The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
A few weeks ago in my Detective Fiction class, our professor assigned us to read the novel Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. This book details the exploits and crimes of real-life eighteenth-century criminal Jack Sheppard, who was known for robbing houses and his daring escapes from various prisons. In the preface of our class edition of the book, the editor noted how upon its publication in 1839, many critics were distressed by how this book “glamorized crime” and condemned Ainsworth for choosing to glorify a real criminal. It’s almost unsettling to see how this same sentiment of criticism and worry about humanizing and glorifying murderers and criminals still holds up in the present day, especially in regard to true-crime media.
What Is True-Crime Media
True crime media can be defined as documentaries, TV shows, movies, books, and other forms of media that delve into the details of actual crimes and the individuals involved in the event, be it the victim or the perpetrator of the crime. A few examples that immediately come to mind are Truman Capote’s 1996 novel In Cold Blood, which detailed the murder of the Clutter family, and more recently, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a Netflix limited series that explores the life and crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Why Are We So Drawn to Watching True Crime Media?
Knowing what this genre entails, perhaps you’re now left with the question of: “Why do we enjoy watching true crime media?” This question is perhaps the most pondered question for those entering the true crime community. It shouldn’t be logical for us to enjoy grisly and violent retellings of murders and acts of violence, and yet we’re still drawn to consuming true crime media, just like a passerby watching an impending trainwreck.
According to behavioral scientist and researcher Colton Scrivner, our general enjoyment of consuming true crime media alludes to the fact that “morbid curiosity is a common psychological trait” which consequently fuels our desire to examine these grisly crimes from the safety of our homes. Policing and criminology expert, Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen, also hypothesized that perhaps we watch true crime media to gain a sense of “control and knowledge” about subjects that we are usually unable to have in an uncertain and unpredictable world. It appears that various factors play a role in why we enjoy consuming true crime media.
The True Crime Media Landscape Today
Presently, the most popular forms of true crime media that I’ve seen so far are podcasts, documentaries, and YouTube videos in which creators film themselves eating or doing their makeup while describing a true crime story. I used to be a fan of consuming the last-mentioned form of true crime media. My guilty pleasure was watching certain YouTubers describe gruesome murders as they created elaborate makeup looks. However, this enjoyment would soon end.
I’m not going to name names, but the day I realized just how strange this trend was, was when I began to pay attention to the manner in which this creator and others handled their retelling of crimes and murders. In this case, I was horrified at the sheer nonchalance of this YouTuber casually detailing the gruesome murder of this poor victim while simultaneously commenting on how the chicken wings they were eating were too spicy, before swiftly segueing into a sponsored segment about VPNs. Needless to say, I lost my appetite.
It’s bizarre to me how people are all too eager to capitalize on this true crime trend while having such a stark lack of compassion, respect, or empathy for these victims and those still affected by this event. There has to be a certain line between using retellings of actual crimes to inform society of the existence of these horrific crimes and using these accounts as entertainment for consumers of media, but where exactly do we draw the line in terms of its ethicality?
The Harmful Effects of True Crime
I’m not writing this article to implore or guilt you into halting your consumption of true crime media completely. I’m not a believer in policing what people should or shouldn’t watch. Rather, I am encouraging you to acknowledge the harmful effects of this genre of media, especially with its recent boom in popularity (I’m sure there are already various true-crime documentaries and movies in production as I write this).
No matter how “ethical” or “good-hearted” these productions may be, there are still real people who are negatively affected by having to see the death and murder of their family member or friend turned into a spectacle and broadcast on popular streaming services. All these grisly reproductions of these murders do is just retraumatize the victim’s families and friends who are still grieving or processing the loss of their loved ones. It’s unnecessary and cruel. However, it should also be acknowledged that these kinds of productions that exclusively exploit the families of victims for entertainment and their own profit are few and far between. They’re the exception, not the rule.
It’s okay to enjoy true crime media, just remember that behind the somber or scary-story-like retellings of these crimes and murders, there are very real people behind these stories. As with all forms and genres of media, consume responsibly and in a healthy manner.