America’s Morbid Fascination
Recently, true crime content has skyrocketed in popularity.
Written by Emma Smallwood
After a long day of work or school, you come home, curl up in bed, and instead of turning on a cheesy rom-com or a sitcom, you turn on a podcast about a brutal murder or page through a crime novel about a ruthless kidnapping. If you can relate to this scenario, you may have asked yourself: why do I enjoy this horrifying content, and where did this fascination begin?
In 1959, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock murdered a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas. The aftermath of these murders would change the face of American literature, with Truman Capote’s explosive crime novel “In Cold Blood” released the following decade. Capote explores the investigation of Smith and Hickock, and examines their motivations to kill, as the title suggests, in cold blood. This book became a national bestseller and shocked the American public with the details of this tragic crime. With the publication of “In Cold Blood,” the phenomenon of true crime content was born. Capote’s work is cited as the catalyst for America's interest in true crime, and over half a decade later, the impact of this novel can be seen in the ongoing public engrossment in crime content, from movies to podcasts.
. . . American culture seems to be inundated with true crime content in any format.
From TV shows such as “Mindhunter” and “Making a Murderer,” to podcasts including “Serial,” “Criminal” and “My Favorite Murder,” American culture seems to be inundated with true crime content in any format. Americans are obsessed with this morbid topic, and the reason why is relatively simple: evil fascinates us. For a large majority of the population, committing a murder is in the farthest recesses of our imaginations, and we cannot conceptualize the gravity of taking another person’s life. From the safety of our own homes, we are able to learn about some of the most twisted minds in human history, and feel secure in our own compassion for others. We are able to get an adrenaline rush from this content, without having to place ourselves or others in a dangerous situation. While many people may find “crime junkies” abnormal, professional psychologists consider an interest in true crime both normal and healthy.
Our evolutionary psychology is also a major factor in our true crime consumption. Since the first human civilizations were established, murder and assault have held a significant role in our society. As Sciencefocus.com states, “It’s in our nature to be highly attuned to criminal misdemeanors.” We are attuned to criminal behaviors, and drawn to learning more about them to protect ourselves. If we figure out how criminals “tick,” we can defend ourselves and our loved ones against potential attacks. Women tend to be more interested in true crime content than men, in part due to their unique evolutionary psychology: the more women know about serial killers, how they choose their victims and how these victims may escape, the more equipped they are to deal with these situations if they find themselves in one. Though many women might not understand their draw to consuming this content, the gruesome reality is that they are evolutionarily predisposed to learn all they can to better protect themselves.
. . . and the reason why is relatively simple: evil fascinates us.
Beyond evolutionary psychology, people have a habit of not being able to “look away from a train wreck.” When watching the news, you may overhear the details of a horrifying murder, and even though you are disgusted by it, you can’t help but keep up with the story. Americans specifically have become desensitized to graphic content, especially due to the uptick of mass shootings that have become the new normal. Mass shootings, tragedies and catastrophes have become so commonplace in the news cycles that Americans have become desensitized to death. In a society that is overwhelmed with tragedy, where fear can run rampant in uncontrolled scenarios, people enjoy consuming true crime content in a way that they can manage and control.
On the contrary, our increased interest in true crime reflects our progression as a society, as we are able to discuss taboo and morbid topics more openly than we ever have before. While crime has been sensationalized for decades, the amount of professional content being produced about true crime has seen a massive uptick in the past five years. Hit documentaries such as “Tiger King,” which amassed 64 million views within its first month after releasing, and “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” which garnered 1.268 billion minutes viewed in its first week, give us insight into the immense popularity of this genre. The true crime genre isn’t going anywhere, and its popularity highlights our willingness to discuss intense subjects.
We are attuned to criminal behaviors, and drawn to learning more about them to protect ourselves.
So what does this fascination truly say about Americans? It says that we practice healthy defense habits, we listen to our evolutionary psychology and we feel compassion for others. While many people may find an interest in true crime to be odd or even revolting, if true crime content is consumed a reasonable amount, it can have numerous benefits to our daily lives. The next time you question your motivations behind watching another episode of “Criminal Minds” or “Law and Order,” don’t feel guilty or confused by your intrigue — embrace your morbid interest, armed with the knowledge that a large portion of our society shares it with you.