By: Kat Skalski, LMSW


 

Media is weird. What we each choose to consume when we’re watching TV alone or driving home from work gives an insight into the needs we’re not getting met in the real world, whether that’s comfort, excitement, connection, or…murder? The true crime genre has become a sensationalized and highly sought form of entertainment over the last few years. Stories such as Making a Murderer, Evil Genius, Night Stalker, and The Ted Bundy Tapes have secured their spots as viewers’ top true-crime documentaries on Netflix, and Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history when it premiered in 2014. But why is it that the very things that threaten our lives are the things that fascinate us? Are we all dark and twisted? Are we secretly serial killers? Or are the same needs being met in comfort-shows like The Great British Bake Off and Queer Eye as in the most morbid of true crime content?

Two of the biggest claims against the ethics of true crime content are the concepts of morbid curiosity and sensation seeking. It’s often argued that anything so dark could only be a product of exploitation and sensationalism. Morbid curiosity is described as “an interest in or curiosity about unpleasant things, especially death or an interest in phenomena perceived as dangerous or threatening.” Researchers argue that, rather than interest in a killer’s body count for the joy of a body count, curiosity by true crime fans is spurred because of its reliance on their very real fears. It relies on the knowledge that this is, in fact, true crime. Consider an analogy with reproduction and sexual desire from morbid curiosity researcher Coltan Scrivner:

While the ultimate outcome (production of offspring and passing on of genes) is what “matters” for the evolution of reproductive behavior, it is the pathway to this outcome (sex) that is the object of desire. Similarly, the ultimate outcome of a morbid event (death) is what matters, but the pathway to it (a dangerous phenomenon) is the object of curiosity.

In other words, death itself is not necessarily what we are curious about; we are curious about the risks posed to us and the things that lead to death. This translates into the real world with sensation seeking, defined as “a tendency to seek out experiences that maximize arousal through novelty, complexity, or intense sensations.” For many, the thrilling effects of true crime can be similar to those of other exciting activities, such as roller coasters, and result in a rush of adrenaline. These two concepts are thought to be linked, such that sensation seeking is at the core of morbid curiosity.

The crux of this idea, however, is that morbid curiosity and sensation seeking take on safe forms. It has been theorized that consuming true crime content does that, while giving insight into how to navigate a potentially unsafe or even threatening world. Humans seek to understand the facets of potentially life-threatening situations so that they are more equipped to handle similar events if they were to occur in their lives. More specifically, the true crime genre conveys information about potentially dangerous situations or phenomena, detailing what these situations look like, how people tend to respond, and what behaviors and actions are successful. When these lessons are then taken and translated to the real world, this may lead to a feeling of preparedness and resilience. Considering this theory, it should be no surprise that roughly three-quarters of true-crime consumers are women. This is an anomaly among other violent genres like horror and action, where male fans typically outnumber their female counterparts. Women, however are statistically most likely to be victims of domestic homicides and sex-related homicides. Unlike these other genres, vicariously living through characters isn’t about strength or power but knowledge and preparation from a safe distance away, should true crime fans ever become victims themselves.

A large part of this preparation involves curiosity around the “why.” Studies on the true crime obsession show that many people indulge in content because they want to know what events led perpetrators down their dark path. The sensationalism around Ted Bundy stemmed from the public’s insatiable need to understand how a man who was attractive, charismatic, intelligent, and otherwise seemingly “normal,” could also commit such heinous acts of torture, mutilation, and murder. The question that true crime consumers tend to ask is “What events, thoughts, and pathology may drive an individual to compulsively want to take another human’s life?” People often feel the need to understand others’ psychology, what makes them tick, and then point to definitive warning signs or causes for these crimes to occur. Because these acts are so unthinkable to most of us, understanding the inexplicable provides a solid spot to land on for some clear answers amid the grisly details.

Lastly, true crime content (and other related media like horror films) can potentially work to combat anxiety symptoms. Because fear and anxiety are phenomenologically similar, consuming media that elicits these emotions can help those with anxiety become more desensitized to more pervasive emotional experiences and to increase their control and regulation of those emotions. By providing a predictable source for feelings of anxiety, true crime media allows fans to slowly expose themselves to feelings of uncertainty. This is a particularly useful outlet as it gives those with anxiety the opportunity to engage with uncertainty without feeling like they are out of control and practice coping mechanisms for those increased feelings of anxiety and fear (such as deep breathing and self-soothing). It’s likely no coincidence that the first verifiable hit after the pandemic shutdown was Netflix’s true crime docuseries Tiger King; as anxiety rates soared in uncertain times, people were quick to turn to media filled with questions and, unlike the world around them, a clear promise of answers if they just keep watching.

Tracking examples of true crime media from seventeenth-century execution sermons to Serial and The Jinx, it’s clear that America has never been shy about its love for the genre. Yet the explosion of content and its wide acceptance are distinctly new. There are many reasons why this would be, some of which may apply to certain people and not others. The underlying theme tends to lie in humans’ innate drive to survive. We want to learn about dangerous situations because:

  1. We are naturally interested in the process of certain acts rather than the outcome
  2. We want to know how to react if a dangerous situation occurs
  3. We want to know how to avoid them
  4. We are curious about the minds of those who commit these crimes so that we can identify potential red flags
  5. We want to expose ourselves to pervasive, threatening emotions so that we can effectively cope with them

It’s interesting, then, to consider that for the past few decades crime has been on a steady decline. Where does true crime fit in a world that is, on the whole, getting safer? It certainly doesn’t seem to be impacting the production of new media or our appetite for it. But it’s also notable that even as safety increases, our readiness to talk about the dangers around us is also on the rise. Ted Bundy has been replaced by countless handsy bosses. Red flags and survival skills take on new meaning when long histories of abuses of power and sexual violence are pulled from the darkness for all of us to see that we’re facing them together. True crime’s catharsis doesn’t come from the exploitation of grisly details, but in people declaring their survival, knowledge, and resilience over the very real threats around them.

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