Why are people obsessed with true crime?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know that they’re talking about. Today we wondered, what accounts for the popularity of crime dramatizations in TV, books and film?
Turn on the Investigation Discovery channel and you’ll find any number of TV series about true crime. Titles like Wives with Knives, Evil-in-Law, and Behind Mansion Walls sound more like titillating horror movies than nonfiction stories. The highly anticipated first season of FX’s American Crime Story, which focuses on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as the disgraced football player, is just months away from debut. Famed journalist Barbara Walters recently came out of retirement for the show Barbara Walters Presents American Scandal, revisiting some of the most notorious killers and crimes she investigated early in her career, including JonBenét Ramsey and the Menendez brothers.
To say we’re obsessed with the gory details of these slayings is an understatement. So what compels us to want to dwell inside the mind of a killer? We turned to the experts— who’ve worked in law enforcement, assisted the FBI, written books, hosted television shows, created films, and appeared as featured experts in the media—to ask why our nation can’t get enough of true crime.
Bestselling author, Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation; Professor, American Literature and Popular Culture, Queens College, City University of New York
THAT CRIME IS INSEPARABLE FROM CIVILIZATION—not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives—is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers. Picking up on Plato’s famous observation that the virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does, Freudians argue that violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out (and getting punished for) our own forbidden impulses. In the view of Emile Durkheim, the criminal contributes to civic well-being, not only by promoting a sense of solidarity among law-abiding citizens—who are united in their condemnation of the malefactor—but by providing a cathartic outlet for their primal, vengeful impulses.
If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished—which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And that is precisely what true crime literature provides.
It’s important to keep in mind that true crime books have been popular for several centuries. One of the earliest English bestsellers, dating back to 1635, was John Reynolds’ The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinn of Murther, whose (ostensibly) real-life tales of cold-blooded murder and equally ruthless punishment were offered under the pious pretext of demonstrating that crime does not pay: a tried-and-true tactic still very much in use today that permits readers to ventilate their sadistic impulses—what William James calls “our primordial instinct for bloodshed and cruelty”—in a socially acceptable way.
Vernon J. Geberth, MS, MPS
Author, Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques; Former Lieutenant-Commander of the New York City Police Department; Former Commanding Officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force; Member of the Honor Legion of the City of New York Police Department
As an expert in the subject of sudden and violent death, I find myself amazed and intrigued by people’s interest in what I consider horrific acts of senseless inhumanity and violence.
I can only opine that their reasoning or rationale might be based on some sort of curiosity or excitement about evil acts that allow the viewer to insulate him or herself from the reality of the horror by viewing the events through the prism of entertainment. This tends to make the reality less threatening, because the event happened to someone else.
M. William Phelps
Award-winning investigative journalist; New York Times bestselling author, To Love and To Kill, The Killing Kind, One Breath Away, The Hiccup Girl—From Media Darling to Convicted Killer (forthcoming); Creator, producer, writer and former host of the Investigation Discovery series Dark Minds
We watch because we are fascinated by the psychopath, how he or she thinks, what motivates him/her, and what he/she will do next.
If we can figure this out, we feel we can be one step ahead of him/her.
There’s also an element of wanting to know what’s going on in our neighbors' house—a collective nosiness. In addition, we’re a society (yours truly included) consumed with and infatuated with bad news. We cannot escape it today. It’s everywhere.
Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.
Professor of Forensic Psychology and Director of Master of Criminal Justice Program, DeSales University; bestselling author of 56 books and over 1,000 articles on serial killers, criminal investigation, and criminal psychology
True crime invites obsession for three reasons: people gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe; and most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve. This gives them a sense of closure. It is also a challenge that stimulates the brain. These three experiences in combination can become addictive.
New York Times bestselling author, Then No One Can Have Her, Lost Girls, I’ll Take Care of You; Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist
I think people wonder what motivates another person to commit such horrible acts against another, often a “loved one,” because we can’t fathom doing such things ourselves. We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves, but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take. It’s like not being able to stop watching a traffic collision that you know is about to happen. It grips your attention and you can’t look away.
I also have come to learn that many people who read and watch true crime are trying to process hardship or trauma in their own lives. Somehow, watching or reading about the victims and how their families processed a horrible tragedy resonates with them; it helps them process their own personal experiences and grief, and at the same time escape from them. I, personally, enjoy researching and writing about murder cases because I, too, am a student of the human condition. I also have made a career of being a watchdog of our governmental and criminal justice systems. But more importantly, I hope to find something positive in these cases—a cautionary tale with lessons learned or, perhaps, an inspirational message, wherever the truth may take me. I also hope to help save lives by educating people how to identify dangerous situations and predators as well as flaws in our systems that need to be fixed, so I might help prevent such tragedies from happening again.
The chance that police won’t be able to identify your killer if you are murdered in America
Director, My Amityville Horror; Founder, Film Attic Pictures
Being a true crime obsessive myself, I’d say because these cases are not fabricated—that these horrible events actually occurred to real people—make them inherently addictive.
There’s kind of a twisted fascination that takes hold of me, especially when a crime goes cold and remains unsolved for years. It’s that desire for truth and justice that drives me. And knowing that someone out there is responsible is what will keep you searching until they’re caught. No matter how long it takes.
New York Times bestselling author, Dead but Not Forgotten, All-American Murder, See How Much You Love Me; award-winning investigative journalist
On some base level, most people know they’re one bad decision away from making a choice that could destroy their lives and the lives of many others.
I think that’s why true crime resonates so much: It serves as catharsis when frustration has us inching toward that unspeakable direction, while also providing a grim reminder of why we can’t let those darkest of thoughts win.
