Our Morbid Fascination with True Crime

Photo by Vijay Putra from Pexels

When the load of college work gets too much, my brain is fried from working and I can no longer be an active member of society I retreat to the park for a long walk and listen to my favourite true-crime podcast RedHanded. 

Hannah and Suruthi who form RedHanded take true crime stories (predominantly ones on murder), do the research and present them to the listener with sing-song British accents and plenty of comic relief. Their weekly release is kind of like a twisted and macabre adult bedtime story. They do it well, there is a reason they won silver at last year’s British Podcast Awards, it’s a simple format done right. 

There’s something about listening to true crime stories that relaxes me and allows me to escape from day-to-day reality. And no, I’m not a complete freak- there are people who find true crime intriguing, there wouldn’t be a plethora of content otherwise. Several theories may shed light on why they’re so popular.

In 1980, Julie Kristeva wrote an essay “Power’s of Horror: Theories of Abjection” in which she presented the theory that when we confront something frightening or disgusting, it is in rejecting it that our identity is formed. The abject is that which is so abhorrent and against our nature, that which stirs things hidden deep in our subconcious. When we can confront things that repulse us we can then reject them and move on with our lives. The “abject” in horror films tends to be something which threatens ordered patriarchal, capitalist, and Western society. 

Hence, horror films often include gore and violence depicting the fragility of the human body, the supernatural, and the paranormal. More often than not women, children, and BIPOC feature as antagonists, the “perversion” of sexuality and gender (with major homophobia and transphobia) also feature heavily. Taking one of the defining films of the genre as an example, Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960): you’ll find many of these tropes: Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) has a Freudian obsession with his mother; Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) a young attractive woman presents a threat to his identity and when Bates kills he dresses as his mother.

Obviously with changing times and increased media saturation, many films subvert or play with these tropes, Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) is one that does this well, yet the majority still rely heavily on them.

Yet, what about our interest in true crime? 

“Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.”

Julia Kristeva

As Kristeva says, true crime is particularly abject. Though when it comes to consuming these stories, we sometimes dissociate the crime from the victims, and often this is a result of how the creator frames the story.

In this day and age, efforts should be made to avoid this, though this often isn’t the case. Take the sheer disparity between Netflix Original programming for instance: kudos to the producers of Night Stalker (James Carroll and Tiller Russell, 2021), a programme about the killings of Richard Ramirez who plagued California in the mid-80s, slipped through the cops’ fingers on many occasions and committed the most some of the most horrific acts imaginable. The series mainly focused on the crimes, victims, and investigators saying very little about Ramirez himself. Why is this important? Well, recently true crime has been scrutinised for perpetrating celebrity-like personas of murderers instead of focusing on the abhorrence of their acts. Another example of this is Netflix Original the Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (Joe Berlinger, 2019) made him and his character the primary focus of the documentary.

There’s clearly a demand for this kind of content as Netflix doesn’t seem to be slowing down on churning out similar series anytime soon. It was recently announced that Evan Peters is to play serial Killer Jeffrey Dalmer in Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (hey- creative name Netflix). Apparently, The series will also view Dahmer’s case through the topical lens of white privilege, dramatizing instances in which he ― described in press notes as “a clean-cut, good-looking white guy” ― was given a free pass by lenient cops and judges.

So, why do we create celebrities out of monsters while their victims are often left forgotten? Criminal psychologist and host of Bad People Dr. Julia Shaw says we probably focus on the perpetrators of crime 

“…because if we can understand [them] and use this knowledge to prevent crime, then we also prevent victimisation in the first place. This includes better understanding, and controlling, the darkness that lurks in us all.”

Karen Shaw

She also believes that true crime stories allow us opportunity to empathise and understand others. They at times strengthen our sense of humanity, by confronting the abject and shaping our identity.

A friend who is a sales lead in TV and Film acquisition and distribution, tells me that the main demographic for True Crime programme is women and that TV distribution companies target stay-at-moms and housewives in particular. Many studies confirm this. One possible reason given for this gender imbalance is that women fear being victims of crime more so than men so they consume this content to actively learn how to prevent being a victim.

Yesterday, I retreated to the park, turned on Redhanded, and after a while had to turn it off. They were covering the case of Sylvia Likens, a tragic case and one that was far too brutal and far too upsetting for me to finish. At times in the past, I have stalled for a moment to take deep breaths before the grisly bits, but this time I couldn’t. I’ll continue to listen to RedHanded and support them on Patreon, but the hundred of listeners who had requested that particular case cast doubt in my mind as to whether an interest in true crime was healthy at all. 

In classic film theory analysing horror: women, children, BIPOC and the working class represent a “threat” to civilised society, and this is ironically and shamefully reflected in today’s society in which crimes, violent homicide, in particular, appears to be rallied against members of these groups. It’s important to take a step back and think about the type of content we consume, and remember that it is not just content but many people’s tragic legacies.

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