True Crime Genre
A variety of scientifically supported drivers are propelling the popularity of true crime as a genre, including fear, fight or flight, empathy, schadenfreude, thrill-seeking, guilty pleasure, and a sense of justice. Below please find our methodology and findings.
Our research team began our analysis of what science-backed research says about why people enjoy true crime as a genre by searching for recent relevant academic and scientific studies on the subject. We used a variety of research paper databases in an effort to find formal studies that have been conducted on the reasons why true crime is so popular. We found two legal studies that discussed the implications of the true crime genre on the criminal justice system, which provided us with some insight into how the genre appeals to viewers' and listeners' sense of justice. However, these papers generally did not dive into the psychological reasons why people are attracted to the genre except to briefly refer to earlier studies.
Since there were no other papers on the topic of why people enjoy true crime as a genre within the standard 24-month time frame and the legal sources we found referenced studies that had been conducted more than two years ago, we expanded our time frame with the assumption that earlier study results are still relevant because the conclusions continue to be referenced by other researchers. This strategy led us to a 2010 study by social psychologist Amanda Vicary that discussed why women are more attracted to the genre than men. This study was referenced in nearly every article we came across as the definitive science-backed research that explains the drivers of true crime popularity. Unfortunately, it focuses mostly on women and does not fully discuss the reasons why people in general are drawn to true crime.
Therefore, while we used the results of Vicary's work in our findings, we also wanted to provide other science-backed information that applied to the entire true crime audience. Unfortunately, there appear to be very few actual studies conducted on this subject that are fully available to the public. We did find numerous studies that are behind paywalls, which include "Murder she watched: Does watching news or fictional media cultivate fear of crime?," "Minimizing Harm: A New Crime Policy For Modern America," and "Reading and Writing About Serial Killing and Serial Killers, but the abstracts for these papers proved to be unhelpful as they did not contain conclusions or results. We also found a history of true crime from JSTOR, but again, it didn't shine any light on modern reasons why people enjoy true crime as a genre.
As a result, we switched strategies again and began looking for expert commentary on the subject of why true crime is such a popular genre. This strategy provided us with significantly more information. We were able to find interviews of and articles written by experts in the field, including professors of criminology, psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health counselors. Our assumption here was that these experts have studied the topic extensively and offer science-based assessments of the drivers behind true crime popularity. While only one expert (Amanda Vicary) has actually published a scientific study on the topic, we believe the other experts cited in our research have intimate knowledge of the science behind the attraction to the genre of true crime. Their expertise and experience have been used as a proxy for the paywalled scientific sources and all expert commentary has been extracted from reliable media sources such as Forbes, Time, NBCNews, Psychology Today, and the Atlantic. In some cases, lesser known publications were used for additional context. Finally, some sources are older than the normal 24-month standard due to a lack of more current data. However, all older sources have been cited in current publications, indicating the information is still valid.
According to Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of the book, "Why We Love Serial Killers," true crime "triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear." This is the primary driver of the popularity of true crime novels, television shows, and podcasts. People look at true crime as a way to face their fears without actually experiencing the danger or trauma associated with them. This controlled exposure to fear is a way to face the possibility of crime and subconsciously develop strategies and coping mechanisms to handle it in the event a similar situation comes to pass.
In fact, Georgia Hardstark, host of the wildly popular true crime podcast, "My Favorite Murder," states that listening to true crime stories is "a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you." Fans of the program agree, with one devoted listener saying, "I sort of exorcise that anxiety through obsessively reading about true crime and learning about it... You’re like, I’m not afraid of this. I’m going to face this, and I think it’s like exposure therapy." Mental health counselors like Krista Lawless, even see true crime podcasts, shows, and books almost as therapy for dealing with fear. She says, "In therapy, one of the things people do is that they have to walk up to those things that are really scary to talk about and start processing them out loud and accepting that they’re real." Fans of true crime often say they can relate to the victims of true crime and use their stories to "confront the fear that [they] could wind up in their place." Moreover, there is evidence that listening to true crime stories can actually "soothe listeners’ fear of being killed."
Women and fear
In a study conducted by social psychologist Amanda Vicary, it was found that women tend to prefer true crime topics more than men. As an example, the Wine and Crime podcast, which gets 500,000 downloads per month, has an audience of 85% women. What Vicary discovered in her research of a variety of true crime books, podcasts, and television shows is that women tend to be drawn to the psychological content of true crime stories. They are interested in understanding why such a crime would be committed. In addition, Vicary found that women seem to "like reading about survival, whether it was preventing or surviving a crime." Her hypothesis is that because women are more likely to be a victim of crime than men, they are interested in using true crime stories to learn how to prevent it.
Other psychologists agree with Vicary's conclusion, saying, "watching true crime shows and listening to podcasts is one way we can feel prepared, and perhaps even comforted." In fact, watching and listening to true crime stories may be a way of inoculating oneself against fear. Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer, who studies violence and media, indicated that people, and women, in particular, use true crime stories as a way to purposefully expose themselves to violence as a way to "build up [their] tolerance to something scary and seemingly inevitable."
