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.”

The Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.

Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.

But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.

At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.

By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.

The False Maid

Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.

She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.

Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.

All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.

In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.

But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."

In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.

It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.

But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.

But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."

The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.

The Secret Sign

The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.

At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.

Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”

At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.

We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.

Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.

Afterlives

Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.

As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.

About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER