Society’s Obsession With True Crime

By: Becca Gmerek

The podcast Serial and Netflix’s show Making a Murder are two of the most popular true crime stories.

If you have any sort of social media or use any streaming services (think Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon) then, like me, you’ve probably noticed the revival of the true crime genre. Also like me, you’ve probably fallen victim to this fad. But why? Why are we so fascinated with the horrifying acts committed against and by people just like us? Well, my theory is that these stories of real-life killers are to us what monster movies are to kids. This genre of true crime is the ultimate drama. It’s high stakes because it’s not fiction.

We are drawn to true crime because it provokes our most basic instinct… fear. People are fascinated by horrific acts because we wonder how someone could be so evil and where that comes from. On the other hand, we also wonder whether we ourselves could ever commit such a crime. We get to experience the thrill of fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is real, but not to us.

Since it has been brought into the mainstream, true crime has gone from guilty pleasure to popular culture. Without using Google or searching the topic, how many movies, tv shows, books or podcasts can you think of off the top of your head that fit into this genre? Probably a lot. I can come up with about 10 examples without thinking very hard. Most of them I’ve actually watched or listened to myself.

It is possible that women are to responsible for the evolution of true crime, since the genre is more popular amongst them than men. A majority of content creators in the genre are women, including the creators of the podcast Serial and the series Making A Murderer. All women have felt vulnerable at some point in their lives and having experienced that type of paranoia makes the genre more relatable. Considering many times, the victims of these stories are women, it may remind women that we are not alone in feeling unsafe. Another reason that women attribute to the rising popularity of true crime stories is that they are trying to make sense of the psychology behind such crimes. We watch, listen and read in an attempt to understand why some people grow up to be criminals and others don’t. We want to know why these things happen and if possible, how to avoid them. The podcast Dirty John has firsthand accounts from the victims in which they explain how they were able to escape and fight back. Beyond being entertained, we can learn from these stories. Our curiosity has grown and so has the sense of vulnerability in the world. Thus, the genre has flourished.

In the beginning, the genre was pretty simple. A documentary or book would detail the events that occurred years ago in a dismal, honest fashion. Now that it has become so popular, it’s being glamorized. We are seeing more and more podcasts and films with A-list stars playing serial killers and murderers. There is an upcoming film in which Zac Efron assumes the role of Ted Bundy. The excitement surrounding the film and his casting has focused on how he will finally get to portray a “dark” and “edgy” role… Is that how we describe real life murder? A website aimed towards young women and teens (the exact age group Ted Bundy targeted) wrote; “The latest picture from Zac Efron’s serial killer movie has him smoldering and scheming.” That’s an odd way to describe the kidnappings and murders of over 30 women.

Zac Efron posted this first look of him as Ted Bundy on his Instagram.

After seeing that headline, I began to think about the real people involved in these true stories. Some still alive, some survived by family members. Were we being inconsiderate by exposing every little detail about a horrible time in their lives and finding entertainment in it?

Serial, a podcast downloaded over 80 million times, covered the 1999 murder of an 18-year-old student. The young girl’s family has stated that the podcast had reopened wounds for them. Her brother posted on Reddit, saying, “To you listeners, it’s just another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heart attack when she got the news that the body was found…”

However, some good things did come out of this podcast. The person convicted for the murder was the young girl’s ex-boyfriend. A couple years after Serial’s debut, the boyfriend was given a new trial based on a brand new witness that was presented in the podcast. Because of the resurgence of true crime, this case was revisited and a potentially innocent man get another chance. This has happened with other stories too and shows that there can be a good side to delving into the mysteries behind true crime. By bringing these stories to the public and allowing fresh eyes to look at the story there is that possibility for a new perspective on cases. If a crime is unsolved, perhaps letting some more people look into it will bring new evidence or witnesses and help solve a case even 20 years down the road.

So, are we being insensitive? In short, yes. Will we stop watching, reading and listening to the true crime genre? Probably not. True crime stories are successful and will continue to be successful because they serve as a much needed escape for us.