Sitting in front of my TV, Netflix recommends yet another true crime documentary about another “celebrity monster.” My eyes widen and my hands automatically go to press the play button, I recline in my seat and sit there without blinking, making sure I don’t miss a single detail. I sit there for hours, absorbing every little detail the documentary throws at me, the hours go by and the show is over. On another day I’ll do it again. Sometimes the case gets solved and sometimes it is left a mystery, but either way, I keep coming back.
True crime shows and documentaries have always been popular, and with Netflix coming out with their own shows from Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes to The disappearance of Madeleine McCann and even To Catch a Killer, true crime is especially in the limelight right now. These shows all bring us into the world of disturbing and shocking crimes, but why do we watch?
These types of shows are very distinctive. You are able to figure out who is the “bad guy” and who is the “good guy.” Since this is super obvious to the audience, it makes the story much more interesting because they pay attention to detail more than a fictional plot with twists. There isn’t any underlying secret twist to the person as if they were a fictional character someone created for the sake of a plot. True crime shows and podcasts very clearly state details and specifics but still create a mystery that will slowly unfold as you watch and listen.
This obsession with true crime isn’t new. It dates back as far as to the 1800s and penny dreadfuls. These were a widely popular form of literature. Cheap and often poorly written, they sometimes told stories based on real life criminals and included graphic details. At other times they depicted fictional tales or even stories about vampires and monsters. They became popular as crime rates grew and the public became familiar with macabre details from crimes reported in newspapers. The public was fascinated and it became the beginning of true crime.
Another spike in popularity for the true crime genre was in the seventies when the media was filled with reports of serial killers. The surge of serial killers in the seventies and eighties was a result of many factors. Serial killers had more opportunities to kill and go undetected back then as forensic science–and especially the use of DNA evidence–wasn’t as advanced as today. Also, there were many copycat killers as well because of the media reporting every detail of the story that they could. The media’s attention to the killings only made more popularity in the stories because these killers were seen as attractive and the concept of a serial killer was still new to law enforcement. There was also the common question, “What makes a person do such gruesome things?” People’s natural curiosity was fueling the popularity. It was a commonly talked about subject among the public, who loved to speculate and discuss clues and motivations. That remains true today.
Many true crime podcasts and shows have cult followings. For example, the Netflix series Making a Murderer follows the story of Steven Avery, a man arrested then convicted for a murder the show claims he never did. The series had such a huge following that there was a petition to have him released. Another fan favourite is Serial, a podcast in its third season now following the story of Adnan Syed, charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, even though he says he has no involvement in the murder.
Paul S. Leighton, a professor on criminology and sociology from Eastern Michigan University, says, “People like true crime because you can explore something terrible and not feel compelled to do anything about it.” Watching it on TV or listening to a podcast about true crime, we are able to learn about acts that most of us will never encounter, and while they may inspire strong feelings in us, we are able to stay on the sidelines, not getting actually involved and simply following the small details about a case and feeling like detectives. We feel like we can solve the cases ourselves and see things that even the authorities have missed. And if we consume enough of the genre, it creates a sense of justice being served.
The acts depicted in these cases are often violent and disturbing. They are so far outside of our normal frame of reference that it inspires wonder. What could drive a person to that? So do we watch and learn about these terrifying things just because we are curious? Or does it also tell us something about what we think of the world we live in? Or is it merely a by-product of a media-intense world were the details of crimes are always at our fingertips? M. William Phelps an, investigative journalist, author and creator of Dark Minds said, “we’re a society consumed with and infatuated with bad news. We cannot escape it today. It’s everywhere.”