NCIS, Law & Order SVU, Bones, Making a Murderer, the entire Investigation Discovery channel. What do all of these have in common? Crime. Murder. Death. And this is only television shows. Why are we so obsessed with true crime? What part of all this depravity sparks such intense fascination for millions of people around the world? And is this dark obsession healthy?
To begin to answer these questions, we need to understand what exactly falls under the true crime umbrella. True Crime is a genre of media that covers, well, crime. Anything that’s considered illegal and follows a case-study format. If you’re discussing the details of a crime, you’re talking true crime. If you search the True Crime genre on Spotify, you’ll find thousands of podcasts on the subject of murder, cold cases and the judicial system. As stated previously, there exists a whole TV channel dedicated to analyzing murder mysteries (and Ancient Aliens, of course), and every major broadcast network worth their salt has produced a true crime procedural. We’ve even written songs about it! It’s very clear that this fascination runs deep, but what does this mean about us and the culture we’ve created around it?
Part of this interest might have to do with its inherently taboo nature. Normal people don’t talk about murder, death and criminal activity. It’s not an acceptable dinner conversation topic in most households, thus our increased interest. The advent of the internet and the explosion of media in the last century has provided us with a whole host of new outlets to view and discuss this once-forbidden topic, making it both accessible and increasingly tempting.
It may also have to do with our human interest in puzzles and problem-solving. We love mysteries because we want to figure them out, and we want to understand. Listening to hours upon hours of cold cases and unserved justice gets our gears turning, and this has had shockingly positive, and negative, impacts on our society. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries and podcasts like Up and Vanished have helped provide information, explained the evidence, and kept cold cases alive long enough for key witnesses and crucial evidence to turn up, helping to solve hundreds of cold cases that might have otherwise been forgotten. And it’s great that they were able to bring justice for these lost souls, but it isn’t always so great for their families, who sometimes feel burdened by unsolicited advice and insignificant evidence from strangers turning up every day to remind them of their lost loved one. The attention these publications have brought on these cases can oftentimes open old wounds and can make grieving and moving forward incredibly difficult for them, especially when they didn’t ask for it and cannot stop it. Just something to keep in mind the next time you press play.
The real concern, however, is whether or not these productions are normalizing the concept of violent crime. Does seeing and hearing stories of assault and death on a regular basis (in the news, in our entertainment, etc.) make it seem less shocking and tragic in our minds? According to Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, the answer is yes, especially in regards to violence against women.
“It’s this double-edged sword where on one hand, [true-crime shows] raise awareness about a serial killer like Ted Bundy who targeted young women. But on the other hand … when we are so used to consuming these images, when lesser-forms of violence occur, it doesn’t bother us in the same way because we’ve seen the most extreme examples.”
In conclusion, this article is not meant to shame or discourage people from enjoying the true crime genre. Rather, it’s purpose is to remind people that these stories are not fiction, but fact, and that there are real people behind them, both victims and perpetrators. True crime harkens to the most human parts of us, our feelings of security and our need to connect with the world around us. Listening to these podcasts and watching reenactments on TV allows us to place ourselves into the narrative, but it’s important to know your own limits and not overstimulate ourselves with adrenaline-inducing content. Respect your own boundaries, and above all, respect the boundaries of those involved. It’s one thing to help someone deliver justice, but it’s a whole nother thing to dehumanize the situation and disrespect the wishes of those involved.
Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.