Our Obsession with True Crime
For a period of time in 2019, all the internet talked about was the 2nd season of a Netflix Original: Mindhunter. It was not the first time that people were fascinated with how the criminal mind works. The ‘True-Crime’ genre in entertainment is one of the most popular and is studied by viewers and psychologists alike. The internet is filled with material that covers serial killers, homicides and other violent crimes. And people like you & I are binge watching it on our couches.
What is making us consume this gory and gruesome material? Why are people so intrigued looking at violent crimes and getting to know the stories that lead to that crime? Well firstly, it is agreed that humans have a natural tendency to be attracted to ‘darker’ things. We are fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles- figuring out how it was done. People want to know the ‘psychology’ of the man, woman or group who committed a crime.
Besides being intrigued, there are also evolutionary aspects to watching true-crime documentaries and thrillers. A 2010 study from ‘Social Psychological & Personality Journal’ revealed that, women are far more likely than men to consume material related to true-crime. A possible explanation could be that women have evolved to pay attention to things that might be harmful in order to avoid being in similar circumstances. Something in our brain looks at the material as educational: What would I do if I were in this situation to escape? How can I avoid being in this situation? By studying other crimes women learn to look for signs - so that they can detect a potential threat.
Other important factor that keeps us interested is: making the distinction between us and the offender. We want to know that we are different than those who commit crimes. When we empathize with the victims it reinforces our belief that we are good individuals. Everyone likes a story where there is a clear black & white picture, good versus evil, right versus wrong. Even watching the story unfold and see the ‘bad guy’ being brought to justice makes us believe that there’s good in the world. It restores our faith in the system.
Pic: fearful response
There are also physiological implications to this: the fight or flight response cycle stimulates arousal. And because what is happening on the screen isn’t a threat to us in a direct way, people enjoy the thrill without being involved. It is much like watching a scary movie and it gives sympathetic nervous system activation.
Although it’s merely an entertainment genre, ‘too much of anything is bad’ policy applies here as well. One of the most prominent concerns is that in the wrong hands this material can be used as means to craft a ‘perfect crime’. By studying documentaries and other materials, criminals can come up with novel ways to avoid getting caught. Other psychological effects include paranoia, stress, and inhibited risk taking. Everyone has a different threshold to violence and when a person passes that threshold, it can cause trouble. These stories can also make us uncomfortable when they’re being glorified by the media when actually they should be criticized. It is disturbing to watch how much media attention a serial-killer like Ted Bundy is receiving even after decades to his incarceration. If you have a difficult time detaching from the stories you might experience that you’re being more suspicious than necessary to avoid bad things. It is difficult to socialize even in safe environments when you have your radar on to detect potentially threatening individuals. Prolonged exposure to true crime material can affect that body in a negative way because our stress levels are high while watching or reading it.
So by all means indulge in your love for true crime but don’t forget to do it in moderation!