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Why Are We Obsessed with True Crime and Fascinated by Serial Killers?

And is being into true crime a "red flag"? The answer is complicated.

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There’s a new article making the rounds that watching true crime documentaries is a red flag. And as a true crime enthusiast, the headline immediately made my skin crawl. But it’s not a new idea. Though true crime as a genre is enjoying growth and popularity, there’s still a stigma that comes with it. After all, who enjoys murder?

The last time these accusations flew, was over Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. There were vocal opponents who felt that the good reviews and record-breaking views were a sign of glorification. We were reveling in murder and ignoring the victims, who did not want the show made.

Maybe there were people who did. But I’m not sure millions of viewers were on Dahmer’s side. No one was rooting for him. Watching true crime—particularly anything serial killer related—isn’t only about enjoyment. It’s far more complicated than that.

Let’s go back in time. Inherent in our evolution were two things: curiosity and fear. Obviously, there’s more to our emotional drives and evolution than those two elements, but in terms of what pushed humans forward, both of them are critical. One forced us out of the trees, where we began walking upright to see over the tall grass. The other kept us alive.

Fast-forward thousands of years, and the two have helped us sustain ourselves while continually driving us to innovate, explore, wonder, and ask ‘what if’. What does that have to do with serial killers? I’m so happy you asked.

As humans, we want to understand things. This is hard-wired in us. If you don’t believe me, have a conversation with a five-year-old. After the ten thousandth ‘why’, you’ll see how important this need is. We want to understand. And woven into every true crime and serial killer documentary I’ve ever watched is this fundamental question.

Why? These shows are less about what happened, though they do cover that, but they focus on that core need to understand. If we don’t spend the time trying to figure out why something happened—even something as atrocious as multiple homicides—how can we ever stop it from happening again?

Maybe you think that should be reserved for the experts. The criminal profilers, police detectives, forensic psychologists, and criminal psychiatrists. And they absolutely play a fundamental role in shaping our understanding. But I don’t think it should stop there. 

Consider the fact that true crime has actually helped solve crime. Law enforcement has a long history of turning to the public for tips. If The New York Times and the Washington Post hadn’t published the Unabomber’s manifesto, his brother may never have put the factual clues together to help investigators find Ted Kaczynski. It was recognizing the subtle verbiage in the document that led to his capture and eventual conviction.

Podcasts and documentaries do the same. They bring new details to the public, small, tiny aspects of the case that can lead to new insight and arrests. They’ve helped find Kayla Unbehaun six years after her mother abducted her, led to the murder conviction of Robert Durst twelve years later, and freed Randall Adams from a wrongful conviction after serving more than ten years in prison.

But even more important than justice is prevention.

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  • Photo Credit: David von Diemar / Unsplash

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 2.6 million people in the United States were a victim of violent crime in 2020. That same year, 21,570 people were murdered. Given there are over 300 million people living in the US, this might seem like a small percentage. But for the victims and families of those crimes, these are more than numbers. These are lives. 

Right now, FBI profilers believe there may be as many as 2,000 active serial killers in the United States. That’s as many as 2,000 people, many unidentified with few leads, hunting innocent victims. These aren’t crimes of passion, accidental homicides, or mass shootings. These are predators, homing in on a group of people who share specific traits or behaviors, and murdering them. 

And that’s terrifying. 

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  • Photo Credit: Lacie Slezak / Unsplash

One common way to handle fear is to confront it. In his book, Whoever Fights Monsters, FBI criminal profiler Robert K. Ressler talks about why studying serial killers in particular is so important. There are specific points in child development that take dysfunction and mutate it into violent impulses. And even then, this is not something that happens overnight.

“Let me state unequivocally that there is no such thing as the person who at age thirty-five suddenly changes from being perfectly normal and erupts into totally, evil, disruptive, murderous behavior.” (p.83) Again, he’s talking specifically about serial killers—not impulsive, random violent criminal acts.

john wayne gacy books

Whoever Fights Monsters

By Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman

This is important because understanding what makes a violent offender is part of confronting fear. When you face unknowns, your brain doesn’t know how to handle it. You don’t have a cognitive map. And we’re barraged with nothing but violence in the news. There’s a common phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads”, that news agencies employ.

Lead stories on any news network, from your local news to national conglomerates, will latch onto violence and amplify it for views. Because they handle it in a clinical, often detached, perspective, it doesn’t get lambasted the same way a Netflix documentary does. These are journalists, police officers, and experts providing information. But research indicates that this constant exposure elevates anxiety levels in viewers, and more importantly, increases the overall feeling of helplessness.

Watching true crime can be one way to alleviate this. The more you watch the news and increase that feeling of helplessness, the larger your amygdala grows. This makes your fear response more powerful. But exposing yourself to a podcast, documentary, or true crime show, where often there are answers, arrests, and convictions in a tight, narrative format, can actually decrease this response. You learn that there are things you can do, ways you can protect yourself, and more importantly, consequences for many of the violent criminals who may commit a crime. 

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  • Photo Credit: John Tuesday / Unsplash

Going back to Ressler. Serial killers don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. There are signs. Things that people noticed and disregarded because they didn’t understand them. The more aware someone is of recognizing the signs that something is wrong, the better they can not potentially avoid devastating problems.

There is a low chance you will become the victim of a violent crime, roughly one in 10,000, but one in four women and one in nine men will be a victim of intimate domestic violence. One in ten US adults will fall victim to a scam or fraud. And then there are things that are harder to put a number on, like emotional manipulation, gas lighting, neglect, adultery, and more. Learning about serial killers doesn’t stop those, per se, but it can help you develop a skill that can: situational awareness.

Simply defined, situational awareness is being aware of the situation you are currently in. Where you are, who is around you, and what other factors may be important to note in the environment. When you’re walking alone in a dark parking lot, do you notice the pockets of shadows and spot the corners where people can hide? These are things self-defense classes teach you. To not look down. Observe faces. Always notice who, what, and where.

These are also things you learn to pick up when you watch true crime. You learn the situations involved in specific cases, and you can then use that knowledge to become more aware in future situations of your own life.

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  • Photo Credit: Ash Edmonds / Unsplash

When I was in college, it never occurred to me to watch my drink. But once I learned what a “roofie” was, I learned how to protect myself. When I began to study psychology, the more I realized that violent crime is only one aspect of all the ways people can hurt you. Situational awareness helps you avoid dangerous situations, but it also helps you avoid merely uncomfortable ones, too.

Women, in particular, are often shamed into being nice, polite, even when our instincts tell us something is off. We learn to stop listening to ourselves, favoring social niceties over our own safety. Situational awareness helps reverse this. True crime teaches you that you’re not always paranoid, you’re not always wrong.

When combined with a process known as “frontloading”, true crime can build confidence and create a feeling of control. Frontloading is a process that psychologists often use to help people learn to manage their anxiety and face difficult situations. When giving a speech, you frontload your presentation by not only practicing, but imagining—in great detail—what the stage will look like, what the stage lights will feel like, how the notecards will feel in your hand.

You walk through as much detail as possible so that your brain becomes comfortable with the situation before you encounter it. Does this mean you should imagine, in gruesome detail, being a victim of a crime? No. But thinking about how to keep yourself safe, how to be aware of your surroundings, and what you would do in certain situations can help ensure that when it comes to the worst happening, you are more likely to engage into fight or flight rather than freeze.

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  • Photo Credit: Roman Kraft / Unsplash

Finally, I hear the argument that true crime desensitizes watchers to the brutality of crime. This was expressed a lot when it came to Monster. Evan Peters is no stranger to playing monstrous characters, but because Jeffrey Dahmer was real, there was concern that the fans praising his performance were forgetting that crucial fact. He could make Dahmer “cool”, or worse, give him a more sympathetic angle with more focus than the victims.

Yet, no one has criticized the Milwaukee Journal for their bold-print “Body Parts Litter Apartment” headline, or the Marshfield News-Herald for plastering “Skulls, Torso Found” on the front page of their paper when Dahmer was first arrested. The cannibalistic nature of his crimes was always a featured talking point, often more than the victims, in almost every article I found. 

The news often sensationalizes crime, but somehow true crime shows, podcasts, and documentaries are held to a different standard. An article in Psychology Today even indicates that the news media—not the true crime genre—helped create the celebrity nature of many of the most famous serial killers. Charles Manson reportedly received over 60,000 letters a year from fans. Let me repeat that, from fans—of a serial killer. This was before true crime as an entertainment genre even existed. Only the news.

If there’s a glorification of serial killers exists, I’m not sure the evidence holds that Ryan Murphy, Evan Peters, or Netflix is responsible.

I mentioned before that the news increases anxiety and hopelessness. But true crime does the opposite. Studies show that rather than feeling helpless, people who watch true crime report feeling calmer and more in control. They feel like they are better prepared to face unknown situations. Many report feeling like they understand the criminal justice system—and all its flaws—better than they did prior to true crime. They even develop more empathy for the victims than the average person watching the news.

Rather than jumping to send serial killers a letter, they understand the unpredictability of life and realize that these horrific situations can happen to anyone at any time. They are not removed from the crime or drawn closer to the sensationalism of the criminal. But instead, identify with the victims and simply want to either help bring a criminal to justice, or prevent anyone from being victimized in the future.

Robert K. Ressler believed so much in the importance of studying serial killers, he devoted his career to building the Behavioral Analysis Unit in the FBI. These are extreme criminals committing extreme crimes, and that’s partly why we can’t help but fixate on them. They’re abnormal, and that is bound to draw our attention.

But as he explains in his book, when you understand the most extreme behavior, you can understand more moderate behavior. Dysfunction has become so normalized in today’s society that it can be difficult to parcel out what’s normal and what’s not. But when you stretch something to the extreme, it becomes easier to see. It can help you overcome difficult conversations with coworkers, avoid dysfunctional relationships, and even prevent smaller, pettier crimes from happening to you.

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  • Photo Credit: Mollie Sivaram / Unsplash

Obviously, in the same way constant news can elevate anxiety, so too can true crime. If you, like Dr. Thelma Tenni indicates, feel anxious, uncertain, and disconcerted after watching these shows or listening to a podcast, you should listen to your mind and body and try to process those complicated emotions in a different way.

If you have unprocessed trauma and find true crime triggering, I don’t think anyone would advocate that you should immerse yourself in something that further cements that trauma. And if you find that you trust the world less, you should stop and take a look at how true crime is affecting your mental health. But if you find that true crime helps you find a sense of control in a chaotic, often violent world, I don’t think you should let critics take that away from you. 

For myself, knowing what people are capable of in the extreme helps me understand how to protect myself before it ever gets that far. I’ve learned to identify abusive behavior, manipulative language, and dangerous situations. I listen to my gut and trust my instincts.

The more I understand serial killers and the more I watch true crime, the more I feel like these things aren’t as unpredictable as the news makes them out to be. There are warning signs and red flags. And they help me identify the things I can do to make my life safer. We all have our own ways of facing our fears and confronting our demons. This is mine.