For many, there is no better way to unwind on a long winter evening than indulging in a true crime docuseries on Netflix.
The genre has long-dominated major streaming platforms – with hit series such as Tiger King and Making a Murderer – and has seeped into podcasts, YouTube videos, and even TikTok.
But where did society’s obsession with the macabre come from?
Here is all you need to know about our morbid fascination with the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Why are we so obsessed with true crime?
In short, it’s down to ‘human nature’ – and although the genre is having a moment, our obsession with dark taboos is nothing new.
Sally Baker, Senior Therapist and Media Commentator from Working on the Body, explained to Metro.co.uk: ‘It is a natural part of human nature to be morbidly curious about the facts surrounding death and the minutia of a violent or criminal death piques our interest more than any other with a heady mix of equal parts fascination and horror.
‘We are simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the intimate, salacious details exposed in these types of stories.’
Our appetite for true crime has certainly spiked in the last few years – Google searches for ‘true crime’ have steadily increased from January 2015 to now.
Many date the start of the true crime craze back to 2015, when the first season of podcast Serial captivated listeners around the world with the story of American student Hae Min Lee’s untimely death.
Lee’s boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was controversially arrested for her murder, which led journalist Sarah Koenig to investigate what really happened – and potentially prove Adnan’s innocence – through a series of gripping episodes.
In April, analytics company Parrot Analytics found that the demand for documentaries more than doubled between January 2018 and March 2021, with the lion’s share of that coming from true crime.
However, society’s obsession with true crime is not a new one.
Ben and Rosanna Fitton, the husband and wife team behind popular UK true crime podcast They Walk Among Us, explained to Metro.co.uk that we have always been fascinated by the dark and dangerous world of crime.
They said: ‘Before social media, podcasts, and documentaries, people would pay to view public executions or trials in court.
‘It reminds us of our own mortality and gives a glimpse into acts far beyond most people’s boundaries.’
Interest in true crime seems to be as old as humankind itself.
Vikings used to recount the gruesome details about their battles through poetry – one of the most famous being The Battle of Maldon, which was written in about 991 AD.
In the 16th Century, as literary rates rose and printing technology advanced, an unprecedented amount of publications reported on capital crimes, according to JSTOR.
Hundreds of crime pamphlets – which were essentially short, unbound books of roughly six to 24 pages – chock full of horrific murder details circulated during this time.
Later, the Victorians – infamously obsessed with death – were totally captivated by Jack the Ripper.
The grisly crimes of the serial killer on the foggy streets of London’s East End in the late 1880s were plastered on the front pages of newspapers.
People would read columns aloud to crowds of people desperate to hear the latest gory details.
The demand for true crime documentaries, movies, and podcasts may be fairly new – but the literary genre’s popularity is far from novel.
Truman Capote’s explosive non-fiction book In Cold Blood, which details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in a small farming community in Kansas, is credited with pioneering the true crime literature craze.
The 1965 novel was an instant success and is the second-best-selling true crime book in history. It has sold over a million copies to date, and has been translated into 30 different languages.
The genre remains popular today.
In 2020, Statista found that crime (in which true crime is a sub-genre) was the most popular book genre in the UK, with a whopping 33% of Brits saying it was their favorite.
Are more women into true crime than men?
Women, especially white women, have a reputation for being the main demographic of true crime content consumption.
Rosanna confirmed that this is true for They Walk Among Us listeners, telling Metro.co.uk that ‘around 70% of our listeners are female’.
A 2018 survey conducted by ABC revealed that almost half of podcast listeners had listened to true crime in the previous month, up from 30% in 2017.
It is widely believed that women tend to be into true crime because they are often the victims of the most infamous serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, BTK, The Yorkshire Ripper, Golden State Killer, Harold Shipman, Fred and Rose West, and Jack the Ripper, to name just a few.
A 2010 study into true crime books by Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley found that one reason why women could be drawn to the genre is that they’re interested in learning defence tactics from survivors ‘despite the fact that they are less likely to become a victim’.
The paper states: ‘Despite the fact that women may enjoy reading these books because they learn survival tips and strategies, it is possible that reading these books may actually increase the very fear that drives women toward them in the first place.
‘In other words, a vicious cycle may be occurring: A woman fears becoming the victim of a crime, so, consciously or unconsciously, she turns to true crime books in a possible effort to learn strategies and techniques to prevent becoming murdered.’
Additionally, over the last year, there have been a series of murders of women which have been prominent in the media – including Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Maddie Durdant-Hollamby, and PCSO Julia James.
This high-profile coverage can make some women feel as if danger is lurking around every corner.
Sally Baker says that true crime content might be appealing to women as the criminal typically gets punished, and justice is served.
She explained: ‘The criminal element generally end up facing the full force of the law and getting their comeuppance, when in real life it can sometimes feel far messier and unresolved.’
This conclusion gives viewers a sense of control, which is lacking in the real world.
Are there any benefits to reading or watching true crime?
True crime connoisseurs will tell you that the genre has many real-life benefits – outside of being a thrilling way to spend time.
