Our obsession with gruesome real-life stories tells us a lot about the human psyche.

By Patti Greco
October 29, 2020
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This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind puzzling human behavior mysteries.

When Netflix released Making a Murderer in December 2015, it was all the binge-watching public could talk about. Was Steven Avery wrongfully convicted of murder—for a second timeor did he, in fact, kill Teresa Halbach? Armchair detectives hadn’t worked that much overtime since the 2014 release of Serial, the blockbuster investigative podcast that cast doubt on the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee. 

There’s no disputing our collective fascination with true crime. It’s why so many of us are addicted to podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Crime Junkie; it’s why we invest hours in series like Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries (the second season started earlier this month) and HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark; and it’s why we’ve devoured books like Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood, often in one sitting. 

But what explains this interest in such gruesome real-life tales, particularly for women, who research suggests are more attracted to the genre than men are? Why are we so drawn to horrible tragedies that could, in theory, befall us or someone we love at any moment? Here’s what the experts have to say about it.

It acts as a rehearsal of sorts

According to research published in 2010, women are bigger fans of true crime than men. 

One theory for why that is: Even though men are statistically more likely to be the victims of violent crime than women (with the exception of rape and sexual assault), women may feel more vulnerable to attack—and therefore more inclined to gather intel about how to survive a true crime scenario were it to occur.

“If you ask people, ‘Why do you like true crime?’ I don’t think most of them would say, ‘I’m learning how to keep it from happening to me,’” Amanda Vicary, PhD, co-author of the 2010 study and now an associate professor in the psychology department at Illinois Wesleyan University, tells Health. “But I think deep down that may very well be what’s going on.”

In fact, her report found that women were most drawn to true-crime stories that gave them tips for spotting danger and staying alive.

“If a true crime story had something about the psychological content of the killer—something that implied they would learn about what set him off and what signs to look out for—they liked it,” says Vicary. “If they thought they might learn something about how someone escaped, they liked it. So my big take-home message was that it was all related to survival.”

True crime is strangely reassuring

Experts say watching true crime can be oddly comforting—a way of reassuring yourself that such a terrible fate could never befall you. 

“You separate yourself from the victim, like, I would never be naive enough to marry a man who’s been living a double life as a serial killer,” Margot Levin, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, tells Health. “You don’t have the background or you haven’t had the experiences that would lead you to be tied into this.” 

Unfortunately, that thinking is also “part of how we get to blaming the victim,” Levin explains. “Because we want to think the person who suffers did something to deserve that, so we can think that it will never happen to us.”

Vicary agrees, pointing to the “just-world theory” for context. “It’s this idea that people have an innate need to view the world as a safe and orderly place where bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people,” she says. 

“And so there can be this tendency to be like, ‘Was she drinking? Was she walking alone at night? Did she forget to lock the door?’ Because it’s really scary if the person did everything right and was home with the doors and windows locked and something still happened to them. Because then you have to admit, Oh my gosh. That could happen to me.”

It can make you feel like you cheated death 

Some true-crime stories make it harder than others to convincingly distance yourself from the victim. Maybe you hear about a college student who was abducted during a midday run, for instance, and—having been on a million of those runs yourself—think that it easily could have been you. 

It’s an eerie feeling, but one that many people are drawn to. “We get a thrill out of that,” Krista Jordan, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Austin, TX, tells Health. “It’s like if you’ve ever heard someone say, ‘Oh my God, that plane crashed. I know somebody who was supposed to be on it but they got rescheduled at the last minute.’ There’s this feeling of having cheated death in some way.”

That could be because, as humans, we’re uniquely aware of the fact that we ultimately can’t cheat death. 

“The primary thing that any organism is trying to do is not die,” Jordan says. “But humans, as far as we know, are the only ones who know that you can’t do that. And so that creates this massive amount of anxiety that we have to manage, otherwise we’d be curled up in the fetal position not wanting to leave the house.”

By consuming a true crime story where you’re not the victim—but could have been, were luck not on your side—you can feel like you dodged a bullet. “On some level, symbolically, it’s like you found the loophole,” says Jordan. “Like, ‘Really? Maybe I can cheat death.’” 

It lets you explore the dark parts of humanity

Human beings are naturally curious about other human beings, even if those other human beings aren’t sordid criminals. But if they are? Well, then we’re really curious. 

“It’s that shock value that attracts you, when you’ve seen something you’ve never seen before or you hear something you don’t hear about very often,” says Jordan. 

She also thinks a phenomenon called “the negativity bias” could be at play. “[That’s where] the brain pays more attention to negative information than positive information,” she explains. “So finding out about the ins and outs of what makes someone a serial killer is more interesting than finding out the ins and outs of what makes someone altruistic, because it’s the most negative thing you can think of.”

You might also be drawn to true crime because it gives you a closer look at people who completely disregard social norms. 

“A person who is a serial killer doesn’t care about consequences, doesn’t care about victims—he only cares about what he wants,” says Levin. “There’s a part of us that’s fascinated by that, because we don’t live that way. We have to think about the consequences. There’s that part of us that’s like, Wow, what would that be like?"

It allows you to access your own dark side

If you find true crime appealing, it could be in part because it gives you an outlet for your own negative emotions. 

“This goes back to Freud and Jung,” Jordan says. “For different reasons, they both felt that people needed to have a means to sublimate the natural, inherent drive of aggression. So you can listen to a true crime episode about somebody who dismembers and eats their victims and begin to picture in your mind all of the things that are being talked about. You get a bigger bang for your buck than if you were fantasizing about a kickboxing class.”

At the same time, you can distance yourself from the criminal, which makes you feel safe and secure—a key to enjoying true crime.

“I think that’s one of the reasons people like to know all of the background information on how the person came to be that way,” Jordan says. “Because really what they’re trying to do is [say], ‘See, I’m not like that. I didn’t have that kind of childhood. I never mutilated animals as a child’—or whatever it may be.”

“You want to reassure yourself that, even though I just spent a few hours binging this special on Ted Bundy, and that makes me feel weird because maybe I enjoyed it a little too much, I can also think about all the ways in which I’m not like Ted Bundy,” adds Jordan.

You get to play armchair detective 

You often go into a true-crime story knowing who did it and whether the person was apprehended. But in some cases, you’re left wanting answers. Was the right man convicted? The quest for those answers is often part of the genre’s appeal. 

“The reason that we managed to become the apex species is that we’re fantastic problem solvers,” says Jordan. “If we don’t have problems to solve, we actually get restless and uncomfortable. True crime stories give our brain something to chew on in our down time.”

It also taps into our innate desire for a fair outcome. 

“We want the morality tale,” says Levin. “If we think someone has been wrongfully accused, that shakes up our whole worldview, that criminals get caught and justice is served.” 

It also scares us. “It’s anxiety-inducing,” adds Levin. “What if I were unjustly accused of something that I didn’t do? I think that’s a fear we harbor. And so I think if you’re watching [a story where this happens] and absorbed in it, it’s a terrible thing to imagine—but again, it’s not you. You’re delving into things that are scary but at the same time feeling safe, and that’s compelling.”

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