True crime stories are full of graphic details and morbidly intriguing plots. A seemingly unstoppable flood of reporting and stylized story structure is no doubt being pumped into the recommended tab of your Netflix account. True crime has become a staple of our media experience. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu regularly introduce viewers to various popular shows in the genre, such as Mindhunter, Unbelievable, and The Ted Bundy Tapes. Even podcasts like “Serial” and “Atlanta Monster” are being listened to in massive numbers, and those are just a few of the most popular.
One of the most popular ways that true crime stories are told is through fictionalized accounts of real life events. In Mindhunter, a Netflix original show that has recently become popular due to its high production cost and grim atmosphere, viewers hear the story of FBI special agents John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler (renamed Holden Ford and Bill Tench in the show) taking place in the 1960s during the formation of the Behavioural Science Unit (BSU) of the FBI. The agents, along with cutting edge psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr, travel the country interviewing repeat offenders of violent and/or sexually motivated crimes. They gather this information in hopes that it will apply to future investigations and that they can discover patterns in deviant behavior. Entertainment like this is filling every corner of the media. But why is this the case? It could be because of the ease of creating a script, an imagined conversation, or a subplot, tacked on to an existing true to life story. These stories are already out there, piquing curiosity; giving voice and dialogue to these characters is satisfying, on some level, to the informed viewer.
William McClendon is a history and psychology teacher at Franklin High School. McClendon says it is “probably the problem-solving aspect” that makes true crime stories more interesting than others. “People might find it more engaging to consider all the variables and to ‘solve’ the mystery.” If you examine all dramatizations of crime in our media (as opposed to a newspaper article), it is almost always represented through the lens of a detective. Every new lead, bit of data, tip, or hypothetical proposition being given to you is a new piece of a puzzle we wish to solve. “Some wonder if it’s a distraction from anxiety caused by the variables and mysteries in their own life,” adds McClendon. In other words, the morbidity and creepiness can draw our attention away from a stressor in our own lives. “It is easier to think about, and come to conclusions about someone else’s life.”
In Scott Bonn’s book Why We Love Serial Killers, he writes about some of the possible reasons for our interest in crime. One reason, he theorizes, might be the fact that killers like Ted Bundy are highly educated, successful, and charming, and could easily be your next-door neighbor. This familiarity contributes to fear, and possibly makes us more wary of our fellow man, providing a natural safety mechanism; the more knowledge you have about a potential foe, the more prepared you can be.
This curiosity is hardly a new one. The entertainment value of true crime can be traced back to 16th century Europe, when reporting of real crime stories skyrocketed in newspapers and theater performances. In the 19th century, The National Police Gazette wasan American magazine centered around criminology and lurid subject matter such as violence, nudity, and sex. These were all highly scandalous concepts, especially for the time.
It’s difficult to trace exactly when and what turned people towards watching true crime as much as they do today. But we have long been attracted to programs that showcase very real parts of society, such as courtrooms or an inside look at the life of a beloved star athlete. The People vs. OJ Simpson is one show that does a good job of creating a highly realistic and engaging account of the real life story of the OJ Simpson murders. This, along with other ‘mainstream’ murder stories, is heavily inspired by other shows, often with dark lighting and grim characters with muddied pasts.
But those are just the fictionalized stories of real happenings; another world of true crime media are the documentaries. Stella Holt Dupey, a freshman at FHS, says, “I’m pretty sure most homicides that have a reason behind them aren’t shown in [true crime media].” She is more interested in why it happened, rather than what happened. A connection can be made to this interest and the types of true crime publishings being made today, with most shows being made today featuring an investigation of the actions instead of an analysis of the mental state of the perpetrator. In 1988, Errol Morris released an in depth look at the murder of a Dallas police officer. It was a shock to the nation as it was the first of its kind.
When looking at the factors of the popularity of true crime in America, we not only realize the vast complexities of human nature, but also the more objective reality of humans’ interest in others. McClendon has this to say about true crime media: “The belief is that it may have to do with a natural tendency to be drawn to things that are out of the ordinary. We become accustomed to the usual things in our lives. The unusual therefore becomes stimulating. Or horrifying.”