In the last 18 months we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time doing one thing:- watching TV. Yes, that’s right, with everything shut and nothing to do, we ended up watching more and more programmes to try and entertain ourselves whilst we hunkered down in our homes. What’s fascinating to me is how many of us seemed to become obsessed with watching true crime.
From documentaries about serial killers on Netflix to shows about unsolved mysteries on Amazon and Sky, my friends and I watched them all and appeared to become more intrigued by true crime than ever. From watching true crime, it was a simple step to discovering the absolute bevy of true crime podcasts available. It wasn’t long before true crime became my number one hobby to the point where I even considered setting up my own podcast!
However, it wasn’t just me who got hooked on true crime, from what I’ve read there now appears to be a global obsession with it and a whole commercial industry rising up to support our fascination with the subject. From watching it, to reading about it, to listening to it, true crime has become big business. But what is the obsession? Do we all just secretly want to be armchair detectives? Or is there something else going on?
We’re Fascinated With Breaking Taboos
True crime provides us with a window into the minds of disturbed people who have broken the most fundamental taboo – committing murder. Most of us are conditioned from birth to understand right from wrong and the difference between good and evil. Morality is ingrained within us, hence we are fascinated by those who don’t follow social norms and commit the greatest sins.
Krista Jordan PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Austin, TX, told Health, “A person who is a serial killer doesn’t care about consequences, doesn’t care about victims—he only cares about what he wants,” says Levin. “There’s a part of us that’s fascinated by that, because we don’t live that way. We have to think about the consequences. There’s that part of us that’s like, Wow, what would that be like?“
We Can’t Look Away From a Trainwreck
The majority of people are inherently curious or ‘nosy’. We also tend to exist in our own little worlds or social circles. We have our own routines and rarely step outside of our comfort zones so when something big or tragic happens, we can’t help but feel a little excited and interested. Take the recent pandemic for example, how many of us felt a small thrill when we were all told to stay at home? How many of us were obsessed with the 24 hour news cycle for that first month at home? We were experiencing a global event that changed everything, but in those early days, it just seemed like an unexpected and interesting break from the norm.
“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters,” Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, told TIME Magazine, “The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
Facing Our Fears Makes Us Feel Prepared
Our psychology dictates that we pay attention to the things that could potentially harm us. Much like our primitive ancestors staying alert for predators, we now do the same thing with our viewing habits! Women seem to be more fascinated by true crime than men – I can attest to this as my husband always starts watching YouTube videos on his phone whenever I’m listening to a true crime podcast or watching ‘Criminal Minds’.
Amanda Vicary, leader of a 2010 study focusing on why women tend to read more about true crime than men (‘Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?‘), told the Huffington Post that “by learning about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”
We Enjoy the Adrenaline Rush
Much like going on a rollercoaster or watching a scary movie, true crime provides us with a rush of adrenaline whilst staying safely at home on our sofas. This is particularly true of true crime stories that resonate with us. If the victim is similar to us in some way, we are inclined to have that moment where we feel like ‘it could have been me’.
According to sociology and criminology professor Scott Bonn, in an interview with Psychology Today: “The public is drawn to these stories because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in us all: fear.” It’s a safe adrenaline rush for us. We have that separation from the actual event, which means that we can’t get hurt but we can still put ourselves in the victim’s shoes.
We Like Accessing Our Own Dark Side
If you enjoy true crime, it could be due to it providing you with an outlet for your negative thoughts and emotions. We’re not saying that you’re a potential criminal – quite the opposite! Krista Jordan believes that this enjoyment is firmly rooted in the psychoanalysis theories of Jung and Freud.
“For different reasons, they both felt that people needed to have a means to sublimate the natural, inherent drive of aggression. So you can listen to a true crime episode about somebody who dismembers and eats their victims and begin to picture in your mind all of the things that are being talked about. You get a bigger bang for your buck than if you were fantasizing about a kickboxing class.”
You are also distanced from the criminal and the acts they commit because you’re safe at home. Krista believes that this is why we are always so fascinated by the background and psychology of the killer. We want to reassure ourselves that although we may have binged a batch of true crime documentaries on Netflix and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, we also want the reassurance that we are nothing like the potential perpetrators of the crime
We Get to Play Armchair Detective!
Of all the reasons we love true crime, this one resonates with me in particular. I’ve always been a great lover of mysteries and can remember having bets with my parents on who the killer was in every episode of ‘Midsummer Murders’. I could usually tell by who was cast as the guest actor. With true crime, it’s way more of a puzzle.
Human beings are innate problem solvers. Those with a strong sense of right and wrong are also great seekers of justice. We want the killer caught, the problem to be solved and for justice to be done. Unsolved true crimes are particularly fascinating because we see or listen to all of the research done by the documentary makers/podcasters and know that we could do that to if we were so inclined. The thrill is in finding a clue or a piece of the puzzle that someone has missed.
We hope that the above has provided you with some insight into our increasing obsession with true crime. Playing armchair detective is an excellent hobby and we can highly recommend the following, highly entertaining podcasts if you want to delve into a mystery or two (all hosted by amazing ladies):-
We’re off to dust off our magnifying glass… Until next time.