I was five years old when I heard my first crime story at a slumber party. It was obviously an urban legend. You know, one of those tales that happened to the friend of a friend of a friend.
As the story went, a little girl hung her hand over the side of her bed every night so that her dog could lick it. It was comforting and helped her go to sleep. One night she performed her bedtime ritual and went off to sleep as usual. Only to find her dog hanging dead with a noose around its neck in the morning.
It still makes my heart race a bit. And obviously, it scared the living daylights out of me when I was five. I couldn’t sleep that night or a few after. And yet at the next slumber party, I still couldn’t help listening to the next scary story.
I bring this up only to point out that we all seem to be innately drawn to tales of the dark side even at a young age. Most experts even see it as natural up to a certain point.
Still, with the plethora of true crime documentaries, books and podcasts that we seem to be devouring at an ever-growing rate, you have to wonder.
Why are we so engrossed with True Crime?
Psychologists, neuroscientists, FBI investigators and true crime writers have all weighed in on the subject. So to unravel this mysterious obsession a bit, here’s a summary of the prevailing theories.
People love roller coasters because they’re thrilling. Your heart rate soars, your breathing steps up and your brain seems to be on fire.
When we get scared, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in as we switch over into fight or flight mode. And as any thrill seeker can tell you, it can be addictive.
It’s not the only answer to our obsession with true crime, but there’s no denying that the rush we get from anything scary is a part of the equation. It seems to be wired into us at a basic primal level.
So ironically, tales of death and disaster make us feel more alive.
We Want to Avoid Becoming a Victim
True crime delves into murders on various levels. The psychology of the perpetrator, how they carried out the crime, and what kind of victims they preyed upon.
One theory behind our fascination is that understanding the how, when and why of a murder may help prevent us from becoming a victim ourselves. If we understand the killer, maybe we can outwit them.
Who hasn’t had the moment in a scary movie when we think about what we would have done in the same situation?
Interestingly, more women than men consume true crime. Which makes sense in the context of this theory as we’re more likely to be the victims of crime.
So beyond the mere rush that a thriller gives us, there’s a more serious side to knowing all the gory details behind a killing: It may actually help us survive.
We Get to Play Detective
Puzzles, any kind of puzzles, stimulate our brain. So whether it’s sudoku, a Rubik’s cube or trying to figure out whodunnit, it can be addictive.
Following a murder investigation puts us in the role of detective. It’s a mystery that challenges us to think and find answers. And like any puzzle, we’re happy when we find the solution. It gives us a sense of closure that we all seem to long for.
It may also, mistakenly or not, help us feel more in control.
It’s Comforting Not to be the Victim
This theory may seem contradictory at first considering how grizzly some of these crimes are. But most of us will admit that when you hear a bad piece of news, we often think, “Phew, thank god it wasn’t me.”
So as scary as the details about a killing may be, we actually find comfort in the fact that we’re NOT the victim. It gives us a sense of relief to know if something bad had to happen, at least it wasn’t us.
Innately egotistical, but also maybe true?
It’s Feel Good Not to Be a Killer
True Crime not only allows us to feel empathy for the victim but also the killer.
Seeing someone succumb to their darkest urges can actually make you feel sorry for them. It also brings with it a sense of relief that no matter how angry we ourselves might become, we never act on our violent impulses.
Again, it’s another form of “thank god, it wasn’t me” relief.
They Serve as a Morality Tale
Bestselling crime writer-author Amber Hunt (“Dead But Not Forgotten”, “All American Murder”) believes that any given person is just one bad decision away from destroying their lives and those of other people.
According to Ms. Hunt, true crime stories resonate with us because they serve, “as a catharsis when frustration has us inching toward that unspeakable direction, while also providing a grim reminder of why we can’t let those darkest of thoughts win.”
It Confirms our World View
Tales of good versus evil have been around since man started telling stories around a fire. In true crime stories, it’s easy to identify both the good guys and the bad guys.
And despite the horrific deeds the perpetrators commit, the crimes are usually solved.
This confirms our view that mysteries have answers, that our sometimes imperfect justice system basically works, and that good usually triumphs over evil.
And in a crazy world, maybe that’s something we all need to believe to get through life.
Part of the reason we watch so much true crime is that there’s so much of it out there. The media is wise to the fact that we are both fascinated and afraid of violent crime and they’ve made an entire business out of it.
True crime stories literally seem to be coming at us from every angle—TV, movies, books and podcasts. Part of the reason we’re addicted is that we have an endless supply of true crime to draw from. And so the (literally) vicious circle never ends.
We’re Just Wired That Way
Theorists on this subject also like to point out that we’re fascinated by true crime because we are innately captivated by death and disaster, like the feeling of not being able to look away from a trainwreck or car accident.
It’s just the way we are. Hmmm.
It’s a Chance to Indulge our Own Dark Side
We may not always like to admit it, but everyone has a dark side. Somewhere deep inside us lurk those violent urges that civilization teaches us to repress.
As one theory goes, true crime allows us to vent those urges by putting ourselves in the shoes of the offender from a safe distance. And perhaps keep our own inner monster at bay?
This is something to ponder.
Well, detectives, I leave it with you. Do these theories provide a satisfying explanation for your true crime obsession?
Some seem relevant to me. Others feel less convincing. But everyone is different.
Perhaps, at the heart of this fascination, it is a mystery we just can’t explain.
Now excuse me while I go watch a Disney flick. After all this pondering on the dark side, I need a comfort movie.
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