The Psychology Behind True Crime: Why do we love it so much?

By Mauragh Scott.

When was the last time that you heard about a truly grizzly crime story? For most, I guarantee that you’ve heard of one in the last week. After all, it seems as though they are everywhere nowadays. The point is, crime stories are fascinatingly horrifying. So much so that, often, when we hear an evocative new story, we cannot help ourselves from listening. In the past few years, the popularity of true crime has reached an all-time high. While this could easily be construed as a generally healthy thirst for knowledge or blatant human curiosity, one has to ask where this fascination stems from and what impact can it have?

The emotional reactions we have towards these stories may be the reason why true crime has always been a popular genre within television and literacy. Now more so than ever, media across the world is exploding with true crime documentaries, podcasts and even Hollywood blockbusters detailing a serial killer’s every evil. This popularity raises a series of questions: Why are we so intrigued by the details of something so gruesome? What does this say about the people listening to? What’s driving this obsession, especially now? The answer to some of these may be closer to home than we expect. In fact, research suggests that this fascination for true crime is not all that different from our reactions to natural disasters or car crashes. These are all dramatic stories which take place outside of the normality of our societal expectations. They are shocking and quite often confronting enough to tap into our own adrenaline – all of which serves our need to hear every gruesome detail.

Arguably, our affinity with crime stories is and always has been engrained into our society. The popularity of this subject is extremely evident within popular culture, however, its prominence can be traced throughout history. In particular, we can observe this topic as being a focal point within philosophy. Philosophers and academics alike have always been intrigued by the ethics surrounding the concepts of good and evil and their subsequent effects. Nowadays, a prime example of this intrigue is news outlets. Both new and old media outlets accentuate their most dramatic stories, as they are confident that these stories are the most captivating. This has largely been driven by the increasing amount of information being made available online, with social media providing a pathway into true crime unlike any that we have ever seen before. Generally, it is the case that the entire world could easily know the intimate details of a crime or disaster before it has even been processed by the authorities. This accessibility or our inherent curiosity is likely the cause of the increasing obsession with try crime in the modern-day.

A significant motivation behind our enchantment with true crime is its radical nature. These real-life stories provide people with a glimpse into life outside of the typical social structure that they are accustomed to. Michel Foucault, a renowned philosopher and social critic, builds upon this idea in his book ‘Discipline and Punishment’ in which he attempts to explore the psychology behind this topic in great detail. Within this, Foucault argues that due to the way society is constructed, individuals are always under constant supervision, ensuring they stay within preconditioned social norms. The explicit message is that if we break these social rules, we will be punished (for example, with a fine or a prison sentence) thus, people are coerced into conforming. Foucault asserts that this phenomenon of constant supervision is what fuels people’s intrigue for crime, despite them not necessarily agreeing with it morally, essentially it goes against the core of what it means to be an ‘ideal citizen’ and that sparks interest. Perhaps this appreciation for people who live outside of social norms appeals to us all and this drives us to try and understand those who dare to break these norms with criminality.

There is a paradox in existence with regards to the fans of true crime, in that it tends to be more popular among women, despite it being women that are statistically more likely to be victims of the types of crimes that are frequently discussed. This seemingly contradictory relationship is explained by psychologists as being quite normal. The fact that women are aware of the probability that they themselves could be victims of these crimes, drives their interest in these stories. Social psychologist Amanda Vicary found that this difference has to do with survival, “this fear is leading women, even subconsciously, to be interested in true crime, because they want to learn how to prevent it”. This theory, however, can also relate to men to a certain extent. The fear that we get from watching these stories is what drives us to them. Paradoxically, hearing such stories can comfort our fears and anxieties and even – as Vicary says – help us confront real-life threats.

Police car 3
A police car parked outside with lights on by

It is important to note that there is a dangerous side to this true-crime obsession. The genre itself has received harsh criticisms recently due to concerns that the over-saturation of the true-crime genre could lead to some blurring of moral boundaries. A concern that if this is taken to far, it could lead to de-sensitisation to these horrific stories. The normalisation of these acts is the main concern, however, this is not to say that listening to true crime is immoral. If anything, concern surrounding this should act as a soft reminder to fans of true. A reminder that encourages balance, a recognition of how you view and interact with the world and gently encourages you to remember that despite all of these gruesome stories, there is always a little bit of good in the world.

Ultimately, sharing stories is an integral part of what it means to be human, and this includes true crime. People are drawn to true crime as it allows people to safely explore and understand these darker sides of society and human nature. In addition to this, it helps people maintain moral views and it can serve as a form of self-protection. Overall, enjoying true crime does not mean you are crazy, but in fact… normal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s