From Observer to Obsessor; What’s the Deal With People’s Addiction to True Crime?

September 28th, 2020. 292 retweets, 4,392 likes. The tweet read, “Imagine you get murdered and some girl skips your forensic files episode bc its boring”. 

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I thought the tweet was hilarious. I took a screenshot of the tweet and sent it to some friends. I even scrolled down to read the comments under the tweet, to laugh along with the people who were tagging their friends and joking that today, the Internet had “called me out”. Then, I saw a comment by a user named Rocky. 

Rocky said, “I think about this when I think of doing a documentary on my mother’s murder :(“. 

Oh. 

I closed the app on my phone. 

I felt guilty after reading that comment. I felt guilty because I am that girl the tweet is talking about. I am the person who looks through the entire episode list of Investigation Discovery and decides which to watch by the interesting-ness of its description. I’m the person who stops listening to the podcast episode 10 minutes in because it hasn’t gotten juicy enough yet. I have literally had thoughts cross my mind, mid-movie, that say, “I bet there’s a creepier one on Amazon Prime”, or “Ugh, I already know who killed her!”. 

How had I let myself become so casual about, well, murder? How had I forgotten that these people weren’t characters made up in a script, but real human beings? The answer is that I hadn’t forgotten, really—it had just been so easy to not think about it. My first experiences with true crime were names like Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes: people whose victims, real as they were, lived so long ago that they would have been dead of natural causes by this century anyhow. Now, though, I was consuming the stories of people who should… be here. They should be in school, or with their children, or at their dream job, or getting married, or even being a totally mean and annoying person, maybe. They should be alive and living in the same present that I am, the same present I spend memorizing the details of their brutal, gory cases—for… fun? 

I know, logicly, that I’m not a lone sociopathic freak for being like this. To see just how huge the audience for true crime is, all you have to do is look, and not even that hard. A simple search for “crime” on Spotify directs you to a list of podcasts (including the notable Crime Junkie, Serial, and My Favorite Murder) so long I gave up trying to scroll to the end. Netflix and Hulu both have designated Crime genres literally filled with shows and movies like Making a Murderer, I Am A Killer, Evil Genius, Cold Case Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Panic 9-1-1, and The Murder of Laci Peterson (to name just a few). In fact, you don’t even have to sit through a piece of media to learn about a specific case; just go to the Internet and search the victim’s name. Depending on who it is, you’ll likely find about a dozen different Reddit threads, WebSleuths forums, and Tumblr blogs that have done all your research for you—in fact, maybe a little too much research. I think it’d be hard to argue that any other time period but right now is the height of true crime fanaticism. The Internet and social media has allowed individuals to transform from casual fans to full-on ametuer detectives, prosecutors, and judges, with plenty of people to hear what they have to say. 

But what are they saying, exactly? 

True crime media focuses, as the name implies, on the telling of true stories, and the hard facts and evidence that accompany them. These shows and movies and podcasts draw us in and make us feel as if we’re right in the heart of the investigation or prosecution.  It’s easy to feel as though consuming this media is no different from doing research, and as such, the audience feels reasonably secure in their knowledge and understanding of the topic. But that’s the point of most media: to make you forget you’re on the other side of the screen.

“In general, people do tend to know when they’re watching fiction that they’re watching fiction”  says Alan Bruce, professor and Department Chair of Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Anthropology at Quinnipiac University. “But when watching true crime, they are much less aware that what they’re watching is actually edited in structure, and things like that. So people… by watching shows that are true crime, they do feel like they’re getting educated.” 

And of course, you can learn things from true crime media. It’s a big reason behind why people choose to tune in. A study published in 2010 titled “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” showed that true crime audiences, specifically women who enjoyed true crime, were motivated to consume that kind of media by a variety of factors, two of the most prominent being 1: a desire to learn effective defense tactics, and 2: a desire to learn the psychological factors behind a person’s killings. The majority of research surrounding this, though, implies that this desire for knowledge is more driven by self interest than a genuine curiosity. 

Dr. Amanda R. Vicary, associate professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and co-author of that same study, explained that often, the motivations behind women’s interest in true crime stems from a desire to protect themselves. “There’s a theory in psychology called the ‘just world theory’. It’s basically the idea that people like to believe the world is a just , fair place, where bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people” she told me. “Therefore, if something bad does happen to someone, we may try to find a reason that they ‘deserved’ it. Because if they didn’t, and it could happen to anyone, that can produce a lot of anxiety. So, I think it’s a tendency for people to try to find ways that the victim ‘deserved’ what happened to them–it can make us feel better because we can then prevent it from happening to us.” 

