Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

Jessica Lone Summers

Our fascination with true crime in documentaries, podcasts and literature is booming. But what is it that attracts us to this grisly genre, and what does it say about us?

Netflix’s Making a Murderer, a show exploring an alleged false imprisonment and America’s judicial system, reached 19.3 million views after just 35 days. And the podcast Serial, an investigative three-part series exploring separate criminal events, is currently boasting over 350 million downloads. These examples are not anomalies—our passion for true crime is unashamedly flourishing. Globally, viewers are tuning in to the controversial genre daily and consuming their fair share of murderous, grisly tales, but why? Are we twisted voyeurists harbouring a darkness which delights in witnessing horrors, or merely empathetic observers bearing witness to a crime-saturated world?

The hugely popular Serial podcast

According to David Canter, professor of psychology and author of Forensic Psychology for Dummies, the danger we feel while consuming a true crime account excites us. Canter, who developed the use of investigative psychology and profiled John Duffy—one half of the “Railway Rapist” duo convicted of two murders and four rapes in 1988—says, “The fight or flight idea stimulates our physiological arousal. There’s an excitement in that, and if it’s not too dangerous then we can enjoy it without it falling into experiencing real terror.” Canter adds that the more random the crime the more likely we are to be afraid of it.

“If somebody kills a spouse, although it’s a tragedy, it doesn’t send fear through the community because they assume it was something in that relationship. But if a stranger is attacked in the street and there’s no real way of explaining why that attack occured it’s much more frightening to people. They think, If it happened to them it could happen to me, so that becomes a threat. It’s a challenge people can cope with through the medium of documentaries; the fear is lessened and it’s a sort of inoculation against the concern and anxiety that might otherwise be present.”

"Some won’t watch the news because it’s terrifying yet they’ll watch a crime account and be enthralled"

While the need to get our heart racing may be true, David Wilson, professor of criminology, former Prison Governor and author of the recent book, My Life With Murderers, thinks there’s another reason why we’re so fascinated by true crime.

“The phenomenon of the true crime output is so diverse. It includes everything from serial murder to miscarriages of justice, and for most it’s about trying to solve the mystery. As was the case with the podcast Missing Maura Murray, we can galvanize the ‘armchair detectives’ into bringing their knowledge—which might be very specialised and unique—to solve the mystery. The public’s interest can lead to beneficial good, because when the police aren’t looking at it any longer and a member of the public doing an internet or archival search is able to uncover information it could lead to a cold case becoming live again.”

Photo by Bill Oxford

Wilson expands by explaining that this outcome—while it might be an objective of the true crime producer—is extremely rare. What he’s concerned with are the few more sinister individuals who may be encouraged by the glamorisation that often comes with a sensationalised story. This idea is no doubt at the forefront of the minds of those who are opposed to seeing violent crimes flash on their screens in the form of entertainment, and it does beg the question: why do we focus so much on the crime and perpetrators in place of the victims?

"Notorious criminals would have thousands of spectators flock to their executions"

Perhaps it’s because—unlike the unfortunate targets, who could be anyone—it takes a particular type of person to be able to carry out atrocities and human nature evokes a powerful urge to discover what it is that creates evil. Canter explains that often those who knew a killer would be shocked to find out the truth as it didn’t fit with their preconceived notions of their former life; terms such as “he was a quiet chap” or “married with kids” are produced by neighbours in a confused bid to understand how someone like that could do something like this. “True crime becomes fascinating because people want to get some sort of handle on what goes on in a killer’s head.” Canter adds.

“It is also interesting,” he expands, “that people typically respond much more traumatically to news reports about bombings or people being hurt or killed in real events. People find that more distressing than a fictional account or even a documentary about a serial killer. Some won’t watch the news because they decide it’s so horrific and terrifying, yet they’ll watch a crime account and be enthralled by it. It’s that idea of something less intensive that still has an exciting quality to it.”

 

The surge in popularity of modern-day true crime media may make the genre seem like a newer fascination, but that’s far from true. While the accessibility has greatly increased, our morbid captivation with crime—especially violent crime—is as old as time.

Historian Nell Darby believes that the subject has enthralled us for centuries and explains that even before we were literate we would pass stories and dark tales through generations. She says, “It’s not a new phenomenon. In the 18th century, broadsides were published and sold at executions, with illustrations and graphic depictions of the crimes that led to an individual being hanged. In the 19th century, newspapers recognised this interest in crime and were happy to cater to it. The publication The Illustrated Police News, was infamous for its full-page illustrations of horrendous crimes, including explicit coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888.”

Darby points out that hangings only became private affairs in 1868, before which they were very public events.

“The most notorious criminals would have thousands of spectators flock to their executions. Hangings were a form of entertainment, with adults and children all present to watch others be put to death.”

One argument that many highlight as an issue with the engrossing-yet-disturbing true crime genre is the all too regular need to aggrandise a story to gain a following. Darby, who runs the site criminalhistorian.com elaborates, “Jack the Ripper is a clear case of this, where some of the facts get lost in-between rumour and embellishment. We live in a society where we want stories that are as exciting as possible. It can be a bit like Chinese whispers, with stories getting more embroidered, until they end up bearing little relation to what originally happened.”

"Serial killers attack five groups of people and women dominate four of those groups"

Wilson is also wary of stories that stray from the truth, but for a much more unsettling reason. He believes that when true accounts of crime stray—even a little—from the facts, it can be detrimental to the picture painted, especially where serial killers are concerned. He poses that instead of focusing on the individual, we should look at why somebody might be led to kill and the groups most at risk of being a target.

“Serial killers in our country overwhelmingly attack five groups of people,” explains Wilson. “And women dominate four of those groups, the only group of men that get regularly attacked are gay men. We need to focus on misogyny, homophobia of both sexes, women over the age of 60 and sex workers. We need to identify and expose what makes them vulnerable, for those who lack visibility, who lack a voice, and who seem to have no agency in our culture.”

 

Interestingly, despite women being the most targeted demographic for violent crimes, a 2010 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that the true crime audience is overwhelmingly female. There’s no shortage of true crime podcasts to choose from yet despite the majority of overall listeners being male, Westwood One Podcast Network revealed men outnumber women in every genre except storytelling; which includes true crime.

“It’s a curious issue,” Canter expands. “I suspect it’s because women are trying to deal with their anxiety more directly but also because they’re more prepared to explore their own emotions and emotional reactions. Therefore, the rollercoaster that is a crime story is something that they’re prepared to explore and—if it’s resolved—to some extent, enjoy.”

While a shocking story may make our hairs stand up and our human interest may be peaked at a regaling of inhumanity, what if it’s not the horror that keeps us coming back, nor the wince we feel upon hearing a disturbing tale? Perhaps it’s the power, freedom and the—slightly macabre—schadenfreude that comes with knowing… that they didn’t get us

 

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