Fight or flight
Dr. Mayer further explained this phenomenon as he connected watching true crime as an extension of people's inability to look away from a disaster or tragedy. His research indicates that when people become aware of a violent situation or disaster, it "stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat..., thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked." Mayer states that the need to prevent harm from a disaster or tragedy is also behind people's need to "Google what happened" after hearing about or seeing an accident on the highway. He said, "This acts as a preventive mechanism to give us information on the dangers to avoid and to flee from."
What is interesting is that Dr. Mayer has discovered that this "fight or flight' response can be triggered by not just actual events, but by crime stories as well, whether true or fiction. He said, "Witnessing violence and destruction, whether it is in a novel, a movie, on TV or a real-life scene playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety." As such, watching or listening to true crime may be a way for them to ask themselves "ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster." Those questions allow people to "play out the different scenarios in [their] head because it helps [them] to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with [their] need to remain in control.
Empathy and schadenfreude
One of the most basic reasons behind why people enjoy true crime stories is that they want to "know how and why it happens." Within most humans exists the desire to empathize with other human beings and true crime stories allow people to do this without actually experiencing the trauma themselves. In fact, the entire true crime genre has "typically sought to understand the monster and purpose behind real criminal acts." Dr. Bonn agrees, stating, "Many people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers, because they cannot comprehend their actions, but feel compelled to." Fans of true crime are fascinated by the enigmatic nature of criminals, particularly those who commit truly horrible acts. They simply need to "understand why anyone would do such horrible things to other people who generally are complete strangers to them."
What differentiates the true crime genre from fictional horrors is the feeling of relief that comes with knowing that although a real crime was committed by a real person and perpetrated on real people, it did not happen to them. This notion of "schadenfreude — deriving self-satisfaction from the misfortunes of others," is often the main force behind the voyeuristic tendencies of true crime fans. The complicated feelings of empathy for the victim and relief that they are not the victim allows true crime audiences to "explore the darkest reaches of human depravity" while knowing they "personally are safe at home, wrapped up in bed."
However, the connection between schadenfreude and true crime is not solely focused on relief from not being the victim. According to Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist, "There’s something else that’s a little bit darker, that a lot of people don’t want to accept, but there’s this sense of relief that it wasn’t you who did it." She goes on to say that most people get angry at other people, even to the point where they say they could "kill" them. However, "almost no one does that, thankfully. But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ And so there’s once again that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them, someone else did."
Thrill seeking and guilty pleasure
Other researchers agree with Dr. Mayer that true crime holds an element of not being able to look away from a heinous situation. However, instead of the crime igniting the fight or flight instinct, it's more about thrill seeking and guilty pleasure. Bonn, the aforementioned professor of criminology, said, "Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters... The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle."
Behind this inability to look away is a shot of adrenaline that comes with witnessing unspeakable actions. This stimulating and addictive hormone is the same one that is behind thrill-seeking behaviors such as riding roller coasters, skydiving, or other death-defying activities. In fact, Bonn states in his analysis of true crime followers that, "The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters." That feeling becomes addictive and compels people to seek out more true crime stories, thus becoming a "guilty pleasure to thrill seeking adults." The guilt comes from feeling like watching crime is inappropriate, but enjoying it anyway to satisfy the need for adrenaline.
Sense of justice
A fairly new driver of the popularity of true crime is the notion of "questionable endings," which are designed to appeal to fans' sense of justice. Podcasts like "Serial" and documentaries such as "Making a Murder" plant the idea that the American justice system is not as fail-proof as previous true-crime-loving audiences have been led to believe. These open-ended cases inspire "the idea that the viewer can solve the crime at hand." Dr. Bonn agrees, stating that one reason why people enjoy true crime stories is that they get the chance to play "armchair detective and see if they can figure out 'whodunit' before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator." Unfortunately, as one legal review found, "the rise of modern crime documentaries, series, and podcasts" are casting a "growing doubt... on the criminal justice system through the portrayal of injustice." While this "can be powerful in raising questions, bringing new evidence to light, and holding authorities accountable," it may also be damaging the presumption of innocence concept that forms the foundation of the justice system.
Still, people enjoy courtroom dramas. In fact, there is a theory that the popularity of true crime may be more related to what comes after the crime, that people may be "more obsessed with what goes down in the courtroom and the justice or injustice that is served there." Dr. Packer agrees, stating, "Courtroom drama is a big part, people like that." They enjoy the tension that comes with not knowing an outcome and gives them the chance to weigh in on the evidence. However, as true crime shows, novels, and podcasts are typically sensationalized for entertainment purposes, legal analysts fear that the dramatization of the criminal justice system is changing Americans' perception of the legal process and fueling the notion that justice is elusive in most situations, when actually the opposite is true. Since only the most bizarre and heinous crimes are selected for true crime outlets, the public becomes hyper-aware of "a niche area of crime," which then increases the fear that feeds into the popularity of the true crime genre.