Why do we love true crime? The phenomenon behind our obsession
Updated: Oct 16
This fascination with true crime extends beyond podcasts. A recent study has shown that more than 50% of Americans enjoy true crime content. That same study found that 35% of Americans consume true crime content (e.g., podcasts, movies, television shows, books, etc.) at least once a week. Another study found an even more staggering number—62% of American adults report being fans of media specifically about serial killers. This same survey found that 76% of American adults consider themselves fans of true crime.
But why are we so obsessed with true crime? Sixty one percent of Americans believe that consuming true crime makes people more empathetic. Sixty three percent of Americans believe true crime helps people understand the criminal legal system better. Seventy two percent of Americans say that they consume true crime media because they believe it makes them more informed about the world. But is any of this true?
Our true crime obsession likely stems from a combined desire for control and for new experiences or stories. Dean Fido, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, has said, “[w]hether it’s good or bad, we need something that creates an element of excitement. When we mix this desire with insight and solving a puzzle, it can give us a short, sharp shock of adrenaline, but in a relatively safe environment.” Other authors and psychologists say it allows us to feel like we are experiencing something dangerous, without actually being in real danger.
A University of Illinois study by Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley found that the true crime genre is overwhelmingly more popular among women. Some women—especially victims of crimes—report that true crime media is a healing experience. Other factors that may lead women to choose true crime over other media include the possibility of learning defense tactics, the fact that victims of the crimes are often female and the psychological content of the media.
Besides the desire for control or novelty, the evil that comes along with true crime stories generally fascinates us as humans. Dr. Marissa Harrison, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State, has also said she believes there may be some evolutionary benefit to people's interest in true crime. According to Dr. Harrison, “[y]ou would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli.”
Dr. Katherine Ramsland of DeSales University says that we also enjoy true crime partially because of the puzzle or mystery-solving aspect of the genre. Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University says, “By following an investigation on TV people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this obsession has impacts on the world outside of its media. Some argue that our true crime obsession positively impacts the legal system—it can encourage advocacy and shine a spotlight on cases involving marginalized individuals. But there is a flip side to this as well: with the increased interest in true crime, juries and lay people may have preconceived notions about crime, justice and those who perpetrate crime.
Additionally, the differences between the courtroom in real life and the way true crime shows, podcasts and other media portray cases may affect juror pools. There is growing concern that this would affect potential jurors’ ability to focus on a case during trial, as the speed and type of information conveyed during a trial may be more boring than that in a true crime documentary. In high-profile cases, it can be almost impossible for prosecutors and defense attorneys to keep tabs on all the media that has been put out about the case. This difficulty in monitoring media coverage may mean that in some cases, potential jurors have been asked during voir dire about their consumption of true crime media.
As we continue to live in the era of the armchair detective and the true-crime obsessed, it is important for those in the criminal legal field to be aware of the growing interest—or obsession—our society has with crime. Though the long-term effects of true crime consumption on our mental health and the criminal legal system have not been fully studied, this newly emerging genre of media is clearly influential on our society and the legal system as a whole.