One pro, as previously mentioned, is that it can help the public be more aware of potentially dangerous scenarios.
Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, wore his arm in a sling or in a fake cast. He would ask innocent, helpful, young women to help him carry things to his car.
Once the victims got in his vehicle or were leaning into his car he would strike them over the head with a crowbar.
Although it is worth noting that in most cases, it would be impossible for victims to possibly predict their perpetrator’s moves, or do anything to stop the crimes from happening.
Another important benefit is that true crime content can actually help solve some cases.
In 2020, a podcast called The Murder Squad helped lead to the arrest of a man for a cold case that was 40 years old.
In a now-famous episode of the podcast, hosts Paul Holes and Billy Jensen interview ‘Jessi’, a long-time true crime fan who answered the pair’s call to upload her DNA to GEDmatch in April 2019.
GEDmatch is a DNA database accessible to law enforcement that pools DNA results from all services to more accurately map out a user’s family tree.
Jessi said that she submitted her DNA out of pure curiosity, rather than because she suspected she was related to a criminal.
After submitting her test results to GEDmatch, Jessi heard from law enforcement in June of 2019 that her DNA matched James Curtis Clanton at about a third-cousin level.
Clanton was a suspect in the murder of 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski in 1980.
Jessi, who does not know Clanton personally, was then asked to submit some more information on her family tree.
She said on the podcast, ‘I’ve always been really interested in true crime and DNA and all the advances that have been made.
‘But then after everything happened with the Golden State Killer, I was 100% thinking about how I could play a role in that.’
Clanton has since been sentenced to life for the murder of Helene.
In other cases, the power of the true crime podcast has been evident but it’s up for debate whether or not it has had a positive or negative impact on court proceedings.
In 2019, following the Serial podcast, the Maryland court of special appeals found that the central subject, Adnan Syed, had received ineffective legal counsel at his original trial.
The judges on the court said that Syed’s first trial lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, had failed to investigate the alibi of Asia McClain, a school friend of Syed who claimed to have seen him at a public library at the time he was said to have killed Lee – a point that convincingly argued in the podcast.
Syed’s current attorney C Justin Brown has said the podcast ‘was enormously helpful’ in garnering support for his client.
However, the decision to allow Syed a retrial was overruled due to the ‘overwhelming’ evidence against him, meaning that he will not be tried again for Lee’s murder.
However, Serial has received its fair share of criticism, mainly around the fact that the podcast focuses on Syed and not Lee herself.
Lee’s family has denounced the series since it debuted as an inaccurate portrayal of real-life events.
During Syed’s hearing for a new trial, Lee’s family released a statement saying the hearing ‘reopened wounds that few can imagine’.
Rosanna and Ben agree that one of the overwhelming benefits of true crime is making people aware of miscarriages of justice, or unsolved cases.
One particular case they point towards is the unsolved murder of 33-year-old Shelley Morgan, who was killed not long after dropping her two children off at school in 1984.
Rosanna and Ben said that: ‘Shelley’s 35mm Olympus OM20 camera with serial number 1032853 was missing from the scene and is still being sought today as a vital piece of evidence.’
They’re hoping that highlighting this key piece of missing evidence will help raise awareness, and someone who may know the whereabouts of the camera will come forward to help solve the case.
Can true crime be bad for you?
Though true crime seems like a harmless form of entertainment, overindulgence in the genre can play havoc with your mental health.
Although it’s obviously good to be vigilant and aware of potential danger, Sally Baker warns that too much exposure to the darkest parts of human depravity can make you exhibit symptoms of anxiety.
It is common for hardcore true crime fans to grow overly cautious of other people for fear that they might be secretly out to harm them.
True crime is sensationalist and can make you think that serial killers are lurking around every corner when in reality, the cases shown in true crime docs are completely out of the ordinary.
What is anxiety?
According to the NHS, anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions, which includes:
- Panic disorder
- Phobias, such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
The most common is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which is a long-term condition that causes you to feel regularly anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. It’s estimated 5% of the UK population is affected by GAD.
Symptoms of GAD include:
- Feeling restless or worried
- Having trouble concentrating or sleeping
- Dizziness or heart palpitations
People are advised to seek professional advice from a doctor if anxiety is affecting daily life or causing distress.
Treatment for GAD ranges from psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as prescription medicine.
There are also various self-help actions the NHS suggests, including:
- Going on a self-help course
- Exercising regularly
- Stopping smoking
- Cutting down on the amount of alcohol and caffeine you drink
- Trying 1 of the mental health apps and tools in the NHS Apps Library
Secondly, Sally explained that viewers can become addicted to the genre, and desensitisation could lead to them trying to find more and more gruesome stories to quench their thirst for the macabre.
She compared it to pornography addiction, saying ‘obsessive use of pornography often leads to desensitised responses so that the porn watched needs to be increasingly extreme.
‘If the behaviour is compulsive then they may hanker for more graphic content to hold their attention or to experience the endorphin hormone release.’
The search for more and more profane content can mean that you could expose yourself to harmful content.
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