From Netflix original documentaries covering the biography of notorious serial killers, to dozens of podcasts discussing the grisly crimes of cold blooded criminals, there has been a rise of the true crime genre in recent years. However, the popularity and production of this genre raises questions. What is it about true crime that pulls people in? Is it ethical to indulge in other people’s suffering as a form of entertainment? I am guilty of contributing to the popularity of the true crime genre, either listening to horrifying crime podcasts during my commute to campus or watching documentaries about serial killers during my down time. There is something about the genre that keeps consumers, including myself, back for more horrific stories.
This is not the first time true crime is having a spotlight. More than 30,000 years ago, people recorded violence that occurred through cave paintings. This shows that humans have always had an interest in grim stories.
Fast forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, people flocking public executions in England bought crime sheets. These were illustrative and descriptive narratives of the crime and criminal subjected to the death penalty. Watching a true crime documentary from the comfort of our homes is much more tame than attending an execution and purchasing a souvenir.
Why is it that since the dawn of time, humans have been so interested in gruesome killings? Paula E. Bruce, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist says, “True-crime shows are compelling to many because they can provide a window into a reality that we do not readily have access to.” Humans are naturally curious. The true crime genre is able to feed this curiosity with out of the ordinary tales. Much like how most people are unable to look away from a car crash though it is disastrous, people do not shy away from tragedies in true crime stories. It is a part of human nature to be curious of what happened and why it happened.
Scott Bonn, a professor of Criminology at Drew University gives another reason why people binge on true crime, “Many people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers, because they cannot comprehend their actions, but feel compelled to.” Much of the true crime genre explores why violent people commited the actions that they did. For most people, it is difficult to comprehend the violent actions committed by serial killers. As people, we want to empathize with others. Through the true crime genre, we are able to understand people a little bit better. In the safety of a television, computer, or phone, indulging in true crime allows us to explore a darker side of humanity within a safe and comfortable environment.
Many true crimes stories involve female victims. It is no coincidence that women are the biggest contributors to the true crime genre. Dr. Bruce says that women are especially intrigued because it taps into many women’s fear of being brutalized. Listening to these horror stories serves a “a subconscious inclination for honing survival techniques and preparing for potential scary situations one may face,” according to Dr. Bruce. By listening to these stories, women are able to tap into their fears and visualize what they would do if put into these terrifying situations from a safe distance.
Despite the popularity of the true crime genre, many critics believe the true crime genre is an unhealthy obsession in society. Laura Bogart, a writer for The Week Magazine, criticizes how empathy is lacking in the true crime world, the movies in particular. Bogart gives the example of the Netflix original, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron who plays the notorious serial killer, Ted Bundy. Like many other critics, Bogart believes the casting of a heartthrob such as Efron is a romanticization of grueling real crimes. It strips the humanity of the victims.
However, casting Efron was not a strive towards romanticizing the horrific crimes of Bundy. It was to emphasize how killers do not always look dangerous. Ted Bundy was found by many women to be charming and handsome. This is how he got women to be vulnerable before eventually committing heinous crimes towards them. The choice to cast Efron was to send a message how anyone can be dangerous, despite how they may present themselves.
The true crime genre gives a platform to stories that are often buried due to its grisly nature. It sheds a bright light on violence against women, keeps stories of victims alive, and encourages people to be cautious.