My obsession with true crime began a few years back when I was working as a federal background investigator. I was logging about 500 miles a week in my car and working my own cases when I stumbled across the first season of “Serial,” a podcast that explored a high-school murder case from 1999.
As I navigated through Colorado’s mountain highways en route to conduct (mostly) ho-hum casework of my own, the show’s host presented me with a much more interesting case that I consumed with fervor. A high schooler was murdered and her ex-boyfriend was serving a life sentence, and I, as a listener, was tasked with evaluating the scant evidence and sketchy alibis the show’s host was presenting me. Did Adnan Syed do it or was he wrongfully convicted?
After I gobbled up “Serial,” I began looking for my next fix in the form of true-crime podcasts, Netflix documentaries and Reddit discussion forums. And I’m not alone. The true-crime genre has exploded in popularity, as both my Netflix menu and experts I interviewed for this article confirm.
Our Curiosity Is Normal
Each time I turn on a true-crime podcast about murder or kidnapping or rape, I feel more than a twinge of guilt. Why is the worst day of someone else’s life being packaged as entertainment for the masses? And why am I entertained in this manner when I pride myself on being a generally empathetic person?
Chalk it up to schadenfreude, which, defined, is pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune, say experts.
“It is normal, healthy, and often adaptive to be curious and interested in true crime,” Dr. Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch explains.
It May Help Us Feel Prepared
True crimes introduce us to “worst-case scenarios,” sharing a variety of ways that people can be victimized. These scenarios, psychologists say, allow us to unconsciously rehearse “What would I do in this situation?” or “How would I feel if I were part of this story?”
Research has shown that women read, listen and watch true crime more than men.
“This may be because women are statistically more victimized,” Dorfman says, noting that watching crime shows can, in a way, help women stay safe. “Exposure to such scenarios help women prepare themselves, learn ways of self-defense or self-protection.”
True crime is gripping because the cases involve everyday people — those who could be a neighbor or a family member, explains John Alleva, Court TV vice president and managing editor of field operations. There’s a mystery surrounding homicides, he says. What causes a layperson to get involved in a crime? Was there a love triangle? Was it an act of self-defense?
“People want to know: How did the defendant end up in the courtroom?” Alleva says. Given our national fascination with true crime, the climate certainly was right for Court TV’s return to TV this year. While many courtrooms are open to the public, the network allows us to tune into a live case from the comfort of home.
We Identify With Both The Victim And The Perpetrator
We’re going to get a little dark here. But everyone has some sadistic and masochistic drives and fascination, explains Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“There is pleasure and titillation in observing violent crime, knowing it is real, but from the safety of your living room,” she explains. “People identify with both the victim and the perpetrator, enjoying being powerful, destructive, but also being preyed upon and hurt.”
This is all fantasy, though, Saltz explains, and does not mean that in reality you’d want to experience being a perpetrator or victim. Tuning into a true-crime podcast or TV show feels exciting, yet is safe, she says.
We’re Fascinated With Taboo Topics
Simply put, humans have aggressive impulses, Dorfman says. We have fantasies of acting on forbidden impulses, hurting or in the most extreme cases, killing one another.
“We are socialized to mitigate these impulses so that we may live within society,” Dorfman explains. “However, we are drawn to stories which demonstrate another’s inability to control their innate impulses — the urges that we work hard to control, manage or repress.”
Storytelling Intrigues Us
As humans, we’re hard-wired to enjoy storytelling.
“We’ve interacted with stories of all kinds since the beginning of time,” Minneapolis psychotherapist Justine Mastin, LMFT, says. “Oral tradition and cave drawings are about both triumphs and defeats as a way for the next generation to learn from those who came before. It is natural to want to engage with narratives, even, and I would say especially, when those stories are dark.”
Humans are especially intrigued by stories that allow us to ask “what if?” How would I behave if I were a player in this true-crime narrative? How can this story help me make sense of my life?
“We take comfort in believing that we would do better were we faced with the same circumstances and that provides comfort,” she says.
It Allows Us To Control Our Fear
True crime stories allow us to experience frightening emotions without truly embodying them, and that creates safety, Mastin says.
“Even though I’m experiencing this, I can stop experiencing it at any time,” she explains. It’s the same sort of feeling that draws us to horror movies, haunted houses and telling scary stories around the campfire.
We Like To Play Detective
As we follow the true-crime narrative, we have a chance to try and solve the case. We collect our own clues and create our own suspect list.
“There is an aspect of excitement to see whether we ‘won’ and correctly solved the case, again knowing that there is no true harm if we have not solved it correctly,” Mastin says.
Is Watching True Crime Good Or Bad For Us?
Just like other forms of entertainment, enjoying true crime is all about balance. If true crime is the only genre you’re watching, listening to and reading, while excluding other media, then the pattern could have a detrimental impact on you. In that case, you’d be inundated with a particularly dark side of the human condition, Mastin says.
“While it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about, witnessing death as entertainment is nothing new,” Mastin explains, referencing ancient Greece, where violence was at the crux of theater and sport. “Thankfully our interest now is less blood-thirsty and more ‘mind-thirsty’ for knowledge and understanding.”
After all, craving knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our surrounding world is a normal human desire, she explains. True crime viewers can benefit from being more aware of potential dangers around them. But, if true crime does become distressing, or begins impacting your everyday life, it might be time to step away from the genre.
Do you enjoy true crime? If so, what shows or podcasts have drawn you in?