgence in this Age of Nostalgia makes a lot of sense, and gets at a more interesting point about murderers and the altogether normal frames they wear.

We tend to try to find ways to distinguish those that we find monstrous from ourselves, whether through iconography, personality, or culture. The typical profile of a serial killer—a youngish white man who can both blend into the crowd and lure victims into his snare—makes us uncomfortable. That’s why we like to imagine that serial killers, or mass shooters, are loners, despite evidence to the contrary.

Framing clear aviators as particularly reminiscent of a killer similarly provides a safe distance from the monstrous person who wears them—despite the fact that the reason they wore them in the first place was to close that distance. Clear aviators like Dahmer’s allowed him to blend into the crowd not only because they were trendy but because, as a society, we tend to think people with glasses are more trustworthy. That’s why defense attorneys recommend their clients sport nonprescription lenses in court. The Washington Post reported in 2012 that “New York defense lawyer Harvey Slovis makes all his clients wear glasses: He calls them part of a ‘nerd defense.’ The glasses … make people appear less intimidating.” Our fascination with the glasses worn by Dahmer or Kemper isn’t due to the fact that they’re abnormal or indicative of a “sociopath’s aloofness.” It’s because they send a nonthreatening message that contradicts the brutal nature of the crimes committed by the people that wear them. It’s because more than anything else, we want to find something physically unfamiliar about these killers, something that will warn us before it’s too late.