12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like there’s a new—and wildly successful—book, podcast, or show devoted to a crime. Investigation Discovery, a hit from when it debuted in 2008, continues to top the ratings (and even throws its own true crime convention, IDCon). From Serial and Dr. Death to In the Dark and Atlanta Monster, there’s no shortage of true crime podcasts. The genre is so huge that Netflix—whose offerings in this arena include The Keepers, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, and The Staircase—even created a parody true crime series (American Vandal). Which raises the question: Why are we so obsessed with true crime? Here’s what the experts have to say.

1. BECAUSE IT’S NORMAL (TO A POINT).

First things first: There’s nothing weird about being true crime obsessed. “It says that we're normal and we're healthy,” Dr. Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, told NPR in 2009. “I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.” Of course, there are limits: “If all you do is read about crime and ... all you do is talk about it and you have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I'd be concerned,” he said.

2. BECAUSE EVIL FASCINATES US.

The true crime genre gives people a glimpse into the minds of people who have committed what forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse”—murder. “In every case,” he writes, “there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.” This fascination with good versus evil, according to Mantell, has existed forever; Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told AHC Health News that our fascination begins when we're young. Even as kids, we're drawn to the tension between good and evil, and true crime embodies our fascination with that dynamic.

We want to figure out what drove these people to this extreme act, and what makes them tick, because we'd never actually commit murder. “We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves," Lost Girls author Caitlin Rother told Hopes & Fears, "but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take.”

3. BECAUSE OF THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE ...

Even if we’ve been fascinated by crime since the beginning of time, we likely have the media to thank for the uptick in the true crime fad. “Since the ‘50s, we have been bombarded … in the media with accounts of crime stories, and it probably came to real fruition in the ‘70s,” Mantell said. “Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime.” Later, he noted that “The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today [deals] with crime particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list.”

4. … AND BECAUSE WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY FROM A "TRAINWRECK."

“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters," Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, wrote at TIME. "The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”

In fact, the perpetrators of these crimes might serve an important societal role, as true crime writer Harold Schechter explained to Hopes & Fears. "That crime is inseparable from civilization—not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives—is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers," including Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, he said. "If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished—which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And that is precisely what true crime literature provides."

5. BECAUSE IT HELPS US FEEL PREPARED.

According to Megan Boorsma in Elon Law Review [PDF], studies of true crime have shown that people tend to focus on threats to their own wellbeing. Others have noted that women in particular seem to love true crime, and psychologists believe it’s because they’re getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

One study, published in 2010, found that women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker; that they were more likely to be interested in books that contained information about a killer’s motives than men were; and that they were more likely to select books that had female victims. “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men," the researchers concluded; "the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.” Amanda Vicary, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post that “by learning about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”

Watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes “could be like a dress rehearsal," Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told DECIDER.

According to crime novelist Megan Abbott, men are four times more likely than women to be victims of homicide—but women make up 70 percent of intimate partner homicide victims. “I’ve come to believe that what draws women to true crime tales is an instinctual understanding that this is the world they live in," Abbot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "And these books are where the concerns and challenges of their lives are taken deadly seriously.”

6. BECAUSE THERE MIGHT BE AN EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT.

Dr. Marissa Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, told Hopes & Fears that she believes people are interested in true crime because we've evolved to pay attention to things that could harm us so that we can better avoid them. “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli,” she said.

7. BECAUSE WE’RE GLAD WE’RE NOT THE VICTIM ...

Psychologists say one of the main reasons we’re obsessed with true crime is because it gives us an opportunity to feel relieved that we’re not the victim. Tamron Hall, host of ID's Deadline: Crime, identified that sense of reprieve at ID's IDCon last year. “I think all of you guys watch our shows and say, ‘But for the grace of God, this could happen to me' … This could happen to anyone we know,” she said.

Packer told DECIDER that a big factor in our true crime obsession is something sort of like schadenfreude—getting enjoyment from the trouble experienced by other people. “It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else,” she said. “There’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”

8. … OR THE PERPETRATOR.

On the other hand, watching true crime also provides an opportunity to feel empathy, Mantell said: “It allows us to feel our compassion, not only a compassion for the victim, but sometimes compassions for the perpetrator.”

"We all get angry at people, and many people say ‘I could kill them’ but almost no one does that, thankfully," Packer said. "But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ [There is] that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them; someone else did.”

9. BECAUSE IT GIVES US AN ADRENALINE RUSH ...

“People ... receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds,” Bonn writes. “If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

10. … AND BECAUSE WE’RE TRYING TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY.

Humans like puzzles, and true crime shows and podcasts get our brains going. “By following an investigation on TV,” Bonn writes, “people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”

“True crime invites obsession for three reasons," Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told Hopes & Fears. "People gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe; and most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve. This gives them a sense of closure. It is also a challenge that stimulates the brain.”

11. BECAUSE WE LIKE TO BE SCARED … IN A CONTROLLED WAY.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real,” Bonn writes. “For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.” Schechter told the BBC the same thing—that stories about serial killers are “fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”

Our interest in what motivates violent crimes boils down to being afraid, A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida told the Huffington Post; true crime allows viewers to “dive into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of the couch.”

12. BECAUSE THE STORYTELLING IS GOOD—AND COMFORTING.

Ask Investigation Discovery’s hosts why people love true crime, and most of them will mention one thing: storytelling. “For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, ‘Tell me a story,’” Lt. Joe Kenda, former detective and host of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss in 2017. “If you tell it well, they’ll ask you tell another one. If you can tell a story about real people involved in real things, that draws their interest more than something some Hollywood scriptwriter made up that always has the same components and the same ending.”

Tony Harris, host of Scene of the Crime and Hate in America, echoed Kenda’s sentiment about storytelling, noting that many true crime shows have a definitive ending: “In most of the shows, we button it up.”

Not only that, most true crime shows follow a similar format—which could also play into our obsession.

“In order to see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share,” Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Hopes & Fears. “In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works.”

And so, in a weird way, these true crime stories—as horrific as they are—end up being comforting. “While living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technological change,” Andrist said, “true crime comforts people by assuring them that their long-held ideas about how the world works are still useful.”

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER