True crime provides the perfect procrastination. Having an unfinished essay due the next day is a seemingly small issue compared to accidentally marrying a criminal and your stalker, as seen in Netflix’s new hit, Dirty John. Perhaps this explains society’s latest fixation on true crime series — it distracts from an increasingly stressful world and renders our own problems insignificant by comparison. However, history reveals that people have always been drawn to gruesome happenings.
Not long enough ago, people voluntarily attended public executions, highlighting a fundamental human fascination with the dynamic between good and evil. The recent incredible success of true crime television and podcasts demonstrates that nothing has changed, except for accessibility. Netflix is home to the most popular true crime programming, which enables the shows and documentaries to be as long as necessary, while viewers can still watch them however and wherever they want. True crime provides the unique opportunity for people to satiate their inherent desire to be scared, safely.
Interestingly, the audience for true crime is predominantly female, according to the BBC. Although statistics indicate that women are less likely to become victims of crime than men, they are more afraid of it, fuelling their interest in true crime in an effort to be prepared. A 2010 study found that women are much more interested than men in true crime books that feature practical information on defending oneself from an attacker, insight into killers’ motives, and books on female victims, reflecting the fear women live with. Therefore, true crime presents a way for people to feel more prepared and believe they are preventing themselves from becoming victims.
Similarly, another major reason we are attracted to true crime is for the strange sense of relief it provides. Psychologists suggest that people can experience an unexpected sense of comfort from others’ troubles, as subconsciously we feel relief that it did not happen to us. Additionally, as most people feel anger towards others at different times, psychologists say there is another sense of relief found in not being the perpetrator of a violent crime and not being the one to act on impulse. Although hard to believe when reflecting on popular true crime series, some people may derive a sense of comfort from such programs. Typically, we can easily identify the good and bad actors, as well as experience the satisfaction of witnessing a mystery solved and the justice system at work. This process reassures viewers that their understanding of the world remains valid. However, our interest in true crime does not stop at our screens.
In addition to the multitudes of true crime shows, documentaries, and podcasts available, there are entire television channels devoted to the genre and even immersive experiences, such as CrimeCon, where fans meet and engage in various themed activities. Rather worryingly, there is even serial killer merchandise sold, which raises the question: has our obsession gone too far?
Most important to consider, the stories we eagerly consume for entertainment are those of other people’s lives and often highlight their most painful experiences. For example, a documentary released last year on Channel 5 explored the horrifying story of the two-year-old boy abducted by two ten-year-old boys at the mall, who then tortured him to death. The victim’s mother expressed her sadness and outrage on twitter and felt the documentary invited viewers to sympathise with the two boys who murdered her son. Furthermore, the family behind the scenes of Making a Murderer also stated that the show further traumatised them, while capitalising on their tragedy.
Popular programs, such as Making a Murderer and Serial, are praised for highlighting flaws in the justice system; however, they also exploit women’s deaths and prevent their families from obtaining closure, as these shows have led to cases being reopened. The true crime genre frequently features a self-involved host investigating a young woman’s death, which has since led to parodies based on this premise. Yet, true crime content also possesses a unique power to influence and engage people, giving silenced victims a platform to be heard. So, I suppose, not all true crime is selfish and exploitative.
When you’re panicking about your next assignment and desperately begin browsing Netflix’s crime selection, perhaps consider why you are watching and the impact felt by the real people involved in the stories.