What is the Psychology Behind Society’s Fascination with True Crime?

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Ximena Alvarez, Contributor

True crime has skyrocketed in society over the past few years and has been proven to be more than just an obsession with murder. Being interested in true crime does not automatically classify the consumer as dangerous as the serial killers they are listening to, watching, or reading about. While the topic of true crime is gruesome, the liking of it is on a more psychological level and may be one-sided on the spectrum of gender. 

In simple terms, our natural instincts of curiosity and dealing with real-world threats are to blame for this fascination. Clinical psychologist, Dr. John Mayer, states that seeing and hearing destruction, disaster, or tragedy activates survival instincts. This directly relates to the concept that our psychology demands we pay attention to things that could harm us. True crime opens a window for us to have a peek at potential dangers and fears without actually having to face them. In addition to satisfying our human nature, it goes on to provide some psychological comfort. Trauma counselors have found that true crime helps rewire our brains in how to respond to overwhelming situations — “It helps our brains view traumatic situations in a less triggering way…can lessen the fear and symptoms that are often associated with traumatic experiences of crime.” From personal experience, I can say it encourages acceptance of the realities of crime, and instead of choosing to be oblivious, it helps me become more aware and safe.

Women have overwhelmingly dominated the true-crime audience as this psychological phenomenon affects them more than men. For example, the Oxygen Network used to be a “women’s” network and it has now shifted to a predominantly true crime network. Similarly, the popular true-crime podcast Wine and Crime has found that women make up 85% of its audience. The sad reality is that women are more likely to be victims of violent crimes; therefore, true crime gives them an insight into how crimes are executed. A recent study found that worldwide nearly 1 in 3, or 30% of women have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence or both. The details of certain cases offer answers to questions like: What triggers attackers? What techniques were used to escape the situation? What are ways in which victims are lured in? Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counselor, Rhea Gandhi, further explains that true crime content promotes a sense of justice, “That sense of justice we feel at the end of a true-crime film or series reflects our desire to be a part of social and legal systems that work tirelessly towards women’s safety and protection.” To prove the gravity of the impact of this phenomenon on women, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study using the summaries of true crime books and their specific detail, they observed if women would gravitate more towards one kind. They found that women, above men, were more likely to choose books with female victims that offered potential safety “tricks” or ones with psychological profiles of the attackers.

While some consume true crime merely for entertainment, others find valuable knowledge in it and go on to integrate it into their everyday lives. Apart from the natural instinct to know the who, what, where, when, and why of a story, true crime is an additional step towards trying to understand how the mind functions.