Crime has been an integral part of society throughout the millennia of human evolution. However, it mostly existed in the margins of communities, as the vast majority of people did not interact with it in any way. Modern technological advancements in terms of content production and information distribution provide society with insight into a broad range of spheres, which includes crime. Series, films, books, and podcasts inspired by true crime have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. To meet the demand, major content producers create increasing supply, resulting in multiple crime-related works published annually. People enjoy true crime for a variety of underlying reasons, which can explain the modern obsession with serial killers. The purpose of this paper is to research the factors, which contribute to the immense popularity of true crime in present-day society, as well as potential issues related to this obsession.
True Crime in the Historical Context
While the general obsession with true crime stories is a modern phenomenon, it is possible to trace its roots back to an earlier period. Haugtvedt states that the public’s desire for horrific reality-based stories is a distinct feature of the Victorian period (9). The development of mass media and content was less significant at that time. Newspaper articles and novels remained the primary sources of information for readers of the discussed period. According to Haugtvedt, people actively read stories, which described true crimes, seeing it as an interesting pastime (10). Moreover, so-called murder sightseeing was another common phenomenon in the Victorian era. Many people enjoyed violent sights, such as hangings and funerals, while also visiting crime scenes to look at corpses of victims. This obsession contributed to the development of crime-related literature, especially horror stories, which explored the topics of contested guilt (Haugtvedt 10). The public felt eager to speculate about such matters, whereas the nature of violent crimes provided them with a sense of access to dark, forbidden aspects of life.
Indeed, a large portion of such literature was pure fiction, but true crime has always been at the center of the audience’s attention. The relation to actual events caused a stronger reaction from the public due to the aforementioned aspect of speculation. Haugtvedt writes that 19th-century literature demonstrates that true crime stories were not limited to rational consideration (10). Instead, there was a significant amount of re-imagining the details of the event, adding new perspectives to murders. In other words, readers were not merely interested in the informative side. They were fascinated by an opportunity to see the event from a murderer’s point of view, trying to understand the psychological processes behind the crime. As Haugtvedt concludes, the Victorian period showed that, despite the direct relation to true murders, the public saw such criminals as characters of a story rather than actual people (10). Publishers willingly utilized this obsession, and, for example, the “trial by newspaper” of John Thurtell in 1823 attracted much attention, thus increasing the papers’ profits (Haugtvedt 10). Therefore, the obsession with true crime is not a completely new phenomenon, as demonstrated by 19th-century preferences.
However, not all instances of true crime receive an equal amount of attention from the public. As mentioned earlier, the case of John Thurtell played a role of paramount importance in the historical development of true crime before murderers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer contributed to its further development. At the beginning of the 19th century, Thurtell lost all his money gambling and violently murdered one of his creditors, having conspired with friends (Haugtvedt 11). The case went public, as The Times devoted many pages to the description of the murder, evidence, and trial throughout the following month. While the case seemed clear, Thurtell and his associates were referred to as murderers before the conviction took place. Such preliminary statements fueled the interest of the public, causing active speculations supported by the excessive amount of evidence provided for the readers. The crime scene later became a popular sight of murder tourism and attracted many visitors, including, for example, Walter Scott (Haugtvedt 11). As the situation progressed, people fictionalized Thurtell’s case, and this murder serves as an example of the first instance of the public’s obsession with true crime.
True Crime Media Formats
Over the last centuries, the world has undergone major transformations, many of which were dictated by the development of technology. Consequently, how stories are told to the public has changed, as well. While the 19th century relied on literature and newspapers, the following periods introduced the rapid development of television and digital media. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that it is the form that has changed, whereas the underlying psychological processes of people’s interest in true crime remained the same. The obsession with murders and their details returned in the 21st century, following the increasing accessibility of content in today’s digital environment. Indeed, people can gain instant access to a vast amount of shows and podcasts at home, which leads to a greater variety of genres and themes. Having lost the restrictions related to the limited amount of content production and distribution, authors felt free to experiment and once again explore the dark aspects of humanity. In addition, modern technological advancements have facilitated knowledge sharing, which allows people to become familiar with different cases.
Despite the large variety of content formats, it is possible to discern a general tendency about true crime. According to Haugtvedt, serialized stories have been receiving more attention from the public (8). This tendency has emerged due to the sense of anticipation, which surrounds it. This way, readers and viewers can consume content gradually, thus exploring the story at a slower pace. A serialized form of narration provides people with greater opportunities to speculate, discussing the limited amount of information they have received. Evidently, to some degree, speculation is present in the case of non-serialized formats, for example, films. Nevertheless, they only allow people to consider the past, whereas series and podcasts enable discussions regarding the future. In addition, serialized stories encompass a larger timespan, thus retaining the public’s interest in the long term. Haugtvedt managed to discern a similar tendency in the context of the 19th century, as well, when popular stories were told in newspapers and periodicals. Accordingly, serialized narration is the dominant format of true crime storytelling, which explains its prevalence in the genre.
