Americans seem to have an obsession, and it has been growing over the past couple of decades. If you look at the popular podcasts or television shows, you’ll know what we love: true crime. Docuseries continuously top the streaming charts, and each week we seem to get a new podcast centered around murder and deceit. Yet we can’t seem to get enough.
These shows are engaging, but something about the obsession seems really messed up. We’re engaged in stories that cost people their lives and forever changes the lives of family and friends. Any logical person would want to avoid these experiences, but listening to other people’s horror stories is a captivating form of entertainment.
True crime is so popular that it’s hard to apply labels to everyone in the fan base. If you’re like me and you’ve consumed a lot of programs in the genre, you’ve likely questioned your sanity at some point. You’re watching trauma for pleasure and seeking the most extreme people in society. The fact that this can serve as a form of entertainment seems like an abnormal response; at the very least you’re desensitized.
Is true crime really a harmless obsession? Outsiders don’t seem to get the hype and associate the genre with less desirable character traits. Much like the fascination with true crime, there’s also a fascination with its audience. This has given us research to confirm or deny some of the common assumptions.
You Lack Emotion
The more people study true crime, the less surprising the cases become. A simple murder isn’t enough; they want longer stories and bigger villains. In the pursuit of the next great crime story, the victims and families are viewed as characters. There’s a lack of sympathy for those impacted, and hearing a crime story has no lasting emotional connection to the listener.
There is some truth to this. Experts warn that individuals who are chasing more intense stories may be in a position where their emotional state is being hurt by true crime consumption. That doesn’t mean you should be living life in fear, but it does mean you should recognize the wrongdoings in true crime cases.
The bigger concern should be people who continue to consume true crime programs despite an increase in anxieties. If your daily life is habitually impacted by true crime, it should be a sign to cut back. Occasionally people should have fears, that’s a healthy response to traumatic media. When you routinely have media-induced stress, it might be time to switch back to the game shows.
You Don’t Care About the Victims
Prior to the rise in podcast popularity, The Dark Knight was released. In 2008, public fascination with The Joker reached an all-time high. He instilled a sense of fear into his victims and claimed many lives. Still, the public was able to relate to his madness. This is an example of a fictional antagonist, and his victims are often background characters. They don’t have a story, and this is intentional. Viewers weren’t attached to these characters because they’re not real people. In the true crime world, every victim is a person with a past.
(Photo: The Joker via GQ, Warner Brothers, Everett Collection)
In some cases, it is true that victims are overlooked. It’s also common to see a narrative constructed where the victims are chapters in a book, but a serial killer is the main character. An example of this can be seen in the Night Stalker documentary released on Netflix in 2021. In this story, victims are highlighted during some segments, but the story centers around Richard Ramirez. At the end of the documentary, it’s reveals that there are more victims who are not even discussed in the docuseries.
This type of editing can diminish the impact of the crime and make victims appear less important than the perpetrator. Mostly, this can be attributed to creative choices and not the individual watching the program. Podcasts and television shows are telling stories, not presenting evidence.
Much like The Joker, true crime often presents the villain in a sympathetic light. This allows viewers to see humanizing elements of extreme individuals such as serial killers. Viewers aren’t typically at fault for this, as editing plays a major role. In some cases, this can even be a good thing. It gives people the ability to judge individuals for more than just their crimes. However, this doesn’t erase their actions and the pain they’ve caused.
You’re Helping to Exploit Others
At its core, true crime is exploitative. Almost all programs deal with mature and taboo topics. It often feels as if creators are prying into the secret lives of others and bringing hidden secrets to surface. The Menendez case has been a point of interest for decades, likely because of the affluent family’s secret lives. Viewers wonder how a parents who seemingly have everything are murdered by their two sons. Any documentary surrounding the topic will reveal deep family secrets for the sake of public amusement.
