Making sense of the senseless: why we watch true crime

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

It is only natural for human beings to be fascinated by the macabre. There’s a reason that horror is a popular film genre, that we gather around campfires to tell spooky stories, and that urban myths and legends continue to circulate on playgrounds all over the world. 

It’s the same reason why true crime has always been ,and continues to be, incredibly popular. 

Many of us are fascinated by the things that we find repulsive, we get a sense of accomplishment and a shot of adrenaline every time we make it to the end of a scary movie or a podcast episode about a particularly gruesome murder. 

This past week, Netflix released Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The mini-series is far from the first piece of media based on the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, an infamous serial killer who murdered 17 boys and men between the years 1978 and 1991. 

Dahmer has received mixed reviews. Some say that Evan Peters, who plays Dahmer, should win an Emmy for his performance, while others point out problems with the show’s very existence. The families of many of the victims who are portrayed in the show weren’t contacted, asked, or even told that the mini-series was being produced until it dropped on the streaming platform. 

This is not a Dahmer-specific issue, and indeed, this is not a review of the mini-series (in all honesty, I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to). True crime media has existed in some form since crime has existed. Crime reporting has always been a fixture of magazines and newspapers. Edmund Lester Pearson published Studies in Murder in 1924, and subsequently wrote and published six books about real life murders. The fact is, true crime as a genre has existed long before the age of podcasts and Netflix. Obviously, there’s something compelling about it, or people wouldn’t be consuming it in 2022. 

Curiosity is natural, a morbid sense of it is deeply human. Of course people want to know what would lead a person to commit terrible, gruesome acts of violence against other human beings. We want to try to wrap our heads around it, to make sense of and understand it all. 

In 1981, Stephen King wrote the essay “Why we Crave Horror,” in which he explained, in his eyes, the appeal of the horror film. 

“It is true that the mythic “fairy-tale” horror film intends to take away the shades

of grey . . . . It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites,” he wrote. 

True crime, particularly the kind that deals in murder and violence, in a way, scratches that same itch. It gives reason to the unthinkable, allows us to draw a line from point A to point B. Someone hit their head as a child, thirty years later, we found a body in the basement. True crime as a genre presents us with a criminal, paints them as sick, twisted and evil and tries to make sense of it in a way that isn’t entirely black or white, but tries to get as close as possible.

Present day takes on true crime make some attempts to centre the victims. That’s what it seems like Dahmer was trying to do when they re-enacted the victim impact statement of Rita Isbell, the sister of one of Dahmer’s victims. In a way, it feels voyeuristic to watch someone act out the very real words and actions of someone who experienced such intense loss. It feels a bit wrong, like we’re seeing something that we’re not supposed to. Crime is taboo, it makes sense that true crime media would also deal in this same feeling. 

Some true crime media is genuinely powerful, helpful and gives victims a sense of closure as inMichelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Other true crime media is insensitive, callous and icky (see the YouTube search results for “True Crime Mukbang”). Other media peddle paranoia and repackage it as vigilance, some encourage its audience to become sleuths in their own right, which is problematic for a number of easily imagined reasons. 

In a way, the characters that this media creates are similar to the ones created by reality TV or a sports broadcast. True crime makes murderers and their victims into pseudo celebrities in an attempt to satiate our curiosity. It wouldn’t be as compelling or satisfying to simply read the psychological profile of a faceless killer, instead true crime gives its audience a case study to latch on to.

True crime as a genre, might not be inherently good or bad. It’s not like the fairy tale horror film that Stephen King wrote about where everything is either good and pure or dark and twisted. The instinct to consume true crime content comes from a place of curiosity and a need and desire to make sense of the senseless. 

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