Why Read True Crime Books
Everywhere you go these days, there seems to be a new—and hugely successful—crime-themed book, podcast, or show. Investigation Discovery, which has been a ratings winner since its launch in 2008, is still at the top (and even throws its own true crime convention, IDCon). True crime podcasts abound, ranging from Serial and Dr. Death to In the Dark and Atlanta Monster. The genre is so popular that Netflix created a spoof true crime series, which includes The Keepers, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and many others (American Vandal). Which begs the question: why are true crime shows so popular? Here's what experts have to say about it.
Reasons why you should read true crime books
1. Because it's normal to have a true crime obsession (to a point).
First and foremost, there's nothing strange about having a true crime obsession. Dr. Michael Mantell, the former top psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, told NPR in 2009, "It says that we're normal and healthy." "I believe our fascination with crime serves a variety of psychologically good functions." There are, of course, limitations: "I'd be concerned if all you do is read about crime and... talk about it, and you have posters of it and newspaper story clippings in your desk drawer," he said.
2. We are fascinated by wickedness.
True crime films allow viewers to peer into the brains of those who have committed murder, which forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi describes as "a very fundamental taboo and also, maybe, a most fundamental human impulse." "There is an evaluation to be made regarding the degree of evil involved in every situation," he writes. According to Mantell, the attraction with good vs evil has always existed; Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told AHC Health News that our fascination with good versus evil begins when we're young. We've always been fascinated with the conflict between good and evil, and real crime exemplifies that interest.
We want to know what compelled these people to commit such a heinous deed, and what makes them tick, because we'd never do such a thing. "We want some insight into the psychology of a killer," Lost Girls author Caitlin Rother told Hopes & Fears, "partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves, but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the numerous courses that skewed views can take."
3. Because of the new 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule
Even if we've been attracted by crime since the dawn of time, the media is most likely to blame for the current real crime craze. "We've been assaulted... in the media with descriptions of crime stories since the 1950s," Mantell said, "and it probably came to fruition in the 1970s." "Our fascination with crime is matched only by our aversion to it." "The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads," he said afterwards. And most television news today [deals] with crime, particularly personal crime and murder, approximately 25 to 30 percent of the time. Predatory violent acts against humans are at the top of the list."
4. Because we can't take our eyes off a "trainwreck"
"Serial killers entice people in the same way that traffic accidents, train catastrophes, or natural calamities entice people." "TIME published an article by Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers. "The public's interest with them might be viewed as an expression of a broader obsession with violence and disaster. In other words, while a serial killer's deeds are horrifying to witness, a large portion of the audience is unable to look away owing to the spectacle."
Indeed, as real crime writer Harold Schechter stated to Hopes & Fears, the perpetrators of these crimes may play an important society role. "Various scholars, including Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, have promoted the view that crime is inseparable from civilization—not an aberration but a fundamental and even necessary component of our life," he stated. "If such theories are true (and they have a lot going for them), then criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what crimes they've committed and how they've been punished—which is to say, the public really needs and wants to hear the whole shocking story."
5. Reading true crime makes us feel more prepared.
Studies of genuine crime have revealed that people prefer to focus on risks to their personal safety, according to Megan Boorsma in Elon Law Review [PDF]. Others have observed that women, in particular, tend to enjoy true crime, which psychologists say is due to the fact that they are learning how to improve their odds of survival if they find themselves in a perilous scenario.
Women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker; they were more likely to be interested in books that contained information about a killer's motives than men; and they were more likely to choose books with female victims, according to a study published in 2010. "Our findings that women were drawn to stories with fitness-related information make sense in light of research that shows women fear becoming victims of crime more than men," the researchers concluded; "the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime." "By knowing about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about strategies to prevent becoming a victim themselves," Amanda Vicary, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post.
Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told DECIDER that watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes "may be like a dress rehearsal."
Men are four times more likely than women to be homicide victims, according to crime author Megan Abbott, while women account for 70% of intimate partner homicide victims. "I've come to believe that what drives women to true crime stories is a gut feeling that this is the society they live in," she says "The Los Angeles Times published an article by Abbot. "And it is in these works that their worries and challenges are handled very seriously."
6. Because there could be an advantage to evolution
Dr. Marissa Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, told Hopes & Fears that true crime appeals to people because we've evolved to pay attention to things that could hurt us in order to better prevent them. "You'd pay attention to, and be interested in, the awful," she explained, "since in the ancestral environment, individuals who 'tuned in' to horrific occurrences left more descendants, logically because they were able to avoid detrimental stimuli."
7. We're relieved we're not the victims in true crime books
According to psychologists, one of the main reasons we're captivated with actual crime is that it allows us to feel relieved that we aren't the victims. At ID's IDCon in 2017, Tamron Hall, host of ID's Deadline: Crime, acknowledged that sensation of relief. "I believe that everyone who watches our shows thinks to themselves, 'But for the grace of God, this could happen to me...' "Anyone we know could be affected," she warned.
Packer told DECIDER that something akin to schadenfreude—getting pleasure from other people's misfortune—is a huge part of our true crime fascination. "It's not necessarily sadistic," she explained, "but if poor faith had to fall on someone, it should have been on someone else." "It's reassuring to learn that it happened to someone else rather than yourself."
8. We're thankful we're not the ones who did it.
Watching true crime, on the other hand, encourages viewers to experience empathy, according to Mantell: "It allows us to feel our sympathy, not only for the victim, but sometimes for the culprit."
"We all get upset at people, and many people say things like 'I could kill them,' but happily, nearly no one does," Packer added. "But then you watch it on screen and think, 'Oh, someone had to kill someone, thank God it wasn't me.' We didn't act on whatever forms of hostility and emotions we had; someone else did."
9. True crime offers us a burst of adrenaline
"People... get a rush of adrenaline as a reward for watching heinous acts," Bonn writes. "Think of a thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster until he or she gets physically ill if you deny the addictive power of adrenaline. True crime has a euphoric effect on human emotions similar to roller coasters or natural calamities."
10. Because we're attempting to figure out what's going on in true crime books.
People enjoy puzzles, and true crime shows and podcasts stimulate our minds. "People can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out 'whodunit' before law enforcement agencies catch the actual criminal" by watching an investigation on TV, Bonn writes.
"Most genuine crimes on TV and in literature are provided as a riddle that people desire to solve," Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told Hopes & Fears. That riddle is a mental challenge, and solving it brings satisfaction.
11. We're afraid... but only in a controlled way.
"[True crime] allows us to feel dread and horror in a controlled context where the threat is exciting but not genuine," argues Bonn. "For example, true crime stories are frequently for adults what monster movies are for kids." The BBC quoted Schechter as saying that serial murderer stories are "fairytales for grownups." There's something in our mind that makes us want to invent stories about monsters chasing us."
According to A.J. Marsden, associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, our fascination with what inspires violent acts stems from fear; real crime allows viewers to "dig into the darkest side of humanity, albeit from the comfort of the couch."
12. Because the story in true crime books is enjoyable and reassuring.
When you ask the hosts of Investigation Discovery why people love true crime, the majority of them will say it's because of the storyline. In 2017, Lt. Joe Kenda, retired detective and presenter of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss, "For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, 'Tell me a story." "If you do a good job telling it, they'll ask you to tell another one." If you can tell a tale about real people doing genuine things, that will pique their interest more than something made up by a Hollywood scriptwriter with the same components and ending every time."
Tony Harris, host of Scene of the Crime and Hate in America, reiterated Kenda's sentiments on storytelling, pointing out that many true crime series had a conclusive ending: "We button it up in most of the shows."
Furthermore, most real crime shows follow a similar formula, which may contribute to our addiction. "You have to see the wider metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share to understand why people are preoccupied with true crime," Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Hopes & Fears. "In a normal true crime story, it's easy to see who's on the good side and who's on the bad side, and the crimes are always solved." Mysteries have solutions, and the legal system, flawed as it is, essentially functions."
As a result, these true crime stories, as horrifying as they are, end up being reassuring in a strange sense. "True crime comforts individuals by ensuring them that their long-held notions about how the world works are still meaningful," Andrist said, "while living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technical change."