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Why is America so obsessed with true crime?

I have a confession: I’m a huge true crime fan. But I’m not alone. Americans love finding out juicy details about a notorious serial killer, charming conman, or skilled group of thieves who pulled off the biggest heist in history. Luckily, there seems to be a new true crime show being released every week to fuel that desire.

The true crime genre, popularized in 1966 by Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood (and Richard Brooks’ masterful 1967 film adaptation) and heavily influenced by Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line, about the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams, has recently become a pop culture phenomenon that has spilled over to other mediums such as television shows and podcasts. If there has been a killer, a heist, a conman, a gang member, or even a gun-wielding, musically inclined exotic animal park owner with a ferocious temper, chances are they have been featured in a docuseries on Hulu or a podcast on Spotify.

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The trend has become so huge that even sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live memorialized it in a hilarious skit called Murder Show. (If you haven’t yet watched it, the sketch is worth checking out.)

Murder Show - SNL

Adweek observed last year that there has been a “dramatic increase” in interest in the true crime genre, with shows like Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, Murder Among the Mormons, and The World’s Biggest Art Heist ranking among the top 10 shows on Netflix at the time, back in April 2021.

Our inherent fascination with the genre inspired the Amazon Prime Video series Only Murders in the Building. It stars Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short as three building residents, all obsessed with the same true crime podcast, who attempt to use the sleuthing skills they believe they possess to solve a murder in their own building.

Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in a scene from Only Murders in the Building.
Craig Blakenhorn / Hulu

Meanwhile, the Netflix docuseries Don’t F**k With Cats about gruesome Canadian killer Luka Magnotta centers around how a group of internet sleuths conducted their own unofficial investigation online after discovering a series of disturbing videos on the dark web that ended up intersecting with the case.

Why does the dark and disturbing entertain us?

With the true crime genre more popular than ever, it has us wondering: Why are we so taken with such a dark and disturbing genre? The answer leans to part escapism, part morbid curiosity. Ironically, while true crime is rooted in fact, watching these terrible tales about events that took place decades or even just a few years ago offers a strange sense of satisfaction that maybe things are and will be OK, because, well, they could be worse. It dates back to Sigmund Freud and the feeling of schadenfreude: Pleasure from other peoples’ suffering. It isn’t always fueled by malicious intent but simply relief that it’s happening to someone else and not us.

Immersing ourselves in such negatively charged content can be problematic. Surely, filling our brains with images of death, destruction, malice, and downright evil acts through stories that some refer to as “trash culture” can’t be good for our psyches. But there’s an upside, too.

Psychotherapist F. Diane Barth wrote about the topic for NBC News and suggests it could be our “pervasive sense of helplessness” that is satiated by watching others speak about the pain they endured. Part of many true crime stories are interviews with people involved in the cases, including law enforcement officers, family members of the victim or victims being profiled, and even surviving victims themselves. They discuss the turmoil they endured and recollect incidents in harrowing detail.

A shot from Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel.

That these stories are rooted in fact can be an alarming realization. But psychotherapist Kathleen Check, who spoke with Barth for her article, posits that watching true crime shows, particularly those about killers, provides viewers with a sense of being able to see inside the mind of a killer, “thus creating a psychological protective barrier.” In other words, understanding how evil people think and operate provides a better chance of knowing how to protect yourself. Or so viewers think.

Science Focus and BBC World Service’s CrowdScience agree, citing evolutionary psychologists who suggest we are drawn to true crime stories to instinctively discover the “who, what, when, and where, learn what makes criminals tick, and better protect ourselves and our kin.”

Does this mean watching a true crime show can be therapeutic? For some people, it might be. There’s solace in accessing emotions and fears that might otherwise have been repressed. For those who have suffered their own trauma, hearing the stories of others who have gone through trauma as well, no matter the nature of it, can oddly function like a type of passive support group — you know you’re not alone.

Maintaining a balance

A scene from Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.

Whatever the motivation for watching true crime shows, realized or subconscious, schadenfreude or simply curiosity, balance is important. Thankfully, many take that advice to heart. We devour episodes of heartwarming shows like Ted Lasso with the same ferocity as Making a Murderer, The Staircase, Night Stalker, and The Confession Killer. To that end, our desire might be to learn about the human condition across the entire spectrum, good and bad, no matter how unbelievably terrifying or heartwarmingly uplifting it can be.

Barth stresses the importance of recognizing your personal limits and setting boundaries to avoid “painful overstimulation.” For me, after watching a particularly gruesome episode or two of a true crime show, I’ll throw on a 20-minute comedy or something else positive before heading to bed. When I lay my head on the pillow, the last images I see shouldn’t be ones that will keep me up at night.

It’s OK to like true crime

I admitted it, and you can too: Americans are obsessed with true crime for reasons beyond “morbid curiosity,” as so many assume. So, don’t hide your love of true crime from others. At its crux, true crime tales are compelling stories that often offer a satisfying resolution in the end. It’s no different than wanting to find out who the killer is at the end of an episode of Law & Order or seeing how devastating events will play out on Yellowstone or even with fictional killers on shows like Dexter: New Blood.

True crime stories make for great watercooler (or online) conversation, too. As the genre continues to gain in popularity, it will be easier than ever to find other fans to have in-depth discussions. Provided the content doesn’t present a false sense of security or, conversely, a heightened level of paranoia, take it for what it is at face value: Entertainment.

Some of these shows, after all, are sensationalized for dramatic effect, sometimes even criticized for seemingly glamorizing killers and other bad guys. Are they based on true stories? Yes. But mostly, they’re designed to evoke emotion and keep you watching, with every episode leaving you wanting more. We’re OK with that.

So keep the revolving door of true crime coming to fuel our obsession, and we’ll keep watching, with a little more understanding about why we love these gruesome stories so much.

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