In the past month I have listened to approximately 30 episodes of true crime podcasts (I paused one immediately before writing this because it felt hypocritical to write about the effects of true crime while listening to it. #dedication). I have also watched the Amanda Knox documentary and brushed up on my knowledge of longterm abductions. If you are wondering what is wrong with me, don’t worry. I too, am concerned.
I may be alone in my quest to listen to every single investigative podcast ever recorded, but I’m not alone in my fascination with macabre crime stories. Last year, Investigation Discovery—a channel whose motto might as well be “true crime all the time”—was the most watched cable network among women ages 25-54, according to the Los Angeles Times.
These types of retellings aren’t new. Truman Capote almost single handedly invented the genre with his masterpiece 1966 “true novel” In Cold Blood. The binge-watching phenomenon has only heightened the fascination. We now have the power to immerse ourselves in documentaries like Making a Murderer or The Jinx, or podcasts like Serial or In the Dark, for hours or days at a time.
Joyce Carol Oates has noted the uncanny ability true crime stories possess to appeal to people across vast demographics. Strangely, stories about those whose savage actions poke holes in the fabric of society actually bring people together.
It’s easy to question the morality of the people who create these shows. Are their intentions pure? Do they care more about justice or about ratings?
It’s less pleasant to question the sanity of those who consume them. Are we all sociopaths with no regard for human suffering? In a scenario comparing a crazed killer with a legitimate mental illness who compulsively kills and an average woman of perfectly sound mind who enjoys reading these stories, who is the real monster?
“Humans are fascinated by evil,” the crime writer Ian Rankin has said. “We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could ever carry out such an act.”
Some scientists tie this fascination to “schadenfreude,” the German word describing a state of pleasure derived from observing the suffering of others. I think reality is much more complicated than this “malicious joy.” Our cultural obsession with true crime doesn’t indicate relishing other people’s suffering, but rather a desire to know exactly what humanity is capable of.
The reason true crime is so compelling is obvious, but not often said: it’s real. The sheen of headphones and screens insulates us from the lived horror of these events, but our guts know that we are witnessing an example of human nature laid bare.
I wonder if the real reason we like true stories of crime and horror is actually similar to the reason we enjoy the uplifting stories shared by Hello Giggles or Little Things. These clickbait stories about people banding together in generosity and basic kindness are generic and predictable, but they inevitably go viral and are shared by grandmothers with almost alarming consistency.
We enjoy these stories because they represent some core of goodness in humankind, a handhold of integrity for us to cling to. We see strangers show up to the birthday party of a lonely child and think I could do that. We read about people who donate money to people who have lost family members and think people are good.
A love of true crime represents the impulse to come close to the depths of evil humans are capable of. A desire to look over the cliff’s edge, observe the chaos below, and then retreat.
What haunts me about these stories though is that, in many cases, the characters could be substituted for any average person. Anyone can be a victim or a perpetrator, a criminal or a bystander. We are all human and therefore we are all capable of whatever humans can do.
We want to get close to the reality of the human condition, and the best way to do so while remaining comfortable is to keep a screen, headphones, or a paperback between us and the jarring truth.
When we assess the flesh and blood responsible for these crimes, we might find ourselves asking the same questions as when we respond to an unexpected election result. Who are these people who live among us and shape our lives? Are they real? Are we really the same?
So to get back to the question I asked at the beginning: what is the matter with me? A lot. But don’t worry. Something is the matter with you, too.
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