Let me start by saying this post has been brewing in my drafts folder for a long time, mostly because I had a hard time explaining this obsession to other people. It wasn’t exactly my fear that people would think me a morbid person, it was the difficulty in attempting to explain why I was so entertained and captivated by hearing such stories, because I couldn’t really comprehend it myself. But as I looked into it, I saw that not only was it more common than I thought, but also that recognising how our minds are attracted to something so macabre is a complex and difficult task that I wanted to understand more. This week, I’m talking the human obsession with true crime.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by crime and death and it’s ultimately led me on to my career path of being a forensic scientist. Sounds morbid I know, but it’s not uncommon or unusual at all to be obsessed with crime. In fact, there has been much exploration to understand why we as everyday humans are so captivated and consumed by hearing true crime stories. Or more specifically, murder, and grisly murder too. Several podcasts, crime docos, books and magazines have been created to catch onto this obsession with crime, and understandably have become wildly popular among the public. On any given evening, it would not be unusual for me to be cosied up in my favourite loungewear, headphones in ears listening to the next true crime story on my playlist, or glued to the Crime + Investigation channel on Foxtel and avoiding any sort of normal adulting practices. Our public interest in true crime stories is ever-increasing, and probably more so than ever considering we have many more ways of accessing true crime stories in the media today than we used to.
But why are we so fascinated with crime and murder? Well, not everyone is. Take Mr Beauty & the Geek, he can’t stand to listen to any crime narrative, and detests my obsession with murder stories. While we are at it, it’s more common for women to be fixated on crime stories than men, although there are a few differing views on why. In fact, for most true crime podcasts, the demographic of subscribers is mostly young women (on average, around 70% are women between the ages of 25-45).
The Battle of the Sexes
Is the fact that more women than men are obsessed with true crime because, unfortunately, more women than men are victims of terribly violent crimes? Some argue that women have the more distinct connection to crime because we are the sex more vulnerable to it. Another theory for the basis of women’s fascination with true crime stories, is one of our evolution. Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist involved in some of the research behind this says that women have adapted to become more aware of anything that can increase our chance of survival¹. So is it that we want to understand more about the things that are a danger to us, and knowing more about these situations can give us ideas on how we would survive if these things happened to us? I actually think this is plausible, because in some instances I’ve listened to a story where a woman had been held captive and found a way to escape that I think in my head “I’ll have to remember that if something similar ever happens to me”.
Or, is it because our psychology is generally more empathetic than men? I asked Mr Beauty & the Geek this myself. He agreed, but his response was so interesting that I wanted to share it with you.
“I just hate the idea of listening to something that makes me feel paranoid or sad that someone has suffered something so horrible. Why would you voluntarily hear these stories to feel scared or upset about something like that happening? What if that happens to you? Listening to these stories make it more believable that something like that could happen to you”. (By “you”, he means me).
I’m just a little intrigued by his comment, because while he agrees women might be more obsessed with true crime than men because of our empathetic tendencies, he’s actually acknowledging that he does feel emotions when listening to crime stories, and that maybe it isn’t that women are more ’empathetic’, just that we are more prepared to face those emotions.
Another interesting observation I made relating to this was that he seems much more disturbed by stories of women being murdered than men. So could it just be that men are more reluctant to feel these sorts of emotions like fear and sadness? Both sexes are equally aware that women are the more vulnerable and likely target of horrific crimes, so I think it’s more likely that men don’t like to tap into their emotions of empathy and morality as much as women, rather than not have these feelings at all. What’s your take?
However, the sexes argument aside, what our fascination with true crime stories boils down to is the fact that these cases drawn upon some of our most basic human traits: curiosity, absolution, fear, empathy + morality.
We like to learn and identify wrong from right, but interestingly this can be a grey area in some instances. We sometimes view a crime as something that was acceptable, because it was in response to something else horrible. Or do we? An eye for an eye right? Not always, and true crime stories allow us to explore this concept of whether a crime was justified or not, even though most are not. We can also be drawn to these cases because indulging in them allow us to go on a Freudian adventure where our id can live vicariously (the unconscious, inaccessible part of our personality also can be referred to as our ‘dark side’). Even we who consider ourselves as individuals of moral superiority over criminals have thoughts of violence, lust, greed and anger that are pushed down into the deepest depths of our minds because we deny those parts of ourselves exist. As we like to consider ourselves as righteous people, immersing ourselves in stories of ‘the alien’ reassure our ideas of morality.
