Each time I turn on a true-crime podcast about murder or kidnapping, I feel more than a little bit of guilt. Why is the worst day of someone else’s life being packaged as entertainment for the masses? And why am I entertained in this manner when I usually describe myself as a generally empathetic person?
So why is it that most of us get entertained or "really into" these true crime shows, podcast, or movies? Making a Murder, The Ted Bundy Tapes, and Serial are all shows and movies that have been one of the best made true crime stories in the last few years. Everyone has been consuming this content and raving about it - but why do we do that?
Here's what experts think about it -
It May Help Us Be Prepared
True crimes introduce us to “worst-case scenarios,” sharing a variety of ways that people can be victimized. These scenarios, psychologists say, allow us to unconsciously rehearse “What would I do in this situation?” or “How would I feel if I were part of this story?”
Research has shown that women read, listen and watch true crime more than men.
“This may be because women are statistically more victimized,” Dorfman, a psychologist says, noting that watching crime shows can, in a way, help women stay safe. “Exposure to such scenarios help women prepare themselves, learn ways of self-defence or self-protection.”
We Tend To Identify
We’re going to get a little dark here. But everyone has some sadistic and masochistic drives and fascination, explains Dr Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“There is pleasure and titillation in observing violent crime, knowing it is real, but from the safety of your living room,” she explains. “People identify with both the victim and the perpetrator, enjoying being powerful, destructive, but also being preyed upon and hurt.”
This is all fantasy, though, Saltz explains and does not mean that in reality, you would want to experience being a perpetrator or victim. Tuning into a true-crime podcast or TV show feels exciting, yet is safe, she says.
It's Taboo, Which Makes It Exciting
Simply put, humans have slightly aggressive impulses, according to psychology. We have fantasies of acting on forbidden impulses, hurting or in the most extreme cases, killing one another.
“We are socialized to mitigate these impulses so that we may live within society,” Dorfman explains. “However, we are drawn to stories which demonstrate another’s inability to control their innate impulses — the urges that we work hard to control, manage or repress.”
We Like To Play Detective
As we follow the true-crime narrative, we have a chance to try and solve the case. We collect our own clues and create our own suspect list. It's the same reason why we watch series like Sherlock - it allows us to live in a make-believe world.
It's why we watch movies about anything at all - action movies, horror movies and everything else. We consume the content trying to play out our fantasies through these movies and shows.
Storytelling Intrigues Us
As humans, we’re hard-wired to enjoy storytelling.
“We’ve interacted with stories of all kinds since the beginning of time,” Minneapolis psychotherapist Justine Mastin, LMFT, says. “Oral tradition and cave drawings are about both triumphs and defeats as a way for the next generation to learn from those who came before. It is natural to want to engage with narratives, even, and I would say especially when those stories are dark.”
Humans are especially intrigued by stories that allow us to ask “what if?” How would I behave if I were a player in this true-crime narrative? How can this story help me make sense of my life?
True crime is gripping because the cases involve everyday people — those who could be a neighbour or a family member, explains John Alleva, Court TV vice president and managing editor of field operations. There is a mystery surrounding homicides, he says. What causes a common person to get involved in a crime? Was there a love triangle? Was it an act of self-defence?
"People want to know: How did the defendant end up in the courtroom?" Alleva says. Given our national fascination with true crime, the climate certainly was right for Court TV’s return to TV this year. While many courtrooms are open to the public, the network allows us to tune into a live case from the comfort of home.
Is Watching True Crime Good Or Bad For Us?
Just like other forms of entertainment, enjoying true crime is all about balance. If true crime is the only genre you’re watching, listening to and reading, while excluding other media, then the pattern could have a concerning impact on you.
“While it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about, witnessing death as entertainment is nothing new,” Mastin explains, referencing ancient Greece, where violence was at the crux of theatre and sport. “Thankfully our interest now is less blood-thirsty and more ‘mind-thirsty’ for knowledge and understanding.”
After all, craving knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our surrounding world is a normal human desire, she explains. True crime viewers can benefit from being more aware of potential dangers around them. But, if true crime does become distressing, or begins impacting your everyday life, it might be time to step away from the genre.