In the 21st century, the depiction of true crime has taken many forms. TV series and documentaries actively produced by such networks as HBO and Netflix serve as the primary source of related content (Cooper). The list of such shows is large and includes popular series of recent years, such as The Jinx and Mindhunters. Some of these stories are not documentaries, but they openly relate themselves to true stories. Simultaneously, there are several podcasts regarding murders and other violent crimes easily available online. Serial is a prominent representative of this category, also serving as the central point of research conducted by Haugtvedt. Cooper writes that true crime has been gaining immense popularity in online media. A large number of related discussions on such platforms as YouTube and Reddit support this point of view. On the other hand, there are also works, which are presented in a non-serialized form. For example, there is a recent film describing the biography of Ted Bundy, in which Zac Efron played the notorious serial killer. Overall, there is an abundance of content based on true crime stories.
Factors Leading to True Crime Obsession
The described increase in the true crime story popularity, which has been observed in recent years, is not spontaneous. People’s interest in such works can be explained from a psychological standpoint. First of all, readers and viewers consume true crime content due to their curiosity. To an extent, crime and murderers remain an unknown area for the majority of the population, and interest in new, undiscovered aspects of life is one of humans’ basic instincts (Cooper). In addition, curiosity is combined with the natural need for knowledge in the case of true crime. Such stories provide valuable information regarding various topics, including human psychology, criminology, and legal system functioning. Research conducted by Boling and Hull revealed that female listeners constitute the majority of true-crime podcast audiences, being motivated by entertainment, convenience, and boredom (92). It is said that the stories serve as a means of escapism for them, combined with a forbidden sense of voyeurism (Boling and Hull 92). Accordingly, it is possible to say the popularity of true crime in the present environment stems from the basic processes of human psychology.
To some extent, every person may demonstrate a subconscious attraction to forbidden topics. Cooper states that the phenomenon of voyeurism mentioned earlier is natural, as tabooed aspects tend to cause fascination. Instead of exploring such risky themes, as violence and murder, in reality, people opt for safer means of discovery in the form of podcasts, films, and television. This way, an individual can observe the darker side of their personality (“America Is Obsessed with Serial Killers.”). Violent crimes are associated with strong emotions, including pain, suffering, and grief. In turn, such feelings cause an intense emotional response from the viewers, thus having the audience mesmerized. As discussed by Haugtvedt, the connection increases this impact, which is why the public prefers true crime shows to fiction (10). The rapid development of technology provided society with new ways of consuming content, which is why it has become easier to indulge oneself in so-called “guilty pleasures.”
Issues Related to True Crime Content
The nature of true crime stories and their popularity has been found alarming by many people, which includes researchers. The obsession with true crime raises ethical issues related to how the events are depicted. Media and content producers are notoriously known to distort facts and personalities in favor of the cinematography and attractiveness of their works. Cooper discussed the recent biographical film devoted to Ted Bundy in this respect. Zac Efron is widely recognized as an attractive person, and choosing him as the actor to play Bundy can be seen as an attempt to romanticize or even sexualize the serial killer. Besides, surviving victims are unlikely to appreciate a partially positive, even though controversial, portrayal of their offenders, as suggested by Cooper. If people are reminded of those who attempted to take their lives, it may lead to further trauma. Simultaneously, Stoneman and Packer argue that many true crime stories promote violent extra-judicial practices when attempting to cause a stronger emotional response from the audience. True crime content remains a controversial topic in the 21st century, and its consumption must be informed and voluntary to avoid issues.
Summary and Conclusion
In conclusion, the increasing supply of true crime films, shows, and podcasts is caused by the public’s demands, as the audience wants to have its need for intense emotions met. Fascination by dark, violent themes is explained by the attraction to forbidden themes, which are embedded in human nature. The first documented instances of true crime obsession date back to the Victorian era when several cases were actively discussed in newspapers and novels. Nevertheless, this topic causes a substantial amount of controversy in the present, as researchers associate it with an array of issues. Overall, the choice of content remains a matter of personal preference, and each viewer should be aware of the potential impact of true crime stories.
YouTube, uploaded by The Atlantic, 2019. Web.
Boling, Kelli S., and Hull, Kevin. “Undisclosed Information—Serial Is My Favorite Murder: Examining Motivations in the True Crime Podcast Audience.” Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 25, no. 1, 2018, pp. 92-108.
Cooper, Kelly-Leigh. BBC, 2019. Web.
Haugtvedt, Erica. “The Ethic of Serialized True Crime: Fictionality in Serial Season One.” The Serial Podcast and Storytelling in the Digital Age, edited by Ellen McCracken, Taylor and Francis, 2017, pp. 7-21.
Stoneman, Ethan, and Packer, Joseph. “Reel Cruelty: Voyeurism and Extra-Juridical Punishment in True-Crime Documentaries.” SAGE Journals, 2020. Web.