Have you ever noticed that true crime shows are almost exclusively about murder? Serial killers, family homicides, jealous exes – you almost never see an episode dedicated to theft or fraud and, on the rare occasion that I have seen these, they have literally bored me until there’s been a body count of at least one.
The producers are just giving the audiences what they want, which plainly is humans killing other humans. Why, though? What is our obsession with the most depraved of behaviours? According to the experts, there are several reasons. And if you speak to a group of true crime (read: murder) enthusiasts, you’ll hear them all mentioned at least once.
Evil is Fascinating
Up to a point, this is actually a healthy interest in psychology. If this is all the material we’re consuming, that’s a little concerning. Dr Michael Mantell, the San Diego Police Department’s former chief psychologist, says a certain degree of intrigue is normal. Of course we try to understand the farthest limits of what people can do.
We Get to Make Judgements
I don’t know about you, but I always feel better after watching a little trashy reality television. I definitely feel like my life is more together after a few episodes of 16 and pregnant. Real crime seems to feed into that even more; we always get to make a pronouncement on how understandable or purely evil a murder is. A single father who kills his child’s abuser? Totally relatable. Teenagers going on a thrill kill? Less so.
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The Power of Schadenfreude
The German idea of getting pleasure from the misfortune of others is a pretty human reaction. If something terrible had to befall somebody, we’re glad it’s not us. Dr Sharon Packer, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Mt Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, says we also breathe a sigh of relief because we’re not the perpetrator. Evil seems to lurk on the edges of our minds, and when we realise we’re innocent, the feeling is downright joyous.
Being Prepared and In Control
Some experts say learning about the most heinous crimes helps us feel more ready for them. Watching the shows can be almost like a dress rehearsal. In prehistoric times, we had to pay attention to anything dangerous, because it was likely to be a lion roaring towards us. So our obsession might be based in evolution. Being frightened and then experiencing relief also stimulates adrenaline, which acts as a neurochemical reward. Add that to the schadenfreude, and you’ve got a heady mix.
Constant News Stories
Our interest in murder most foul is not new, but neither is gossip and fake news. What we have now that we didn’t before the Internet is constant access to information. We can watch breaking stories, and research past killings. As the old saying among journalists goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”.
Everybody Loves a Good Yarn
Human beings have always told stories. True Crime serials are especially satisfying; they have a beginning, middle and end, with the bad guys being caught, and, we get to use our puzzle-solving skills to work out who is guilty. This isn’t how it happens in real life most of the time, but it is what we like to see.