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What’s the Psychology Behind Our True Crime Obsessions?

What’s the Psychology Behind Our True Crime Obsessions?

To say that people are obsessed with true crime these days is quite the understatement. Between the podcasts (e.g., My Favorite Murder) and the movies (e.g., Zodiac) and the documentaries (e.g., Don’t F*$! with Cats) and the full-on crime-focused television networks (we’re looking at you, Investigation Discovery), the pop culture obsession with stories of gruesome, real-life crimes is at an all-time high. Of course, that popularity comes with a number of questions and criticisms—for example, isn’t this whole fascination with true crime pretty unethical, and why do women statistically consume more true crime content than men? Of all the conundrums around this morbid fascination, though, one of the greatest by far is this: why do we get so consumed by true crime in the first place?

According to psychologists and criminology experts, there are actually quite a few things that might account for our rampant obsession with true crime. At a very basic level, it could just come down to a kind of curiosity that’s not all that different from rubbernecking on the highway during an accident. “Humans are naturally curious,” says behavioral specialist consultant Tiiu Lutter. “We have a hard time not gaping at an accident, for example, or police activity. It’s not because we wish bad things for others; it’s just because we can’t help ourselves.” To that end, Lutter notes that true crime stories allow us to indulge our natural human curiosity—we can “stop, stare, gape, and wonder”—from the privacy of our own homes without any social consequences. It’s also an opportunity to fulfill the human curiosity around why people behave the way that they do—especially when those behaviors are outliers as far as what is considered normal or morally acceptable in society. In that sense, true crime content allows viewers (or readers, or listeners) to consume content that might try to solve for psychopathic or sociopathic behavior by looking at what triggered criminals’ violent behavior.

In a similar vein, true crime fuels people’s general desire to feel fear in a safe, controlled environment. “Watching true crime shows about murder allows us to feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with being scared, all while knowing that we are in the safety and comfort of our own homes,” says psychologist Erica Rojas, Ph.D. “Similar predispositions underlie our desire to watch scary movies. We enjoy the thrill associated with such, but only to the extent that it doesn’t jeopardize our physical safety.”

Another factor that Rojas notes is pretty common as a driver of true crime fascination is one that has been circulated a lot as a hypothesis amongst experts: it helps people feel prepared. “Watching true crime shows allows people to gain a better understanding of what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation,” she says. “For example, learning about the tendency for serial killers to ‘stalk’ their victims beforehand can educate people on how to become aware of signs that they are being watched or followed. Watching these television shows can also act as a dress rehearsal for most people. It challenges individuals to develop scenarios to protect themselves and can mentally prepare us for dangerous situations.” Rojas notes that, in a way, understanding the mind of an offender makes us feel like we can prevent ourselves from being the next victim, to an extent. This is a theory that is also referenced most commonly when trying to explain why women are the biggest consumers of true crime content—i.e., they feel the most vulnerable when it comes to a lot of violent crimes, so they feel the most inclined to understand what has put others at risk in the past so that they can avoid the same fate.

That said, there’s also a school of thought that challenges this notion by suggesting that it might be a little too simplistic and practical in its positioning of women (or true crime consumers at large) as being driven by little more than an interest of self-preservation. This is something that journalist Rachel Monroe tackles in her book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, for example. Upon attending CrimeCon—which is exactly what it sounds like (i.e., an immersive ComicCon-like event dedicated to all things true crime)—as part of her investigation into the drivers behind our cultural fascination with crime, Monroe comes to the conclusion that a lot of the common explanations for true crime obsession—e.g., those that dismiss it as “trashy and voyeuristic,” or that call it a part of a grand preparedness plan to avoid becoming a victim—don’t account for one important variable: women might genuinely like this stuff. She writes: “By presuming that women’s dark thoughts were merely pragmatic, those thoughts are drained of their menace. True crime wasn’t something we women at CrimeCon were consuming begrudgingly, for our own good. We found pleasure in these bleak accounts of kidnappings and assaults and torture chambers.” To that end, Monroe puts a different, darker hypothesis on the table to describe true crime obsession: “Perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” And while Monroe’s theory is very much focused on the female fascination with true crime, it can certainly apply as a possible blanket theory for true crime fanatics at large.

Ultimately, a look at the various theories out there regarding true crime fascination make it clear that a single, conclusive explanation for the year-after-year boom in our collective interest doesn’t really exist. Rather, there’s a whole host of things that might be at the root of our inability to resist a binge of Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez or the like.

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