The psychological benefits of watching True Crime
Yes, there’s a reason so many of us are hooked on the stuff
words Rhys Thomas
Details of gory murders, salacious narratives of innocent people terrorised, haunting images of empty-eyed killers. Immediately, there’s not much positive about the reasons we get stuck into true crime documentaries, series or podcasts. But for some reason, when a show like Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which came out on Netflix less than two weeks ago, pops up, something in our brains goes: “Oooh, this is awful and crazy, but it’s also entertaining and interesting and I must keep on watching.” We could be asking why human people do such inhumane things. We could also wonder why it’s ever ethical for filmmakers to ask that question. But what we’re super curious about right now is what on earth people - on a psychological level - get from engaging with true crime.
We clearly must benefit from cancelling our plans, hunkering down with a hot water bottle and wholesomely watching, uh, the detailed re-telling of one of the most notorious and gruesome serial killers the world has ever seen. Because hey, stats show we’re really watching them. And that many people can’t be wrong. Can they? Can we?
That latest Jeffery Dahmer series, starring Evan Peters and Molly Ringwald, was the fifth most successful Netflix release within the first week of all time, clocking in at almost 200 million hours watched. That’s a lot of watching. At the time of writing, it’s also the most popular TV show on the streaming service. And, turns out, there’s a lot of reasons why we, as a society, enjoy this sort of stuff (or at least, feel compelled to watch).
We’ll tick off the more obvious first up. “True crime is about real-life monsters and the capture of those monsters.” says Professor Adam Golub, who specialises in American popular culture at California State University, Fullerton. Essentially, it’s satisfying. Makes sense right? Look at history: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha (and Wagatha) Christie, Cluedo, Scooby Doo! It’s all about solving mysteries and capturing monsters. The first word of the Dahmer documentary is “monster”, and any brief Google of him brings up certainties - mugshots and images of him cuffs, the word “convicted” -we know he was caught and the promise of true crime is we get to see how the monster was snared.
Us knowing the person was caught brings us onto another reason why watching true crime feels good, and can be good for us: safety within fear. Now isn’t that a lovely and confusing phrase? What it means is “we can explore the dark sides of humanity at a safe distance” , says Dr Dean Fido Forensic Psychology lecturer at The University of Derby, (who has also written about true crime previously).
This is a big factor in the enjoyment of true crime. It means we can “access a safe space where we can encounter depravity and horror” and therefore “understand more about the extremes of human condition” as Golub and Fido both agree. It also shows us cautionary tales, but more than that, it provides a closure for “seeing evil punished, especially if you yourself have experienced any kind of trauma,” adds Golub.
There’s also the simple yet sweet sweet nature of escapism from the world. The prospect of autumn 2022 is pretty gloomy, the news heavy, and the days are drawing in. But hey, if you’re watching the step by step details of a lot of pretty horrible things,life and death things that are completely out of your own sense of how humans and the world works, it offers a distraction. It also puts the world into a broader perspective. In the same way as when you saw the news that the Suez Canal was blocked by someone and caused a $54 billion dollar loss in trade you might have thought less about that mistake you yourself made at work. This is inherently positive. Things could be worse.
This all points to the success of the television series of the moment, but this isn’t the first time a serial killer documentary has blown up on Netflix. Making A Murderer was hugely popular too, and more recently, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Yes, remember that? Remember the social media chaos when people started to think Ted Bundy (played by Zac Effron) was hot? It even prompted Netflix to tweet gently reminding everyone “that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service — almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers”.
Jeffery Dahmer is also getting the ‘he is hot’ treatment, too and the memefication of serial killers goes further, whether it’s comic reenactment, or lists of which star signs notorious serial killers were the internet is doing weird things to one of the evilest people going.
Sexualising or glamorising these convincingly convicted killers does seem vile in and of itself but there is also a reason for it that might make you feel a bit less awful for simply having thoughts: “Psychopaths are attractive, they are known to be charming” says Fido. “That is the entire point, it is how they are able to manipulate their way into situations.” Fido adds, before disclaiming that “Dahmer doesn’t tick the boxes of a psychopath. With him, there’s the danger element.” It is known that people get a huge dopamine hit from taking risks, such as doing something potentially dangerous, such as being attracted to bad boys. Fido says attraction to danger “is highly individual though, some people will not feel this way” but this also means many will, it’s also why we might sexualise fear, along with the general strange horribleness of super deviant people like serial killers. .
Hotness tangent aside, ultimately Sally Baker, a qualified therapist, says that we enjoy “true crime content because we enter a heightened state of excitement.” She adds that whether content is happy or macabre, “the brain doesn’t differentiate.” Intense is intense, so the general taboo shocking nature and almost unbelievable psychology behind murderous people tends to be very fascinating and intriguing. And therefore, we’re going to enjoy it, and that’s absolutely fine. Especially when it’s just on a TV that we can turn off whenever we please.
So yeah, true crime and bad people – not necessarily something to feel guilty about watching!