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What’s With America’s Obsession with True Crime?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UFL chapter.

Is it healthy to glorify serial killers?

Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy. You don’t have to be a criminology fiend to automatically recognize these names. It’s because their evil legacies of murder have led the media to put them up on a pedestal, making sure they are never forgotten. The question is, is that a good thing or a bad one?

For example, “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” has been a talked-about show on Netflix since its debut in late February. It’s a true story about a powerful family in South Carolina and how their secrets were exposed to the community. Real interviews and people involved in the case are used in the miniseries. I did indeed watch this with my family during spring break, and I can’t lie and say we weren’t hooked. But why? Why would we use time out of our days to sit down and watch awful crimes others have committed, even though the endings are usually apparent right from the get-go? 

With multiple aspects of the media chiming in on this issue, surely the academic world had to get involved. True crime is a topic that’s studied by many in the world of college academia. In 2019, Forbes interviewed Amanda Vicary, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who focuses on the social psychology behind crime and media usage. She notes that true crime fans are more likely to be women when looking at podcast usage data. Furthermore, more true crime books are reviewed by women over men according to her research in the Social, Psychological and Personality Science Journal. Female reading rates were also high when the victim of the story was the same gender as its reader. “My thinking is that this fear is leading women, even subconsciously, to be interested in true crime, because they want to learn how to prevent it,” Vicary said. Basically, knowing what has happened to victims in the past could make your chances of being one yourself a little lower by knowing the crucial things that they didn’t.

Prevalence of True Crime as a Form of Entertainment

A YouGovAmerica survey saw that one out of three people watch true crime on TV at least once a week. Acenda Integrated Health realized this ever-growing popularity and wrote an article on knowing when “how much is too much.” Signs to look for are being consistently wary of others, feeling scared of the “what-ifs” and feeling paranoid even in your own home. These mental health effects of true crime can be reduced if mixed with other genres or simply cutting back on it entirely. 

These true crime retellings and their effects aren’t something new, though. MovieWeb’s article tells us that during the Ming Dynasty way back in the 1500s, people loved to collect true stories of fraud to share with others. Another origin of true crime is Jack the Ripper’s fame in the late 1800s, where newspapers across the globe detailed the murders in London. “Most of these killers long for attention and fame. By creating different retellings of their abominable actions, we keep them alive long after their deaths,” MovieWeb states. 

The next batch of these true crime programs is already coming out of the cinematic oven at the end of this month. “Love and Death” stars Elizabeth Olsen in the retelling of Candy Montgomery, a wife in small-town Texas who kills her friend Betty Gore after having an affair with Betty’s husband. The “Scarlet Witch” actress is sure to bring in a lot of viewers for HBO Max and make Candy Montgomery even more of a household name after Jessica Biel played her only eleven months ago on Hulu’s “Candy.” 

Romanticization and why it Happens

It doesn’t help that Hollywood’s best-looking actors like Zac Efron portray serial killers, which brings in the problem of romanticizing these men. In 2019, New York Daily News wrote that “experts say people are attracted to serial killers like Bundy, in part, because they want to understand their horrible acts.” This human instinct to sympathize with these killers can turn into an obsession. Proving this point even more is the fact that Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and more received many love letters and marriage proposals while imprisoned, as laid out in the previously mentioned article. 

The Effects on Victims’ Families

The families of the victims of these heinous crimes suffer when these programs debut. For example, in Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” family members were not asked for permission nor made aware of the show until it was released to the public. And it isn’t only in the television category that this problem exists: true crime novels also affect the “characters” in them, who are real people with real lives. This can be seen through Time’s article in 2020, where Rosalee Clark speaks of how she found out a book about her three murdered relatives had been written without her knowledge. “We’re fuel for people’s fascination,” this Australian woman told the Times. Yet, there are cases where these shows can reveal that the world has not forgotten these victims. Also included in the previous article, Kevin Sova felt this way when his young brother’s death was included in Netflix’s “Unsolved Mysteries.” 

Am I making all these problems hypocritically worse by writing about this? The killers live on when the media gives them the limelight, but the names of their victims fade into the shadows. I don’t foresee the country’s fascination with true crime ever slowing down with the rate its accelerating at in pop culture. I’ve been guilty of watching it in the past, it’s true. After all, it is a good way to keep up with current events and/or history while being a thrilling form of entertainment. It can also open back up old cases with reinvigorated public support or even cause new tips to be given to the police. For now, it’s up to you to decide whether you choose to contribute to true crime’s popularity after reading about the potential risks to yourself and to others involved in what may seem worlds away for you, but nonfiction through and through for them.

At the time that these articles were written, Brooke was a second-year journalism major at the University of Florida. She is from Miami and is a triplet! Brooke enjoys reading fiction, watching Marvel and DC movies/shows, growing in her Christian faith and spending time with friends and family. She hopes to apply her passions for writing and editing in her future career.