Why are we obsessed with true crime and what is it doing to our minds?
If you’re a fan of true crime, chances are you’ll be binge-watching the new show Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes this weekend.
But before you devour the docu-series, you might want to consider how consuming hours of disturbing content is affecting you — and why you can’t stop watching it.
“Bingeing true crime is not that much different from people watching a 24-hour news cycle covering a killing spree or a terrorist attack,” said Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.
“I think human beings, in general, are just drawn to extreme cases of violence. And when I say drawn to them, I don’t mean that they watch something and hope to emulate it; there’s just this fascination.”
Why are we obsessed with true crime?
People have always been interested in true crime, but now that the genre is having a moment, public interest has soared.
Lee said that in the past, crime shows like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries was seen as “tabloid television for crime junkies.” Low-budget re-enactments and low production quality made the genre seem less reputable.
But since the birth of NPR’s wildly popular 2014 podcast Serial, the way people view true crime has changed.
“It was a flagship moment for the genre,” Lee said of Serial‘s success. “It sort of signalled to the larger world that you can do [true crime] in a smart way, in a way that conveyed lots of thought, and in a way that was captivating for an audience.”
Since then, with the advent of on-demand TV options, viewers can watch an entire series in one go like Making a Murderer and The Staircase.
But why do we have this fascination with the dark side of humanity? One reason is that we’re curious — especially when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary events.
“A good example would be a car accident,” Lee said. “When you’re driving on the [highway] and see a pile-up and a bunch of wreckage… you have this kind of curiosity as to what happened, even though you know in all likelihood, it’s a really tragic story.”
Another reason? Crime seems exciting — even if it’s dark. The suspense when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, or being shocked by an unexpected turn, are tactics that hold our attention.
“The average viewer or the average reader is somebody who is intensely compelled and curious about what happened because, in a very [basic] way, it’s exciting … and it’s also entertaining,” Lee said. “It’s the same reason why we watch fights or tune into boxing matches.”
People feel like detectives
Plus, Lee said that consuming real-life horror often makes people feel like they’re part of the story. Looking for clues in a murder show or falling down an internet rabbit hole digging into a case gives people a sense of purpose outside of being a consumer.
After Making a Murderer came out, many viewers who believed convicted killer Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were innocent formed support groups and began petitioning for their release.
“Serial and shows like The Jinx empower the audience in some way — even if it’s not really empowering — but they give the illusion of empowerment because people at home are in this position where they feel like they can help crack the case, and are an active part of the investigation,” Lee said.
“People think that they can help overturn a ruling, exonerate a person, or crack a cold case. That’s exciting to people.”
But how does true crime affect our well-being?
Even if you’re a huge fan of the genre, you’ve likely experienced some side effects after watching a show or reading a scary book, like trouble falling asleep or nightmares. Disturbing content, after all, can affect your emotional well-being.
“Everybody is different,” Lee explained. “Any time you’re exposing yourself to extreme violence, you always run the risk of potentially traumatizing yourself. People have to be aware of that, and listen to their body’s reactions to these kinds of series.”
A 2014 study led by researchers at Mount Sinai in New York found that violent movies affect people’s brains differently. The study found that people who are more aggressive were “less upset or nervous than non-aggressive participants” when watching violent content.
This could help explain why some people are more disturbed than others when it comes to true crime.
Still, Lee said many of us have a “visceral reaction to violence,” which is why we are so captivated by the nature of true crime narratives.
“It signals the fight or flight response,” he said. “Your heart rate quickens, [but] you feel compelled to keep watching.”
What about our emotional health?
While we may have a hard time turning away, watching dark shows can also desensitize us, Lee said. He pointed out that over-consuming content that depicts violence — especially against women — runs the risk of normalizing crime.
“We live in a culture that fetishizes sexual assault and murder of women, and these true-crime series are often about that,” he explained.
“It’s this double-edged sword where on one hand, [true-crime shows] raise awareness about a serial killer like Ted Bundy who targeted young women. But on the other hand … when we are so used to consuming these images, when lesser-forms of violence occur, it doesn’t bother us in the same way because we’ve seen the most extreme examples.”
Lee said that some true-crime series also put an emphasis on the criminal, and pay less attention to victims or their families. This can cause people to “romanticize” a killer, for example, and not consider the communities affected by these crimes.
When to tune out
While there’s nothing wrong with watching true-crime shows or reading books on gruesome events, it’s important to know when to stop and take a break. If you’re emotionally feeling unwell or having troubles functioning as usual, you may benefit from a breather.
“Now, you can go really deep into a series and consume seven, eight hours in a row on a topic that has a potentially negative impact on your mental health,” he said.
“People have to understand their own limits, and know that if they’re good after watching an episode or two, then that’s how they should leave it.”
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