Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

By Charlotte Whyatt - Thu 18th Oct 2018 Features

The popularity of the true crime genre has soared in recent years but why can't we get enough?

We Are We Obsessed With True Crime?

True crime has always been something of a public obsession. Way back in the late 1880s, the people of London followed every twist and turn in the Jack The Ripper case with baited breath, pouring over all of the gory crime scene photos published in the newspapers and gleefully dissecting every new salacious detail.

It seems like our collective appetite for the very worst of human society (serial murder in particular) hasn’t at all wavered over time, with the 2015 release of Netflix’s Making A Murderer ushering in a brand-new wave of investigative documentaries where a team of filmmakers attempt to unravel a hugely complex, controversial case which is still going strong today. 

True crime podcasts are also more popular than ever, from Teacher’s Pet and In The Dark to Up and Vanished, Atlanta Monster and the granddaddy of them all Serial, the staggering popularity of which led to the subject of its acclaimed first season Adnan Syed receiving a new trial after almost 16 years behind bars. 

But just why are we so obsessed with true crime?

 “Knowing what happens to humans when they are at their most damaged is arguably a survival trait.”

Neuroscientist, university lecturer and popular blogger Dean Burnett put forward one theory about how it could all be tied to a deep-seated survival instinct.

He views the brain as a “paranoid organ” which is always working to try and minimize any perceived threat, meaning that when we hear about depraved criminal acts we naturally have a desire to find out all about them so we can reduce the risk of becoming a victim. 

This rather strange idea that person’s interest in true crime could stem from a want to protect themselves is certainly one that’s been discussed before, particularly when attempting to explain why so many women enjoy the genre. 

“Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!”

Those interviewed during Amanda Vicary and Chris Farley’s 2010 study Women and True Crime for example, stated that they found “potentially life-saving knowledge” contained within their favorite crime novels. 

Then there’s the incredibly popular podcast My Favourite Murder which hit the number one spot on the US Itunes comedy chart just five months after first launching in January 2016.

Not only do hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark take it in turns to tell the story of a gruesome and often quite bizarre killing each episode, but they also use comedy to flip the outdated true crime narrative of women as helpless victims on its head and encourage their listeners to reclaim the power.

Phrases like “pepper spray first, ask questions later” and “f**k politeness” (if you feel uncomfortable in a situation, don’t worry about trying to make an excuse just walk away)  might sound humorous, but they do offer genuinely useful advice about personal safety. 

Back in June, Ohio resident Hannah Thees was attacked while out walking her dog. Despite being nine months pregnant at the time, she managed to prevent him from ripping her clothes off by screaming and repeatedly hitting out until some passers-by came to her aid. 

Both Thees and her unborn child escaped uninjured and in a long Facebook post, she credited My Favourite Murder with giving her the strength to fight back.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much from listening to this weekly podcast, and I think that it may have helped to prepare me for a situation like this. And I’m not going to lie, as I was being attacked, I could faintly hear their voices in the back of my mind pushing me through.” 

“Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one's antagonism.”

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the deeply tragic plays of his era were so popular because they allowed the audiences to purge themselves of any sadness they might be feeling, an act which he called catharsis. 

In much the same way, it’s been suggested that these true crime focused docuseries and podcasts work to provide us with a release for some of the darker emotions we all naturally sometimes feel.

We attach our own personal negativity onto a larger-than-life subject who’s experiencing a hugely amplified, exaggerated version of these feelings so we can rid ourselves of them in a way which is safe, controlled and removed from any danger. 

“They’re almost like a catharsis for the worst of us, a lightning rod for our darkest thoughts, like the sin-eaters in medieval times who would take away the sins of others and by so doing cleanse society,” said criminologist Scott Bonn.

“Join the fan cult!”

Just like they do with popular celebrities and TV shows, many sizeable and tight-knit fan communities have sprung up around different true crime documentaries and podcasts over the last couple of years.  

Their existence might not necessarily cause someone to become interested in the genre, but having a group of like-minded people to discuss different cases with could certainly explain why you’d stay following a particular one and continue to seek out new information on it.  

Facebook and Reddit pages for podcasts like the aforementioned My Favourite Murder, Last Podcast on the Left and Generation Why provide a friendly, open space where people can not only gather to speculate and offer up different theories but also explore other interests and receive support. 

Fan meetups are organized so users can cement friendships away from the screen, homemade merchandise is proudly shown off and sold and pages like Last Shrink on the Left, for those struggling with mental health issues, and Murderino Beauty: Basket Lotion, for the exchanging of makeup tips, are created.  

“Serial killers are for adults what monster films are for children”

A second theory proffered up by both Burnett and Bronn in a final attempt to explain our current obsession with true crime again suggests that it’s do with a simple chemical reaction in the brain. 

When you read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a documentary on true crime, you naturally feel tense, threatened and a little bit scared. This causes your brain to release a small shot of adrenaline as it attempts to prepare your body to deal with the threat it thinks you’re about to face.

That particular feeling ends up being quite addictive, so naturally we want to keep going back for more. That’s not to say we get a thrill out of watching somebody die, it’s more to do with exploring the deep fear we experience at the thought of such crimes in a detached, safe way. 

“Think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill,” says Bonn. "The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

“True crime will not go away...we will never grow tired of murder”

To learn how to protect yourself, to enjoy the closeness of the fan community, to experience a cathartic release or to enjoy the thrilling rush which comes with being terrified, there’s not just one but several explanations as to why we’re all obsessed with true crime. 

The fact our love for it has lasted all this time and is still going so strong, the long-awaited follow up to Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed and a TV adaptation of Wondry’s hit podcast Dirty John are all set to drop in the next few months, suggests that its popularity won’t be slowing down anytime soon.