Why Are We Obsessed With True Crime?

By Caylin Harris
21 Oct 2019
Jess Ann Kirby discusses why we love true crime and how our obsession with such disturbing stories came to be.
Photo by Lukas Neasi on Unsplash.

Many of us are familiar with that prickle of fear that works its way up your spine while your deep into a true crime podcast or TV show, but have you ever wondered why you can’t stop watching or listening? The subject matter is macabre to say the least. So why the hell are we so obsessed? Turns out there’s a lot here to unpack. Contributor, Caylin Harris, spoke with Rachel Monroe, a contributor to The Atlantic and author of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession to answer some of our most pressing questions.

Caylin: Tell me about your book and how you got interested in exploring true crime.

Rachel: The book really started out with my own curiosity. I had this fascination with this genre that perplexed me a little bit. I found true crime, to be honest, I don’t know if soothing is the right word, but at times of stress and turmoil in my life, it was something that I found myself drawn to, and I didn’t quite get how that worked. Why, when there was turmoil or trouble in my own life was I drawn to stories about terrible things that happened to other people? Most of the accounts I could find kind of shied away from this acknowledgment of pleasure. It’s an uncomfortable pleasure, but surely this genre didn’t get to be so huge because everybody was reading these stories because they hope to learn how to avoid serial killers, which is one of the predominant explanations. So rather than thinking about myself and my own weird brain, it would be useful and instructive to look at a number of other women who had this shared fascination that was more extreme than my own.

C: I think humans, in general, have always had a fascination with murder and violence but how do you think it has evolved?

R: So much of the story of the evolution of true crime is tied up in the evolution of technology. So as technology changes, how the stories get told and who they’re told to shifts and evolves. One of the most interesting things that have happened, since the 90s, is that it has become such a feminized genre. Of course, there were always women who were interested in crime stories, but it’s now considered a primarily female genre created for women and consumed by women.

“I think—in the way that children use fairy tales to work through/play around with their fears about their own vulnerability— true crime functions in a similar way. It allows us to be in that space that acknowledges women’s vulnerability but it often follows a format that’s reassuring.”

C: while you were talking to different women about why they’re drawn to true crime, what were some of the psychological reasons behind why they watch?

R: I think why it’s particularly appealing to women at this moment is that we—if you’re socialized as a girl in this culture—end up observing so many conflicting messages about your vulnerability and how you’re supposed to be in the world. What’s a safe way to be, who’s a safe person, how you’re supposed to take care of yourself, do this and don’t do that, and this is what happens to girls who don’t follow the rules. It’s a lot to absorb and if you grew up watching TV, you end up seeing so many young women, usually young, attractive white women in peril in some way. I think—in the way that children use fairy tales to work through/play around with their fears about their own vulnerability— true crime functions in a similar way. It allows us to be in that space that acknowledges women’s vulnerability but it often follows a format that’s reassuring. In standard pop culture true crime, there’s usually a bad guy that gets caught and order is restored to the world. There’s this mix of vulnerability and privilege that’s pretty crucial to being drawn to these stories. You have to be aware of your own vulnerability to find them interesting. But I think you have to have a little bit of privilege in order to feel distant enough.

C: Do you think the current political climate has anything to do with why we’re immersing ourselves in it?

R: I think that’s certainly a thing that people do, right? You rehearse your anxieties in a way that makes you feel somehow protected from them. So…I’m frightened in some way, so I need media that acknowledges that but then displaces it. It reduces it down to—if we just catch this bad guy, then everything is okay and justice is served. That’s just such a soothing story versus if you’re wading into politics now there are so many huge layers to everything that’s wrong. I mean how structurally embedded it is in every institution and it’s just too much. 

C: Since it’s true crime and these are real people with real families, what’s the most respectful way to engage with these stories? 

R: Start there, with just constantly reminding yourself that this happened to someone. When I’m writing something as a journalist, I’m always imagining that the person’s mom or brother or whoever is reading it and thinking about how would this feel to them. And that’s not to say that the responsibility is to only write something that would please them, because sometimes there are things that are complicated or messy; if you’re telling a true story you have to acknowledge that. But just trying to imagine them reading it is a good check on your impulse. It’s so easy as a writer or as a person creating content to be distracted by a good story. And you can’t ever know how it feels for them, so don’t disengage from that question, as uncomfortable as it can be to sit with, because it’s a good way to try to proceed.