Branching on from this is the public desire to see justice prevail, where right will always be the victor over wrong. This is always an interesting concept to discuss, because does it even exist? We could launch into a massive discussion about the criminal justice system but I’m just not going to go there. But we as a society like to see people punished for the wrongdoings they have inflicted on others. True crime stories remind us that on the whole, the justice system basically works. Of course, there are exceptions to this, some instances of which have become absurdly popular in pop culture. This is another great thing about this genre, we get the two sides of the story: one where justice has been achieved, and the other where the justice system has completely failed.
Curiosity & Absolution
A term coined the ‘couch detective’, describes people who are consumed by mysteries and unsolved crime to satisfy their own curiosity. The search for the truth and justice, the fixation on solving a mystery yourself, or coming up with your own reason for why a crime occurred could drive an obsession with true crime (and can be done straight from your own ‘couch’). These stories expose us to the investigative processes, revealing crucial pieces of evidence and raise questions which haven’t yet been answered with certainty. It’s those questions we have an inherent keenness to answer, and in many cases after hearing some stories I’ve gone online and researched the case even more so I can better form my own opinions on what or why a crime occurred. In essence, true crime stories can fuel the human need for certainty. I also think that people become interested in crime stories to try and think about what motivates someone to commit a horrible act, because we cannot fathom doing something like that ourselves. It’s to try and answer the question of what makes us so different to these criminals, that they can think about committing these crimes but we couldn’t? What happened in their lives that has caused their mind to work differently to ours? Such stories allow us to explore these questions. But I think we have to consider ‘curiosity’ differently if you’re obsessed with mystery and unsolved cases rather than a solved murder case with a final result (closure), because there are different things that draw us to each of these categories in different ways.
Fear is an emotion I think we both love and hate. The reason we love to hear true crime stories could be the same reason some people love to watch horror movies. We desire the stimulation of the adrenaline rush from fear. It’s a primal instinct, and one that relates to self-preservation. For example, you listen to a story which involves someone breaking into a window and stealing your baby (think of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh), after that what would one of your first thoughts be? Is my house secure enough to prevent this from happening to me? No? Well, I better put locks on the windows. Or perhaps stories about young children wandering off on family trips and vanishing without a trace allow us to be more aware of our children as a preventative measure. Getting a sense of fear allows us to think of the worst case scenarios and ways to prevent them from happening. Or, this sense of acute fear could then be turned into another feeling: reassurance. We could gawk and be disgusted in things that have happened to someone else to reassure ourselves that we are safe, or identify areas of our lives where we can aim to be ‘safer’. Really, true crime stories are in the end cautionary tales for the paranoid or ‘crime-aware’ person (I don’t think that’s a real term, I just made it up).
I think our fascination with true crime stories isn’t attributed to particularly one reason, rather, it’s a multifaceted and complex obsession we can only try to understand that’s a result of many different factors. It can at times feel wrong and inappropriate for us to be entertained by the suffering some people have inflicted, or to be captivated by unsolved mysteries that have plagued loved ones for their entire lives. It really sounds so wrong when I type that sentence out in words, and I’ll admit I do feel guilty about it. We are putting the real-life tragedies and horrors of others on display for our own entertainment. Yet so many of us relish in this, and although we do feel guilty or sad when listening to these stories, we simply cannot stop being fascinated by them for reasons both known and unknown. No matter what the reason is for true crime stories being the sensation that it is, we must remember that real people suffered in these cases and ultimately, we must be respectful of that.
I suspect my fixation on murder, mystery and crime was the main catalyst from which my passion for forensics was born, and why I worked so hard all my life to become a forensic scientist. For me, it’s about finding and analysing pieces of evidence that can help reconstruct a series of events. It’s also about giving a name to unidentified remains (that’s essentially what my PhD is about – improving ways in which we can identify forensic samples using DNA). In a sense, death and crime have now become a part of who I am. I’ve spent plenty of hours exploring the dark rabbit holes of crime and murder. Reading the faces of criminals in their deadpan mugshots, following criminal trials either in person (do it, it’s a great experience) or through transcripts, interpreting pieces of evidence myself and wandering through the online cellars of information on several crimes. The quest for answers and analysing evidence to reach a conclusion is so heavily engrained into my nature that I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving true crime stories, or my career path for that matter! But if you think you might be bat shit crazy for loving true crime stories, just remember the underlying reason for your obsession is because you are, human.
Next up in this series, I’ll share my top five podcasts that are totally binge-worthy, so keep an eye out if you want to know what true crime podcasts I’ve been obsessed (and not) with lately.
Are you a true crime enthusiast? I’d really hear your take on why you think true crime stories makes you tick, so let me know in the comments below!
1. Vicary, A & Fraley, C. Captured by true crime: Why are women drawn to tales of rape, murder, and serial killers? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010. 1: 81-86.