The dual side of this mentality is rationalizing that, because there was a reason the horrible thing happened to the victim, there’s also a reason the same will not happen to oneself. If a woman reads a description of a defense tactic that helped a victim escape death, she may assure herself that she is safer now that she knows a way to defend herself. If a woman researches the psychological reasons behind why a man chose to kill, she may assure herself that she now knows the behavior and warning signs to look out for in a lover or partner. 

So, yes, true crime is educational. But problems arise when audiences forget that degree of separation between them and the raw, unedited reality of what goes on behind the scenes. True crime media is informative, but to base one’s entire view of crime on movies and television shows is equivalent to assuming one is qualified to be a sous chef because they’ve seen every episode of Hell’s Kitchen. 

“In general, people believe that they do have a very strong understanding of the criminal justice system. But the evidence suggests that we don’t” Bruce said. “For example, if you take a particular criminal justice topic, so let’s just see, like incarceration. Most people never will see the inside of a jail or a prison. Most people may not even know somebody who’s ever been incarcerated. But if you ask people their opinions about prisons, and you ask people what they think about the conditions of prisons, people won’t say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure’. They’ll tell you, and they’ll tell you as if it’s factual. Same thing with courts. Courts are open, but people don’t see courts, they don’t observe courts, except, really, on TV. And of course, on TV, they’re very implicating, in general. And so that has a huge impact on how people think.” 

An impact of this that’s already been observed is what is known as the “CSI Effect”, named after the popular syndicated (fictional) crime show. “The CSI Effect was a concern that jurors, because of the popularity of the show CSI, would be unlikely to convict people unless there was DNA evidence… people will have a heightened expectation about the being DNA, but the fact is that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, there’s no DNA evidence. Or, the jurors would believe that they had greater expertise in evaluating evidence, because they watch shows like CSI, and that would impact the decisions they make, in jury deliberations.” 

Avid consumption of these kinds of stories can make it easy to believe that violence is around every corner, creating, for some, a skewed perception of the world and the criminal justice system. The graphics below illustrate the disconnect between the United States’ perception of how much violent crime occurs and the actual amount of violent crimes throughout the years. 

In Vicary’s 2010 study, she found that women’s avid interest in true crime, while motivated by self-preservation and protection, sometimes created an opposite effect where those women actually began to feel less safe and at a higher risk for violent crime. “Basically, if a woman is scared of being a victim, so she unconsciously turns to true crime to learn ways to prevent it from happening to her, she at the same time is consuming more and more true crime content, making her aware of/think about crime even more.” Vicary explained. 

This is particularly interesting when you consider that statistically, according to the Bureau of Justice, women are actually less likely than men to be a victim of a violent crime (excluding rape). Yet, in the United States, the societal assumption is almost always that women are at a higher risk, which makes sense if we look at cases that have reached national and international media attention and publicity. The stories of Laci Peterson, Madeleine McCann, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Maura Murray, Caylee Anthony, and Susan Powell were all ones of beautiful white women and girls, from middle or upper class families and peaceful communities. The general public wants to be outraged and devastated by the brutal murder of these women because it is easily and clearly tragic: no one would dare suggest that a child or mother could somehow be deserving of such an awful fate. 

“It’s long been noticed that the media tends to focus more so on cases of missing white girls than missing black girls. If people are truly reading or listening to true crime because they are learning something from it to apply to their own lives, then it makes sense than white women would be more into true crime as it’s more personally relevant to them” Vicary said. 

Creators know that audiences want stories that shock, horrify, and fascinate; stories of brutality, depravity, insanity, and, of course, mystery. When those over-the-top cases are overrepresented, it creates a distorted view of what people think crime looks like. 

The podcast Crime Junkie by Audiochuck has an episode titled “If I Go Missing Folder”. The hosts, two (white) women named Ashley and Britney, explain that the purpose of the folder is to contain any and all pertinent information that could be used to locate someone if they were to be kidnapped. The idea is that your loved ones could save precious time by immediately accessing your information and potentially be able to retrace your steps (or find you via GPA) before you, well, were murdered. Below are some excerpts from the hosts’ 27 page sample folder template, provided for their listeners. 

I asked Dr. Vicary if this seemed overboard. “Honestly”, she said, “it’s probably too much. One thing people easily forget, myself included, is that kidnapping or murder by strangers is extremely rare. The media is, of course, partly to blame for our misunderstanding of the commonness of these crimes. The odds of any of us actually being kidnapped are incredibly slim, but all of our true crime consumption likely leads us to think it’s much more common than it actually is.” 

I really want to agree with Dr. Vicary, and assure myself that these horror stories, at the end of the day, are few and far between. Still, everyone knows that a human being is much more compelling than a set of proven data. Once you’ve put a face to the name and a story behind the name, it can be nearly impossible to keep that from the back of your mind.

Alicia Kozak is an internet safety expert and an advocate for kidnapping victims and missing persons. She is also a child abduction survivor. When she was 13 years old, she was groomed, stalked, and captured by an internet predator who reached out to her in a chat room. Against all odds, she was rescued before she could sustain serious injuries because of a Missing Persons poster that had her name and photograph on it. Amazingly and horrifically, because her captor had livestreamed a video of her kidnapping on the Internet, a random viewer was able to recognize her face and call the police.  

I discovered Kozak through her account on the video-sharing app TikTok, which she uses as a platform to talk about her story and emphasize the importance of community action in the case of a missing child or person. In a Live stream video from November 23rd, 2020, Alicia answers a question from commenters by stressing the capabilities social media has given us to share information and help bring people home. 

Credit: https://www.tiktok.com/@itsaliciakozak

This is where the line comes in for true crime media: the line between using a platform with the goal of creating real-life change and using a platform with the goal of providing entertainment. For all of its uncomfortable implications, true crime media has and continues to help with the development of real, ongoing cases. Think of Paul Holmes and Billy Jensen, cohosts of the Murder Squad podcast whose episode on the murder of Helene Pruszynski led to a real arrest of the killer. Dont F**K With Cats, a Netflix original documentary that came out in 2019 that chronicled the true story of a Facebook group that tracked down an international killer. 

Investigator Carson Crow of the Corinth, Texas police department is the lead detective on the unsolved murder case of a woman named Amanda Clairmont. After three years, the department is hanging on to hope that, with enough continued exposure, someone who knows something will contact them. 

“My main objective is to keep this, keep this, you know, keep it out there to where people don’t forget about it because it could easily happen.” Crow told me. He said that after the initial shock of the murder, the media “didn’t show much interest  in airing the case or even just putting it out there. Their big thing was, ‘do you have any new developments, can you tell us that you couldn’t tell us before. So that was frustrating because I can only, you know, reach out to so many people. Whereas the media, they can get out to a lot more than I can.” 

Crow told me something that may be a shock to any true crime bloggers out there: he trolls the Internet for information just the same as us. “I go in there and do my own searches to see what’s what’s going around with her name. There’s some articles, and some posts on Reddit… So as long as the information is out there. I don’t care how you get it out there, but all it takes is the right person to hear it and say, oh, you know what? You know, it might spark something that they remember. That’s why we’re reaching out to the public to see who has that extra information”.  

Can true crime creators go too far? Uh, yeah, definitely. (We don’t even have time to get into the concepts of serial killer fanficition, school shooter memes, and Dylann Roof fan clubs). Creators can go into unnecessarily gory detail for shock factor, they can publicize aspects of a victim’s life that could and should have remained private. The media and the Internet have made sure that any high-profile case entails airing of dirty laundry of everyone involved. Details of a victim’s sex life, romantic relationships, mental health issues, and personal history, things that should’nt be judged even when one is alive, is often considered fair game by creators looking to up the salacious factor. 

With true crime, as with nearly anything in this wild time we call 2020, any valid discussion requires nuance. The purpose behind a true crime piece of media should be clear. Is this case in need of help? Does it need more exposure? Is there a suspect that should be convicted? Was the perpetrator wrongly accused? Is there a cover-up? Or, is it just a piece of entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and nothing more? If the intention is clear, the risk of exploitation lessens. The same goes for revenue. A teen girl posting about spooky mysteries on her blog is far different than a media company that makes millions of dollars in profits from ad sales. This isn’t to say no one should be allowed to make any money off of true crime media (times are tough out here, after all), but if you’re making profit off of the tragedy of a human being, you have to at least try to balance the scales. For me, what separates the serious true crime creators from the thrill-seekers is the advocacy work they perform outside of their media content. Donations of profits and ad revenue to victims’ families or crime stopper organizations, on-the-ground work with living victims, and liasons with relevant police precincts are all ways in which some of my favorite podcasters and authors make sure their work is not just for the benefit of the more fortunate. 

So, after all that… I still feel guilty. I’m an over thinker. Rocky’s comment, the blunt admittance of such a horrific tragedy, amid a thread of people who could never imagine such a trauma. And yet, I don’t think a solution is the demonization of true crime. True crime can be good, great, helpful, powerful, and, yes, entertaining. At the end of the day, humans want to know about other humans. We want to compare and contrast, evaluate our stance on the situation, monitor our feelings and assure ourselves that we aren’t alone in our fears and weird fascinations. There’s nothing wrong with that. Serial killer fanfiction? Yeah, there’s a lot wrong with that. But that’s for another time. 

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