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The true crime craze seems to always be growing, from documentaries to nonfiction books to podcasts (my pick of true crime poison), and it doesn’t seem like its popularity is coming to a halt anytime soon. You wouldn’t imagine how many people cozy up in bed at night to listen to the tales of John Wayne Gacy or Jack the Ripper, but getting to know all the secrets and stories surrounding America’s most famous killers and criminals can become obsessive and ultimately, psychologically straining. Here is a breakdown to explain why we love true crime so much, the psychological effects of true crime and the benefits of regulating your true crime intake.

Why We Love True Crime

When it comes to true crime, it seems there are only two positions someone can take: obsession or judging those with an obsession. Although people who have no interest in true crime may think you’re a creep for wanting to know details about gruesome murders and psychopaths, there are solid reasons for enjoying true crime. McKenna Princing from UW Medicine claims that we love true crime so much, because it has all the elements of good storytelling: “Interesting characters, a sense of urgency and tension that is (in most cases) released when the mystery is solved at the end.” Through this type of storytelling, we can experience catharsis in a controlled setting and with controlled subjects and emotions, which can be extremely therapeutic for individuals. “It’s really common and normal to enjoy things that involve experiencing difficult emotions in safe ways, like rollercoasters and horror movies and sad films,” says Emily Dworkin, a researcher at UW Medicine. From a more psychological standpoint, Chivonna Childs, PhD, explains that it’s simply human nature to be inquisitive about things we don’t understand. “True crime appeals to us, because we get a glimpse into the mind of a real person who has committed a heinous act,” she further clarifies. No matter what perspective you look at true crime with, though, it is a popular and interesting form of entertainment that many people can shamelessly enjoy. But where do you cross the line into an unhealthy true crime obsession?

Psychological Effects of True Crime

Drawing the line between true crime enjoyment and obsession can be difficult, but noticing some of these psychological effects of true crime can help determine when it might be time to take a break or cut back.

Desensitization

This theory suggests that the more we are exposed to a certain stimulus, the less we respond to it, which is the basis for Purdue University Professor Glen Sparks’ research that found “escalating violence on-screen can make us more tolerant of it in real life.” Basically, the more true crime we consume, the more we deem it acceptable in real life. Desensitization ultimately leads to individuals becoming more violent themselves and less likely to provoke emotional responses.

Increased Anxiety, Fear, and Paranoia

Although obvious to some, true crime can lead to anxiety, paranoia, and fear with the gruesome, grisly and ghastly stories it entails. Dr. Chivona Childs says that initial curiosity with true crime commonly turns into a fear-based obsession that isn’t enjoyable anymore. Consuming stories that reveal the worst parts of humanity can also make you overly suspicious, wary and fearful of those around you.

Restricting Normal Behaviors

Due to increased anxiety, fear, and paranoia, true crime can lead to individuals restricting normal behavior in life like going to the grocery store, leaving the house at night or even sleeping. Although it is good to be somewhat distrustful of humanity, true crime may be doing more harm than good when it causes you to isolate yourself from everyday life activities.

Benefits of Regulating True Crime Intake

When the psychological effects of true crime start to inhibit your life, regulating your intake may be the perfect solution, according to Steph Coelho, a writer who shares her personal encounter with the negative psychological effects of an unhealthy true crime obsession and how she overcame her problem. In her article, Coelho recounts how an initial interest in serial killers in middle school led to her entry into the true crime podcast world, eventually leading to her tipping point after years of gobbling up true crime knowledge and stories. Calling 911 after a frightful incident caused overwhelming and almost unbearable levels of emotion and anxiety because of all the true crime Coelho had consumed over the previous years. She felt that the stories she had been listening to in order to help her be more prepared in life-threatening situations actually hurt her more in the long run due to the extreme anxiety that she had developed. After this situation, Coelho decided to cut back on true crime, and she saw amazing benefits. Doors, locks, and windows didn’t need to be checked multiple times throughout the night anymore because her “mind was no longer occupied 24/7 with the fear that someone might decide to kill” her. 

If you struggle with a true crime obsession or anything close to it, start reclaiming your leisure time with sparks of joy, like comedy, as Steph Coelho has. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole of fear, anxiety and paranoia that a true crime obsession brings.

Hi, I'm Carlena:) I am a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, pursuing a Communication major and a GSWS minor. I enjoy camping, skiing, reading, listening to music and podcasts, staying busy, and hanging out with my friends.
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