Prying into someone’s life behind closed doors is overly intrusive, but we can justify this because the subjects are criminals. Viewers find excuses to rationalize this because we’re naturally curious. When we observe something abnormal, we want an explanation. True crime can be particularly captivating because viewers get to play detective as the story unfolds.
Calling true crime exploitative is true, but it’s also the point. There are times when we share gruesome details, but many victims and families want stories to be shared. There have also been times when the level of awareness has helped to solve cases and provide closure. That doesn’t mean all programs are beacons of righteousness, but they’re not exploiting people for the sake of being exploitative.
You Want to Commit a Crime
There’s a small population of people who feel true crime fans want to commit the crimes discussed in podcasts and TV shows. Just like people mistakenly believe violent video games lead to violent behaviors, true crime does not lead to committing crimes.
(Photo: Grand Theft Auto V via Rockstar Games)
Some factors can predict whether or not someone will commit crimes, but true crime consumption is not one of them. Viewers are not visualizing their violent fantasies when they watch a TV show, they’re just staring into a side of life they couldn’t access without true crime documentaries. If they take any actions after the binge is over, it’s probably locking the doors and closing the windows.
The stigma may come from a sensation known as “copycat killers.” These are people who have followed the patterns of other killers and have many parallels to their crimes. While some cases do exist, there are more predictors of copycat crimes than just watching crime documentaries. Often, they have a history of prior criminal activity or mental health conditions that are not being properly treated.
When True Crime Becomes Dangerous
Many people have grown up hearing folklore about monsters and watching movies “based on a true story.” Eventually, these stories become boring when you realize they’re fictional or taking extreme creative liberties for the sake of entertainment. True crime reminds us that the monsters are real, and the boogeyman could be living next door. Still, most people know he probably isn’t, and they detach themselves from the case when the podcast ends.
(Photo: Scream via Dimenshion Films. A movie inspired by real crimes. Via Nederist.)
Some people like true crime because it makes them scared. If you’re seeking the thrill, then you might enjoy some of the more extreme cases. Other people carry the anxiety and paranoia into daily life. If documentaries are preventing proper sleep, making it hard to leave the house, or give overly intrusive thoughts, then it’s time to take a break. In almost all cases, true crime is going to harm the listener before anyone else.
While it is uncommon to find someone who wants to replicate a crime, anyone who alludes to imitation should address their concerns. There may be other issues that need to be addressed, and media should not be inspiring violent actions. Fixation on violence in media, whether or not it comes from true crime, should never be ignored.
There’s also cases of people romanticizing crime stories and serial killers. These communities were usually found on Tumblr, because where else would that be allowed? While they usually don’t lead to real crimes, the language is disturbing and has resulted in authorities intervening. This should be considered a warning sign for someone who isn’t able to consume true crime safely.
If you’re just listening to true crime, not taking actions, and not having negative impacts on your life, then you’re fine. Unhealthy responses should be a sign to stop listening. After all, these programs are designed to be entertainment above all else.
Why We Love True Crime
Once you understand the reasons people listen to true crime stories, it’s not that weird. A lot of the time, the root of the interest is boredom. People can get a rush of adrenaline when they witness something violent, gruesome, or dangerous. True crime gives us that rush from the comfort of our homes. When we seek bigger cases, we get a bigger rush.
While some stories are quite disturbing, most people have some level of exposure from daily life. News broadcasts will talk about major cases such as JonBenét Ramsey or Casey Anthony. The documentaries dive deeper into the cases and allow us to exercise moral judgements. We can be detectives on the sidelines, and there are often conclusions at the end of the cases. Plus, these shows are edited to be captivating. They want to pique your curiosity and keep you hooked.
The next time your friend confesses a true crime obsession, know that he’s probably not a bad person. Most likely, he just has a boring life and wants exposure to more dangerous things without having to actually experience them. While true crime and be a bit exploitative, it’s generally harmless. So long as people keep committing crimes, the genre will live on. If the shows bring you pleasure, there’s no need to change the channel.