James H. Fallon, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist; Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; Emeritus Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology, University of California, Irvine School of Medicine;
Bestselling author, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain
TTrue, horrific crime stories remind us of what is genetically, and then epigenetically, wired in our minds at birth (and beyond), that is, the hominid history of imperatives for our very survival as individuals and as a species. This dark side courses through our forebrain as a series of neuronal connections and loops between the conscious processing of our neocortex and then through the terrifying sub rosa minefields of our amygdala.
This chain that codes for negative emotions is tightly paralleled by, and interacts with, the pathway that signals positive emotions. They feed on each other, inform each other, and create the stark, palpable, contrast within these ancient pathways which remind us, in the deepest way, who we really are, where we’ve been, and the choices we can make for our futures.
All that, and let’s face it, the stories just give us a freaky buzz that lets us know we are alive in a wonderful, loving, but treacherous world. It’s about survival.
Janice Holly Booth
Bestselling author, A Voice out of Nowhere: Inside the Mind of a Mass Murderer
We all possess a dark side, although I would say most are smudgy gray as opposed to inky black, and maybe that’s why so many of us are obsessed with the sinister doings of others. Perhaps craven crimes speak to those savage, primal urges we’ve become so good at repressing. But I think our fascination with true crime stories might also represent a curiosity about the calamities that can befall the mind. How can your next-door neighbor go calmly about his daily business while he has a girl chained in his basement? What horrors did he endure as a child that led his mind to race down an entirely different track than yours?
For me, at least, the fascination is not so much about what these broken people do as it is about why they do it. Deconstructing that mystery, getting to the very dark heart of their deeds, is what keeps me hopelessly captivated by true crime stories.
Paul S. Leighton, Ph.D.
Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, Eastern Michigan University
People like true crime because you can explore something terrible and not feel compelled to do anything about it.
If you consume enough, you feel empowered because you’ve learned something about evidence collection and police work, so you think you could get away with a crime if you tried.
Not that you would, but it’s a guilty—or not so guilty—pleasure to imagine who and how.
Gary C. King
Bestselling author, Dead of Night; Blood Lust: Portrait of a Serial Sex Killer
People tend to like to read about true crime, some even obsessively if you follow any of the online boards and chatrooms, because they are fascinated about the cruelty one human being can inflict on another. It stirs the emotions. Readers also tend to like the detective work and are fascinated by the work that goes into solving a case. Still others, perhaps most importantly, read true crime hoping to come away with information that can help them better protect themselves and their loved ones from becoming victims.
People who follow true crime in any medium, whether it be television, books, or whatever just can’t seem to get enough.
Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 chronicle of the Manson murders, is the best-selling true crime book in history, followed by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, from 1966.
Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland; co-creator, The Sociological Cinema
In order to see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share. Other genres challenge the audience’s sense of what is real and fake, or what is right and wrong, but stories from the true crime genre mostly confirm to audiences that their preconceived ideas about the world are correct.
In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works. People are obsessed with true crime because, ironically, these stories about serial killers and psychopaths comfort people. While living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technological change, true crime comforts people by assuring them that their long-held ideas about how the world works are still useful.
R. Barri Flowers
Best-selling author, The Sex Slave Murders, Murder Chronicles; Criminologist
Most people (even those who would not admit it) have a fascination with the dark side of life. We tend to find ourselves more intrigued by those who do bad things than good things—especially where it concerns murder. As true crime stories get more attention than ever through narrative nonfiction books, true crime-focused cable channels, such as Investigation Discovery, 24/7 cable news cycle, and the increasing reach of social media like Facebook and Twitter, more people become aware of crimes of homicide and violence, and details on killers, victims, and circumstances of the criminality. True crime allows people to put themselves into the shoes of the offenders or victims from a safe distance.
Host, Sword and Scale podcast
There’s a little place inside of us, a little corner of our being, where darkness lives. I’ve noticed over the years that, much of the time, those who embrace it, accept it and are comfortable with it are far less likely to plunge into that pool of darkness headfirst than those who suppress it, pretend it’s not there, and try to constantly, actively think that the world is a wonderful place.
I’ve covered a lot of cases on Sword and Scale over the last two years and the vast majority, not to mention the most interesting ones, from my perspective, are the ones where someone is just going about their daily life, their daily routine, and something snaps. The slogan we have on the show is “the worst monsters are real,” and I find that rings true the more I cover true crime. There are monsters all around us. You could be in the room with one right now or you might be one yourself and not know it yet.
It could be an event or a series of events that is the catalyst. A loss of a loved one, a job, a house, and a spouse isn’t that much of a long shot for most. That, combined with the fact that one in ten of us are suffering from mental illness, makes the world a land mine-ridden paradigm, rather than the safe, wonderful place we would all love it to be. What I know for sure is that every single one of us are capable of slipping into this darkness, provided the right set of stimuli.
That’s why it is so fascinating. That’s why it is so personal. Often I can empathize just as much with the killer as I can with the victim. Often they're indistinguishable before the horror occurs.
Investigation Discovery by the numbers
The year the network debuted
The number of daily viewers the network got in 2012
The network’s rating spot among women aged 25 to 54
The number of franchises the network had in 2012
The advertising revenue the network brought in for 2011
Marissa Harrison, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology; Behavioral Sciences and Education; Program Coordinator, Psychology Department, Penn State Harrisburg; Author, "Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings”
I’m sure there are numerous reasons why people are interested in crime, particularly brutal crimes.
My feeling is that it is at least, in part, an evolved mechanism to hone in to something that can harm you, so that you can avoid.
That is, you would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who “tuned in” to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli.