As a genre, True Crime is dominating both streaming services and podcasts. According to one survey, it was the third-most-popular genre in the medium in 2021—outpacing sports and even politics—and it’s produced a new breed of semi-celebrities, such as the hosts of My Favorite Murder and Crime Weekly.
In this article, we’re tackling the question, “Why in the world are we as a society so interested in serial killers?” And, this question’s more pressing counterpart, “Is our fascination with serial killers bizarre or normal?”
According to psychologists and other professionals, here are solid reasons that your fascination with serial killers makes sense in our current day and age.
You’re Not a Serial Killer
Shout out to all the non-serial killers out there! We’re out here living our best lives and being productive members of society. We are, according to Dr. Michael Mantell, former Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department, “Normal and healthy.”
Mantell goes on to say, “I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.” He also mentions there are some limits. “If all you do is read about crime and […] all you do is talk about it and have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I’d be concerned.”
So would we, Dr. Mantell. So would we.
You Want to Solve Mysteries
You’re not a detective. The FBI doesn’t ask for your advice on anything. You haven’t even had the pleasure of being a Hall Monitor since 6th grade. BUT, you do enjoy problem-solving, and you’re good at mining small details out of significant, complex issues. In short, you’d love to have a mystery to solve.
Humans like puzzles. True crime shows and podcasts energize our minds and make us feel like we’re exercising our brain cells. “By following an investigation on TV,” Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers, writes, “people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”
A professor of Forensic Psychology at DeSales University, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, told online magazine Hopes & Fears, “Most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve.”
Puzzles challenge our minds, and solving the puzzles provides closure.
You Like to Scare Yourself (As Long As You’re in Control)
When we were kids and wanted to scare ourselves, we would often make blanket forts, shine flashlights under our chins, and tell scary stories, right? Well, we haven’t changed much since those slumber parties in grade school. Except now, the stories are more terrifying, and we let someone else tell them to us.
Mr. Bonn (author of Why We Love Serial Killers) writes, “As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.” He goes on, “For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.”
Harold Schechter, the author of The Serial Killer Files, said something similar to the BBC. He purports that stories surrounding serial killers are “Fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”
It seems a significant number of our population wants to peer into the darker side of life from the safety of our couches.
Because You Like Listening to Stories Told Well
When a child asks us to tell her a story, we’re going to choose a children’s book off of her little bookshelf and put on our best character voices. Storytelling is part of childhood, and the tradition continues into our adult years.
“For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, ‘Tell me a story,’” Lt. Joe Kenda, a former detective and host of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss in 2017. “If you tell it well, they’ll ask you to tell another one. If you can tell a story about real people involved in real things, that draws their interest more than something some Hollywood scriptwriter made up that always has the same components and the same ending.”
Not only are stories involving serial killers true, but they also follow a narrative style nearly every human being has come to understand.
Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told the online magazine Hopes & Fears, “To see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share. In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved.”
There is a clear beginning, middle, and end to every story, even in mysteries.
You’re Grateful You’re Not the Victim
Have you ever gotten to the end of a True Crime documentary and thought, “Whew! I’m glad that wasn’t me!” Of course, you have. We all have. That doesn’t mean we lack empathy for the victim or fear that we could be next; it means you are grateful the dastardly events you just witnessed on screen are not a part of your real life or death.
Psychologists say one of the main reasons we’re obsessed with true crime is that it allows us to feel relieved that we’re not the victim. Tamron Hall, host of Investigation Discovery’s Deadline: Crime, speaks to this relief, “I think all of you guys watch our shows and say, ‘But for the grace of God, this could happen to me’ … This could happen to anyone we know.”
Furthermore, the German language has a word–schadenfreude–which means getting enjoyment from the trouble experienced by other people. The word denotes a sense of relief in finding out something happened to someone else rather than you.
Knowledge May Keep You Safe
It’s safe to say that if you regularly listen to podcasts about serial killers or are likely to click on the latest true crime documentary on Netflix, you lock your doors at night. You also check to ensure your windows are secure, your video cameras are in working order, and you don’t post your location on social media. These are all choices we’ve learned over time as we’ve discovered the evil that lurks outside our doors.
Some reports explain women, in particular, seek out true crime stories because they can intuit tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
One study found that women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on defending against an attacker. The study’s lead author, Amanda Vicary, told The Huffington Post, “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men […] The characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.”
The more you know!
We Can’t Look Away From a Car Accident
We’ve all been driving along a highway or side street and, suddenly, come upon an accident that appears to be rather grizzly. There are ambulance lights, police cars, and flares lining the road. The more first response vehicles there are, the worse the accident scene will be. You don’t want to accidentally see something you can never unsee–like a child laying in the street or a bloody hand dangling from a car window. So, you look away . . .then, at the last minute, you look and see all the things you wish you wouldn’t have. Why do you do that? Why do we all do that?
A professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, Scott Bonn, wrote in an issue of TIME, “Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters. The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold, but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
Scott Bonn gets us.
Your Fascination is Equal to Your Fear
Crime is as old as human beings. Since the beginning of time, we’ve been stealing, harming, and slandering one another as part of our survival tactics. As horrible as that sounds, even Darwin had us pegged when he wrote about the survival of the fittest. Fortunately, most of us have evolved past the point of pillaging and destroying as a means of getting ahead. Even so, as a species, we’ve been well aware of crime since day one.
Along with our fascination for crime, we now have the media to fuel the proverbial fire. “Since the ‘50s, we have been bombarded … in the media with accounts of crime stories, and it probably came to real fruition in the ‘70s,” says Dr. Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department. “Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime.”
Dr. Mantell also noted that “The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today [deals] with crime–particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list.”
In the case of True Crime, we seem to be fascinated by what we fear.
Evil Exists and You Want to Understand It
While most of us go about our daily lives not paying much attention to the idea of evil, we are all well aware it exists. We tend to think of evil as something that lives far away and wouldn’t necessarily barge into our personal lives. Even so, bad things happen to ordinary people all the time.
True crime gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who have committed murder, which forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse.”
Dr. Mattiuzzi goes on to write, “In every case, there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.” This fascination with good versus evil, according to Mantell, has existed forever, and it begins when we are children.
You Care What Happens to Your Family and Neighbors
According to Dr. Marissa Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State, “People are interested in true crime because we’ve evolved to pay attention to things that could harm us so that we can better avoid them.”
Those who also care for our family and friends are also profoundly interested in information that could help us protect our loved ones. There is even a sentiment in marketing that goes, “Don’t tell people how you can help them; tell people how they can help the ones they love.” Supporting the people we love is a great motivator!
Harrison goes on to say, “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli.”
You might learn something that will help someone you love if you pay attention.