One day, I came home to my college roommate watching an episode of Criminal Minds. I became so invested in the show that I spent the rest of my summer vacation watching the series. Even though the show made me so paranoid I couldn’t go on a run without looking over my shoulder, I couldn’t look away. Fast-forward five years, and I’m still watching true crime shows.
Why is it that I — and many other people — find true crime stories so fascinating? Find out below.
Crime is thrilling
Dr. Scott Bonn, Ph.D., author and professor of criminology at Drew University, has studied the rising obsession with true crime. According to him, “The actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold, but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the thrill of the spectacle.”
True crime is a rollercoaster ride
Audiences “receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing the terrible deeds of a serial killer,” Bonn says. He likens the adrenaline rush of crime shows to a child riding a rollercoaster until they’re sick. In his opinion, crime shows are the adult version of riding a rollercoaster; they feed our love of adrenaline. “Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain,” says Bonn.
Everyone can be an armchair detective
If you grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, true crime shows can be a way to test your deductive reasoning skills. According to Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., bestselling author, professor of Forensic Psychology, and Director of Master of Criminal Justice Program at DeSales University, “Most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve … it is also a challenge that stimulates the brain.”
Other reasons from crime experts
Award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author M. William Phelps says, “We watch because we are fascinated by the psychopath, how he or she thinks, what motivates him/her, and what he/she will do next.” We can’t help but want to know what drove someone to commit a violent crime — in essence, why they are the way they are.
We learn from true crime stories
True crime shows are essentially cautionary tales warning people not to walk home alone or jog in secluded areas. According to Marissa Harrison, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, you have an “evolved mechanism to hone in to something that can harm you, so that you can avoid.” So, our fascination with true crime stems, at least in part, from our need to keep ourselves safe. Harrison says it’s similar to the way our ancestors survived by knowing what horrible animal or person was coming their way. By knowing what’s out there, we might be able to avoid a potential life-threatening situation.
True crime plays off our fears, especially women’s
Women fear crime more than men, even though men are more likely to be victims of a crime — a phenomena referred to as the gender-fear paradox. According to The Atlantic, this paradox is “the idea that the specter of sexual assault pervades women’s fears of all types of crime and makes them more fearful, generally.” Watching true crime stories confirms women’s greatest fears about what could happen to them.
The rise of true crime as entertainment
Given our fascination with these stories, it’s no surprise that networks are churning out true crime shows and other forms of true crime media for consumers in droves. Even Barbara Walters came out of retirement in 2015 to highlight true crime cases she covered throughout her career in the program, American Scandals. Another notable example? The podcast My Favorite Murder shot to the top of iTunes charts after being on the air for only a few months. Not to mention, one look at the fall TV lineup shows NBC, Investigation Discovery, and FX all highlighting true crime stories.