Why do we watch so much true crime on television?

Digging deep into the true-crime phenomenon

From documentaries examining historic crimes in forensic detail, to TV shows that dramatise the lives of notorious murderers, the world has become obsessed with the true crime genre.

True crime – as well as fictional crime drama – has always been around, but only in the last five or so years has true crime really taken off as a genre. Where once it was almost a grubby, under-the-counter pursuit that no one dared admit to, streaming giants, mainstream terrestrial channels and podcast have all thrown large sums of money at the genre to make slick, engrossing series.

As readers will know, we’re a crime drama website, but true crime and fiction have always enjoyed a healthy crossover – the current big trend in crime drama is to adapt a real-life story for the small screen.

Netflix is home to some of the most popular true crime documentaries of the last few years, such as Making A Murderer, The Staircase and most recently The Sons Of Sam. Other networks and streaming services have attempted to satisfy this true-crime craving too, such as the BBC with The Serpent earlier this year.

Each of these shows are some of the most-watched on their respective channels, fuelling social media discourse and Zoom debates over the world. But what is driving this true crime obsession?

Entertainment brand MrQ spoke with psychologist Dr Pamela Rutledge, who has provided five reasons behind the global obsession with true crime TV.

True crime allows us to experience fear in a safe way

There is no denying that there’s a twisted entertainment value to true crime TV, and Dr Rutledge explains the reason for this: we enjoy experiencing fear in a safe environment, and it’s especially potent when we know something terrifying really happened.

Dr Rutledge says: “The attraction to true crime television has an evolutionary basis. Crime attracts our attention because we are hardwired to notice things that indicate danger; we instinctively watch to see if we are at risk. We are naturally curious. Finding answers and solutions makes us feel safer and more satisfied. True crime shows are a specific genre that signals a mystery story with the added adrenaline reaction from knowing something really happened. We enjoy the emotional experience of suspense and threat in entertainment because it allows us to experience fear in a safe way.”

We want to understand the nature of evil

Dr Rutledge suggested that we are also obsessed by stories about murder because we have a desire to understand what could enable someone to do something so evil.

“Evil is a fundamental social taboo. We want to understand why evil —acts that violate social order— can happen and what drives individuals who are so untethered to social values,” says Dr. Rutledge.

“Crime, especially violent crime, challenges the inherent cognitive bias of a ‘just world’ where bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. We watch to be reassured that order is restored to support that belief.”

The Nightstalker – aka Richard Ramirez – on Netflix

Lockdown has heightened our obsession with true crime

True crime shows have been especially popular since lockdown. But why is that? In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, Dr Rutledge explains that stories of criminals being brought to justice can affirm a sense of order.

Dr Rutledge says: “The anxiety around COVID increases our sense of discomfort and vulnerability. True crime shows that reaffirm a sense of order, where they catch the ‘bad guys’, reduce our sense of victimisation.”

“True crime makes us feel safer and more prepared—both positive emotional states. They can decrease our sense of helplessness by restoring order in real life and providing the emotional pay-off of narrative resolution.”

The Serpent on BBC One told the true story of a 1970s serial killer

Binge-watching true crime TV can make us more anxious

Whilst a healthy diet of true crime might actually have some positive effects, there’s bad news for true crime obsessives though: binge-watching these shows can make you much more anxious about the world.

Dr Rutledge explains: “People who watch a lot of crime news are more likely to view the world as a dangerous place — similarly, people who watch true crime and treat it as news rather than entertainment. After all, TV is always curated – whether through scripting, voiceovers, juxtaposition of content that frames meaning or choices as to what to include.”

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