What’s the Deal with the True Crime Obsession?

My obsession with crime stories started as a young child, watching reruns of the original Law and Order. Part of it may have had to do with the fact that my father was a federal prosecutor based in Washington DC who came home most nights with stories of the “homicide of the week.” Regardless, I have always had the true crime bug. Now, with shows like The Jinx, about the eccentric (and pretty creepy) possible (read: probable) serial killer Robert Durst, and Making a Murderer, about the exoneration and subsequent murder conviction of Steven Avery, it seems that everyone is obsessing over true crime.

Most of these true crime chronicles are centered on one brutal crime in particular: murder. And not just your average murder – we hunger for the most bizarre and gruesome tales. The stories of especially grisly characters such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, the Son of Sam, are the ones we all know by heart. So why are we so interested in such heinous crimes?

Research suggests that the general public’s fascination with serial murder is much like our fascination with car crashes or natural disasters. It’s pure spectacle and drama, and anything outside of the norm of our day to day lives will draw our attention. Another motivation could be that watching or listening to these stories gives us a jolt of adrenaline. Our bodies interpret adrenaline as a sort of reward; we can even become addicted to it. It’s why so many thrill-seekers jump out of planes and balance on tight ropes between mountain tops. What’s an easier and safer way to achieve these highs? You guessed it – true crime.

But perhaps the most powerful reason we’re drawn to true crime is due to one of our most basic and powerful emotions – fear. Watching a TV show or listening to a podcast gives us the opportunity to experience this at once simple and complex emotion in a controlled environment. We can experience all of the excitement and adrenaline that fear gives us, but since it’s in the comfort of our own homes, we don’t experience any of the negativity that inherently comes with it.

Yet another reason we love true crime is that we get to explore the psychology behind the act of murder. No sane person wants to commit mass murder, but by the very nature of being human, our brains are wired at least somewhat similarly to these criminals. So, through watching, we are granted the opportunity to get inside the mind of a murderer. We cannot quite grasp the motivation and conviction of people who commit these violent acts, but we feel compelled to.

An aspect of this true crime fascination that I find particularly interesting is that the majority of the obsessed are women. A 2010 study published by Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the majority of viewers for both true crime and crime fiction were women. Investigation Discovery (ID), a network that runs documentary-style true crime shows 24 hours a day is one of women’s most-watched cable networks on television. The very female-focused Oxygen Network has recently rebranded to focus mainly on true crime programming. The podcast “My Favorite Murder” (my personal favorite), which is hosted by two women and frequently features tips on how women can stay safe, hit the number one spot on iTunes within six months of its premier. Why is this?

The theory that I find most convincing as to why these shows are so popular among women is because they give us a way to ease our anxiety and prepare us for real-life threats. Most true crime that you hear about is perpetrated by men upon women. The vulnerability of that knowledge can often be terrifying, so learning about these crimes teaches us what to do to prevent any violent attacks.

Always lock your doors and windows, don’t walk home alone, don’t leave your drink unattended, etc. Regardless, whether you’re watching true crime to ease your anxiety or pump some adrenaline into your day (or probably a strange combination of both), there is no denying that true crime is here to stay.

References

Bonn, Scott. “The Guilty Pleasure of True Crime TV.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 May 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-guilty-pleasure-true-crime-tv.

Marks, Andrea. “How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Feb. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/02/the-true-crime-podcast-turned-mental-health-support-group/517200/.

“The Psychology Behind America’s Crime Obsession.” NPR, NPR, 23 Jan. 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99803591.

Vicary, Amanda M., and R. Chris Fraley. “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 81–86., doi:10.1177/1948550609355486.

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