Opinion: Watching True Crime Documentaries Brings Me Hope

Carolyn Light

It doesn’t seem like shows about murder should bring anything but despair, but here we are

Photo by Joël in 't Veld on Unsplash

Last night, I watched Netflix’s Girl in the Picture documentary.

Netflix has been recommending it to me since it first started streaming, and I also noticed that it was ranked number two in movies streaming on Netflix right now. Despite all of this, I would have watched it anyway. I had already added it to my list. I watch a lot of true crime.

I’m not going to review the documentary, nor discuss its plotlines lest any readers are planning to watch it but haven’t yet. Suffice it to say, it was disturbing. I found it to be potentially the most horrific true crime documentary I’ve watched to date — and I’ve watched most of them.

I’m hardly the only one. True Crime as a genre is currently in a complete surge. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and others cannot make these documentaries and docuseries quickly enough to keep up with the demand. If you Google “true crime,” you’ll find everything from lists of movies, to podcasts, to discussion board forums in which people are chatting virtually about the shows. 

Entire groups of armchair detectives have dedicated their time to solving cold cases — some of them have even been successful. If I asked my colleagues in a meeting whether or not they’d yet watched Girl in the Picture, I estimate that 60% of them would have watched it already, and approximately another 35% would have it queued up on their lists.

Why are we so obsessed with crime?

I Googled this question this morning when I began brainstorming for this piece. I found an article on Science Focus that shed some light on this for me. The article states:

Evolutionary psychologists say that we’re drawn to these tales because murder, rape and theft have played a significant part in human society since our hunter-gatherer days. It’s in our nature to be highly attuned to criminal misdemeanours, and we instinctively want to discover the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ so we can find out what makes criminals tick, and to better protect ourselves and our kin.

Further, the article went on to say that women tend to be more interested in true crime than men — particularly in why the killer did what they did, and how any victims of theirs may have escaped.

My own relationship is a microcosm of this point — when my boyfriend called me on the way home from work last night and I told him what I was watching, he responded: you and those murder shows.

Of course, men do watch them as well — and many people are just drawn to them because they want to solve a mystery, or they like to hear stories that fall far outside the realm of their own lives.

When I finished Girl in the Picture last night, I felt a mixture of the expected emotions: horrified, upset, angry, stunned, and baffled, to name a few. I thought to myself, welp, I guess I won’t be sleeping tonight.

But then, I realized that — no, I’d actually sleep just fine. Because despite all of those negative emotions, I found that I was also feeling…hopeful.

How does one feel hopeful after watching something horrific?

All true crime documentaries have something in common. Crime, of course, and most likely a horrible and unthinkable crime, generally involving unspeakable violence committed by someone with an anti-social personality disorder. (Our morbid curiosity and desire for a story wouldn’t much be satisfied watching a documentary about someone who refused to pay their parking tickets).

Beyond this, crime documentaries tend to be a bit formulaic in their presentation. The story is presented in a timeline format — discussing the crime itself, and then working retroactively into the backgrounds of both the victim and the perpetrator, the people who knew either or both of them personally, and how the authorities worked to solve the crime.

It’s the latter two points that interest me the most.

Generally, these individuals are interviewed for the documentary, and these interviews are interspersed throughout the film or series. These people might be family members, friends, or neighbors. They might be police or the FBI. They come from all walks of life — all ages, stages, sexualities, races, creeds, genders — you name it.

What they have in common with one another — aside from the fact that their lives somehow interloped with a crime victim or perpetrator — is their general feelings of horror.

When they tell their parts of the story, they’re disgusted. They’re disturbed that something like this could happen; they’re upset that something like this happened; they don’t understand how people can be so cruel to one another. They want the case solved.

We all know that evil exists — we’ve seen it; many of us have lived it. And, because there are so many of these documentaries, there is reason to believe that such horrible crimes happen all of the time. That they happen constantly.

They happen more than they should — that’s for certain. But each documentary focuses on one abhorrent individual — and to tell the story, they bring in ten other people who think that what happened is beyond despicable.

This is where I start to feel hopeful.

I’ve written a lot recently about the lack of hope I’m feeling right now, and there’s no doubt that there is a lot of divisiveness and outright hatred floating around within our society. 

I think a lot of this is exacerbated by the internet — it’s so easy to spew hate at someone online when you don’t have to look them in the eye.

But, when I think about the people I know — even the people I disagree with on virtually everything —  I can’t imagine them committing such heinous acts against another person. 

I’d even extend this to the people I don’t know, but who hate everything I write, and who disagree with all of my politics. I can hate their points of view, and they can hate mine. I can hate the way they vote, and vice versa. Still, my guess is that they have family and friends who love them — who they love back. Just as I do. My guess is that they aren’t out there, trying to kidnap, rape or maim others. Just as I’m not. 

(Also, I know that this is what every person says about the perpetrator of a crime — that they would never have imagined that this person would have done this).

But still, I stand by my assessment. I can’t imagine it. And just based on sheer numbers, I think I’m probably right. Regardless of the fact that evil is real and horror occurs, for everyone one person who commits such an act, there appears to be more than double that number who are absolutely appalled by it — and who would have helped if they could.

And, I take comfort in this fact.

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We're all just out here, doing our best. Pondering: Mental Health | Feminism | Relationships & Dating | Social Climate

Chicago, IL

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