The Psychology Behind: Enjoying True Crime

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Picking up from our previous “hate-watching” topic, we continue our series exploring specific genres in digital escapism. That’s right, this week it’s all about the fascination around True Crime! In the last decade, True crime shows, documentaries and podcasts have skyrocketed in popularity. Serial killers, old murder cases with ambiguous outcomes, swindlers, and white-collar crimes – the world has become increasingly fascinated with accounts of criminals and the stories surrounding them.What’s more intriguing is that the nature of some of these accounts can get quite gory and graphic, and it begs the question: what is it about these stories that many of us feel so drawn to? How do we enjoy the content without feeling the weight of what transpired?

Fascination With the Morally Flawed, Forbidden and Villainous

Most human beings live by an order of laws and an inherent sense of moral correctness. While we all tend to make mistakes and genuine errors in judgment with the best intentions at heart, others break the rules for malicious reasons. This creates a natural fascination with said rule breakers. We think to ourselves: how could they do something like that? What was going on in their minds? How could someone be that cruel? There must be a reason, an explanation.

We dig further and further into the story and uncover the narrative behind the criminals. Their psyche, their motivations, past traumas, and family history. It’s our way of making sense of a situation that doesn’t align with our values and moral systems.

Let’s not ignore our fascination with villains. Every story has one, and when it comes to true crime, it’s the perfect place to find them. The stage is set: the victim(s), the crime, and the bad guy.

The Balance of Conflict, Resolution, Engagement and Curiosity

In my last piece, I spoke about human curiosity. We all feel drawn to specific stories – cases within the true crime genre have often been resolved, and they become tales with a beginning, middle and end. They are also filled with intriguing details, laced with the dark side of humanity, a trail of breadcrumbs, clues and analysis that often pique the interests of those drawn towards understanding human nature and piecing a puzzle together. By the end, the audience gets a conclusion to the story and is left with the case settled, completing the story cycle.

Be Your Own Judge: The Serial Effect

While most true crime stories have undisputed endings, some cases are so engaging and ambiguous that it allows one to throw on their Sherlock Holmes hat, bring out a blackboard and play detective. When I think about this dimension of True Crime, the first thing that springs to my mind is the popular podcast “Serial.”

The first season of the series revolved around an investigative journalist named Sarah Koeingtaking an interest in a murder case from the ’90s, where a Muslim boy named Adnan Syed was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Adnan was found guilty and was given a life sentence. Sarah found that Adnan’s case was mishandled and that there was evidence never presented at trial that could prove Adnan’s innocence. The podcast gained so much popularity and traction that it eventually led to Syed’s exoneration over twenty years after his conviction.

Cases like this often lead one to form their own opinions and understanding of what happened, giving the audience a chance to create their own ending. Some vigorously believed in Syed’s innocence, while others were still unconvinced. While this may not wholly satisfy one’s desire for closure, some people find fascination in the ambiguity and being able to create their own endings.

State of Emotional Distancing and Fictionalizing

When we watch a fictional show or movie with distressing content, we often take comfort in the
fact that these events did not happen. The same can’t be said about true crime. The stories are
based on actual events, and as a result, what tends to happen is that while we know the cases are
factual, our mind and body will distance themselves from this truth and react to the content as if
it were fictitious. This allows us to engage with the stories without fully feeling their emotional
weight. Essentially, we are free to explore the narrative and its fearful, thrilling aspects from an
emotionally grounded and safe distance.

True crime, in short, provides audiences with intellectual stimulation and serves as a form of escapism. Whether it’s the rush we get from learning about the racy details of each case or whether it’s about fulfilling our innate curiosity, the fact is that the true crime genre satisfies a lot of our intellectual needs. What are your thoughts on the True Crime genre? What draws you in?

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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