C: Is there anything you learned about the genre in general or anything interesting you found out during your research that I haven’t touched on?

R: Two points that I try to bring up as often as possible because they often contradict the assumptions people get if they’re casual media viewers, is that the violent crime rate now is about half of what it was in the 90s, at its peak. So we’re inundated with so many stories of scary things, but the world is very different now. I think we just have to remember that if we’re thinking about true crime as true, that’s one thing to acknowledge and also that the vast majority of murder victims are men and actually only 25 percent of homicides in the US are a man murdering a woman, which is, if you’re watching TV, that’s like all you see, right?

C: Wow. That’s really disproportionate.

R: Yeah, for better or for worse, it just gives us this distorted sense of the world and that’s not to minimize the real harm that is done to women all the time. Of course, so many of the women who are victims of crimes don’t look like the victims that we see on TV, so just I think that’s a really important thing for us as an audience members to keep in mind. Be a conscious consumer. 

“…there’s this idea, which has a lot of implicit racism in it, that certain victims didn’t deserve it and the second part goes unsaid, but it’s that certain people must have in some way. Those are the questions that I think a lot of mainstream true crime would rather not wrestle with, so they present really simplified stories that I think do a disservice to all of us.”

C: aren’t the statistics that a large percentage of people that are murdered are killed by a partner or someone they know?  

R: Definitely. Particularly for women it’s almost always a family member or a partner. If protecting the victims of serial killers was a number one issue for you, what you need to do is to advocate for housing for homeless people, for legal protections for sex workers, and care for drug addicts because they’re all often victims. That’s what really makes you vulnerable to be killed by anybody and particularly a serial killer—but that’s not usually the takeaway from these stories.

C: Why do you think we glom onto this very specific story type and victimology? Why would you want to make people more afraid of something that really doesn’t have a likelihood of happening?

R: I understand it from the point of view of people making this stuff because I think that stoking those fears gets people to tune in, but I also think we have (in our society) a real problem with this attachment to this damaging idea of the innocent victim. This phrase has really come to rub me the wrong way, the idea that the only victims we care about or give legal protections or restitution to, are this mythical idea of the innocent victims. I think that’s gotten a little bit better in recent years, especially in regards to discussions about sexual assault and sexual violence, but still there’s this idea, which has a lot of implicit racism in it, that certain victims didn’t deserve it and the second part goes unsaid, but it’s that certain people must have in some way. Those are the questions that I think a lot of mainstream true crime would rather not wrestle with and so they present these really simplified stories that I think do a disservice to all of us. 

C: so essentially, there’s a responsibility on the end of the consumer to have that awareness of what they’re watching and being critical of it in a more complex way than just the story and the details?

R: Yeah, not just the juiciness or the sensation of it. That’s what I ended up realizing about myself. Sometimes I would go into, not quite a trance, but the feeling of staying up really late and binge-watching something where my brain was only half awake and lulled into this state that these stories could get it to. I ended up really not liking that feeling and I can’t stay away from this language of appetite, but just shoving something down your throat, looking for sustenance, not getting it, but just wanting more and more and more and I ended up really looking for the wrong solution to a real problem. So yeah, that’s where I’m at now if I find myself entering that trance state, really asking myself, okay, what’s going on here and taking a more active role. 

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  1. Samantha E wrote:

    Outstanding piece! I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of my true crime addiction lately, trying to square my fascination with it with the fact that it sometimes gives me the icks, particularly when it involves violence toward women.

    A suggestion for anyone who feels the same: I’ve been trying to mix in more nonviolent true crime lately. Art heists, jewel theft, etc. are often fascinating and far less emotionally taxing.

    10.21.19 | Reply
    • Caylin Harris wrote:

      Thanks so much for reading Samantha, that’s an amazing suggestion! xx

      11.8.19 | Reply

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