Why Are People Obsessed With Watching True Crime Series?
Experts explain why arm-chair criminologists are consuming true crimes to a point of obsession and lighting up social media with amateur analyses.
So many people are guilty of it: binge-watching Netflix’s latest true crime documentary on a day off. From “Making a Murderer” to “The Keepers” to “Amanda Knox,” audiences are dying to delve into these mysteries.
If viewers opened the service now, they'll likely stream “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” released on the 30th anniversary of the notorious murderer’s execution. Netflix promises an intimate look inside the mind of the monster with never-before-heard death row audio recordings and harrowing archival footage.
But despite the violent murders and heinous crimes examined in these true crime series, arm-chair criminologists are consuming them to a point of obsession and lighting up social media with amateur analyses. In 2014, Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” became the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes, according to Apple, and it continues to top the charts today. And nearly 8 million people watched the season finale of "Making a Murderer" within a month of the series' release in December 2015, NBC News reported.
What exactly is compelling viewers to devour true crime? It seems pretty twisted on the surface: immersing oneself in the sin and death of others without ever leaving the comfort of home. But some experts argue the fascination goes much deeper. Watching these stories triggers a person’s most primal human instincts: We are curious about the bizarre. We fear the monsters under our beds. And we need to know what separates us from the murderer.
We Like Being Scared Safely
Whether it’s a dramatic documentary or popular podcast, true crime gets audiences hooked with a heart-pumping formula, criminologist and author Dr. Scott Bonn told InsideEdition.com.
Focusing on some “horrific event,” the shows “trigger our primal instinct of fear.”
“They … take us into the woods, so to speak. Scare the heck out of us. Walk us around in the dark and then, ultimately, by the end of the show, they reveal the perpetrator and bring us back into the sunlight. And justice has prevailed,” says Bonn, whose new crime novel "Evil Guardian" is based on his conversations with real-life serial killers.
A rush of adrenaline comes with the return of sunlight, and viewers are addicted to the thrill. Bonn compares this to the same “visceral reaction” children get from monster movies, roller coasters and haunted houses.
“We love that thrill factor,” Bonn added.
Now viewers don’t actually want to have a deadly encounter with a Steven Avery or an Adnan Syed. It is the simulation of that fear in a controlled environment that keeps audiences coming back.
“We don’t have to actually be face-to-face with evil in order to understand it. We can sit back, enjoy a bowl of popcorn, and within one hour, have evil resolved,” Bonn said.
One psychiatrist says viewers even find pleasure in this feeling of security, thankful that it’s someone else’s body in the bag.
“It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else,” Dr. Sharon Packer, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told New York Post’s Decider.com. “There’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”
We're Intrigued by the Violent 'Boy Next Door'
Some murderers are just so incomprehensible that it’s hard to believe they committed the crimes. How could this person do such a violent thing, viewers often ask. It just doesn’t make sense.
“Part of the human condition is to identify with all things, even things that we might identify as evil,” Bonn explained. “Because if we can get close enough to them and understand them and figure them out, then they’re less frightening to us.”
Take Ted Bundy: a handsome and charismatic guy, Bonn says. Because he literally could be the boy next door, he is “particularly frightening to us” and it seems “irrational” that he could be such a monster.
“That means that most anyone could be a serial killer,” Bonn said. “We’re driven to try to understand their mentality, understand their motivations, understand what drove them to do this. Because if we’re able to do that, then somehow our fear has been resolved."
Joe Berlinger, who created “Conversations With a Killer,” says the audio recordings used in his documentary will help people see why Bundy was "so well-liked."
“When you listen to these tapes, you understand why that charisma was allowed to keep him from getting apprehended all those years,” Berlinger told Inside Edition. “So what I intellectually knew, I emotionally felt listening to these tapes.”
On the other hand, Robert Durst, profiled in the 2015 HBO docu-series "The Jinx," may not seem as motivated or as sure of himself as Bundy appeared, but that too is why his role as an accused killer is just as confusing for viewers.
Durst was charged in Texas in 2003 of killing his neighbor but was acquitted after claiming it was self-defense. In October, a judge ordered Durst to stand trial in California in connection with the 2000 murder of his friend. He has pleaded not guilty.
“Many of these cases that are presented … are just so bizarre and so extreme in the brutality, in the callousness, that we want to try to understand the mindset of the individual who would perpetrate these things,” Bonn said.
Berlinger says his new documentary allows people to do just that: “You hear from the mind of the killer.”
He called the series a “deep, dark descent into how this guy operates,” saying it’s “utterly fascinating.”
We Need to Know We're Not the Killer
A person’s darkest emotions draw them to true crime, says Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a clinical psychologist in Chicago.
“From the time that we are a young child, we are undeniably intrigued by good versus evil,” she told Advocate Health Care’s Health Enews.
However, she adds that as people are taught to suppress their violent inclinations toward others, true crime marathons become an outlet, allowing viewers to experience those feelings without ever acting on them. Audiences are able to connect to that anger in a controlled environment, much like how they connect to fear.
Packer goes further. She says there’s something else that’s “a little bit darker, that a lot of people don’t want to accept.”
We’re relieved we didn’t do it.
She explains that everyone gets angry at some point. People are often heard saying they could kill someone — perhaps an unpleasant ex, in-law or co-worker. “But almost no one does that, thankfully,” Packer said.
“But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone. It wasn’t me. Thank God.’ And so there’s [a] sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them. Someone else did,” Packer said.
There’s a “tremendous appeal,” she added, in people knowing they weren’t “the ones that lost control.”
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