Brutal acts of violence and crime have long been paraded in the public eye, even as far back as the 1600s with publishments including ‘the Book of Swindles’. However, in more recent years the genre of true crime has become a global phenomenon. One does not need to dig too deep on Netflix to uncover a plethora of shows catered to the topic. Shows like ‘Don’t F**k With Cats’, ‘Mindhunter’ and ‘West Cork’ explore the ominous details of closed and open cases past and present to feed the hunger people have for experiencing fear from the safety of their own couch. This experience is further fuelled by the wide availability of true crime podcasts so people can listen to the hellish experiences of others on the tram, train, or bike at their own leisure. In spite of all this, the question is repeatedly asked, why do we listen to the harrowing crimes committed that are only made scarier when we remember that they are matters of fact not fiction? Countless theories and reasons have been thrown forward to answer this question. The purpose of this article is to explore some of them.
For its followers, true crime provides a glimpse into the minds of people who commit what many consider to be the most fundamental taboo, and arguably the most fundamental human impulse, murder. It is not simply the act of murder that attracts people to this genre but the enormity of evil that is involved in it. This element of evil, even outside the realm of true crime is a human fascination and its battle with good is the underlining theme behind many of what we consider to be the greatest works of literature. Plays such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and novels such as Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus explore the eternal battle between good and evil while highlighting that evil is capable of influencing the strongest of minds and reasserting that good does not always prevail over it. This tension lures us in and true crime has become the 21st century embodiment of this dynamic which further feeds our fascination. Additionally, it is not only the acts of evil that attracts people to true crime but also trying to comprehend what drove people to commit them. True crime provides an insight into the psychology of killers and their aberrant behaviour which fascinates people as they hear about the paths pursued by those with a twisted perception.
This fascination with evil as source of interest towards crime was further researched by Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. In Jung’s research he explored how evil, as an extent of the dark side of human nature is suppressed in most people. He referred to this suppressed human nature as one’s shadow. Furthermore, Jung argued that healthy-minded individuals will expose themselves to the dark side of their nature so as to acknowledge the evil that resides within their shadow but not act upon it. In addition to this, Jung believed that the shadow could not be rationalized into harmlessness or argued out of existence, it is a living part of human personality that therefore desires to live with it in whatever shape or form it can. From this, Jung theorised that people commit crimes when they fail to acknowledge their shadow and subconsciously carry out its nefarious desires. So how do we as humans indulge our shadow without becoming criminals? The short answer is by taking enjoyment in the misfortunes of others, what is termed schadenfreude. This may seem twisted and you may think you are above it, but I implore you to think of a time you haven’t laughed at a ‘fails’ video on YouTube or seen someone slip on ice and you struggled to stifle your chuckle. This is completely normal human behaviour and can explain why true crime fascinates people.
In more recent years, there has been an interesting development that seeks to explain why people are heavily interested in true crime. Research conducted by Megan Boorsma into studies of true crime concluded that people focus on threats to their own wellbeing in the world around them. Interest in true crime then stems from the belief that in listening to these stories, one will learn how to increase their chances of survival should they find themselves in dangerous situations. Additionally, a study conducted in 2010 by Vicary and Foley concluded that women are more likely to be attracted to true crime books that contained information about killer’s motives and tips on how to defend oneself from an attacker, than men are. The reason for this being that women fear becoming a victim of a crime more so than men. Thus, by learning about murders, who is more likely to be a murderer, how these crimes occurs and victim profiles, people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves. Moreover, research conducted by others in the field of psychology explains people’s interest in true crime as an emerging evolutionary response to pay attention to potential threats so as to better avoid them.
There is no single reason that optimally explains why people are as interested in true crime as is the case in the 21stcentury. The reasons explored in this article are but a few that seek to find order in chaos and account for an interest that varies person to person. I can only speak for myself in saying that my own interests in true crime aligns somewhere on the border between Jung’s theory and Boorsma’s. I believe that true crime offers us a window through which we can observe human nature in a desensitised manner. Moreover, it enables us to reflect on the human condition in its entirety, as Nietzsche said, “when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you”.