Serial Binger - Why Do We Love True Crime?

I remember those late nights with my friends where we would gather junk food, swap silly bands, gush over boys in our middle school classes, and end the night all huddled together wrapped in our blankets exchanging ghost and horror stories like they were trading cards. Making your way through the entire story was like a badge of honour, and chickening out was social suicide. I even remember tip-toeing in bathrooms, worried about summoning Bloody Mary and watching my back in campsites terrified that a psycho killer with an axe was on my tail. But that didn’t stop me and every other kid I knew from constantly talking about the things that terrified us as soon as the sunset. The darkness was a time to see who was the bravest and bond over one commonality – fear. I believe this behaviour is where my fascination with the dark and unknown began. The only difference is instead of telling spooky stories, I now listen to real ones in the form of true crime podcasts and movies. This begs the question: Why is the true-crime genre so fascinating?

The popularity of the genre these days is hard to ignore. From a constant stream of new and exciting true-crime documentaries on Netflix to everyone and their sister making podcasts about popular murders, to walking into Chapters and being greeted with aisles of crime novels that send shivers down your spine. Fascination with the dark and twisted can be traced back to our childhoods when we were told traditional stories of good versus evil. We have been taught to look for this storyline in everything we see, ever since we were read bedtime stories and told nursery rhymes. Some have even traced this phenomenon back to Hansel and Grettle, referring to it as an example of a crime fairytale. Not only are we trained to root for good and ward off evil from a young age, but when I was young, those who told scary stories were seen as “cool” and “mature”. I remember being called a little kid or a chicken if I couldn’t stomach them, which probably made me grow a thicker skin when it came to these topics. 

What’s even crazier about the audience of true crime media is that a vast majority of the demographic are women. According to a 2020 study, 70% of Amazon reviews of true crime books come from women. This number may seem insignificant because of its reference to book reviews, so I’ll give you a comparison. Men make up 80% of the reviews on Amazon for books about war. The causation between women and true crime is hard to trace because women aren’t even strictly more involved in violent criminal acts. In fact, men are more likely to be both the perpetrator and the victim. The only statistics that could be attributed to this are that women are more likely to be the victim in domestic homicide cases (given that they make up 70%). 

All of that being said, experts have put together some possible reasons as to why women may be drawn to true crime. The first reason that several experts cite is that women may look at these cases subconsciously as education, out of fear of becoming victims themselves. This may seem crazy, but I know that when I listen to these podcasts, it definitely changes the way I look at the world. Sometimes, I become more paranoid, but other times I learn some of the best safety practices. According to a study done in 2017, young women ranked the highest among those who reported being the victims (and survivors) of violent crimes. 

Other experts have branched off on this idea, and have said that they believe some women tune into this content because they are glad they aren’t the victim. Popular true crime cases that are cult favourites often depict a damsel in distress, and many think that subconsciously, women keep listening because they are thankful they aren’t being victimized themselves. This theory is backed up with the fact that most women choose to listen and/or read true crime cases that contain female victims. The last female specific conclusion that I found is that part of our fascination for the genre comes from our potential compassion. Not only may we be glad that we aren’t the victim, but we also naturally feel a great deal of sympathy towards the person that is. This makes us finish the entire story, and sometimes even take the extra step of researching further to find out if justice was ever served. This active viewership can be seen by looking at crime forums, being that the majority of commenters and account moderators are women. 

Even though this audience is dominated by women, the popularity of true crime extends to all genders. There are biological and psychological reasons as to why everyone is intrigued by the dark and the twisted. The main one is that these realities differ so much from our everyday lives. In the oddest way, consuming true crime is a form of escapism because it immerses you in a completely different environment and psyche. This gives you insight into how someone completely different than you thinks and acts, and this itself is very intriguing. Another very common reason why these stories keep us listening to every disturbing detail, is that they make small connections between the listener’s own life and the lives of the unspeakably horrific. Yes, I did just say these realities are different, but like many horror movies, the beginning often rings true for many. After all, they often start with the victim walking home late at night, stumbling home after a night of drinking or even meeting the wrong person online with one finger swipe that would ultimately cut their life short. 

All of these situations are very familiar to us, and make us realize that these terrible circumstances could happen to anyone. The 24 hour news cycle has also been named as a culprit contributing to the mass obsession with true crime. Since we are constantly being bombarded with shocking news, so much so that sometimes it feels inescapable, we can become numb to the disturbing. This can cause people to quickly get over their initial shock, and purely feel interest instead of disgust. Also, since this topic is so taboo and controversial, enjoying its content comes with a great deal of stigma. That is why the rise of true crime podcasts have strengthened the community. These online shows give us permission to be interested in horrific topics, because they create a community of like minded users.  

Lastly, humans love puzzles. When engaging in online debate and gathering information from unsolved cases, we are living out a detective fantasy. Coming to our own conclusions can sometimes make us feel like we are helping solve cases in real time. This gratification can be stimulated by following the victim’s family on social media and reading updates about their case. This love for puzzles and the unknown is natural, but I have seen this turn into obsession and then unfortunately morph into harassment. True crime fans sometimes get overly invested in cases, to the point where their interest becomes obsession and can even lead to harassing those involved. Sometimes those people are the victim’s families themselves. That being said, enjoying any genre is healthy, it’s just important to remember that these cases involve real people and consequences. 

All of this being said, I am, and will continue to be, an active consumer of true crime media. From a personal perspective, I think the main reasons why I enjoy the content is my fascination with puzzles, and the mix of shock and empathy I have for victims and their loved ones. Even though I consume this content, the way I do so is very specific. I can’t stomach highly narrated and tacitly scary transmittals of true crime. These become too much for me to handle,  causing me to sleep with my light on, constantly checking behind my back. Instead, I find odd comfort in selecting YouTubers and podcasters that I find relatable and friendly. 

If you are looking for a new true crime YouTube channel that makes a difference, I would suggest Kendall Rae. Not only is she a total sweetheart, but many of her videos make real positive change in people's lives. Those about missing children often involve a charity campaign donating to Thorn, an organization that uses technology to bring missing children home to their families and serve justice to the perpetrators. She also involves the victim’s family in some of the videos, to provide their perspective. Her heart is always in the right place and that kind of empathy is truly heartwarming. I also highly recommend Crime Junkies the podcast. One of the hosts (Ashley Flowers), works to support professionals working for Crime Stoppers, making her perspective unique. Also, the back and forth between her and her co-host, Brit Prawat, makes the entire experience very enjoyable. Liking this kind of content doesn’t make you a monster, it just makes you interested in their minds, and that is just totally normal.