When it comes to following true crime, you either like it or you really, really don’t. For many people, true crime books, podcasts, and news stories are a huge part of their lives. But if you’re not one of those people, the consumption of true crime might seem a little weird. Or worse than weird: reading true crime and discussing true crime can seem morbid, offensive, and in poor taste.
The merits of true crime have long been a point of contention in my household. My husband thinks true crime — specifically, true crime focused on murder cases — is upsetting and disrespectful to the victims and the families who have lost their loved ones. I, on the other hand, am at the opposite end of the spectrum. Obviously, I try to be careful about what kinds of true crime I consume (some true crime reports are more respectful than others), but I do enjoy reading true crime books. I also particularly enjoy listening to true crime podcasts before I go to sleep. My husband finds this super weird. And he’s not alone. A lot of people think true crime is disturbing. They don’t understand why anyone would seek these stories out.
So why do so many people read true crime, especially when it can be potentially exploitative? There are lots of reasons people turn to true crime. If you read true crime, any (or all) of these reasons might apply to you.
It Helps With Anxiety
It might sound counterintuitive, but for many people, true crime is a way to relieve feelings of anxiety. As someone who struggles with generalized anxiety disorder, I know this is one of the big reasons I turn to true crime, especially when I need to turn off my mind and fall asleep. Something about true crime stories calms my anxieties. When you’re constantly worried about the worst things happening, it can be cathartic to just walk yourself through the worst case scenarios.
I’m not the only one who finds comfort in facing my fears. “It’s a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you,” My Favorite Murder podcaster Georgia Hardstark told The Atlantic.
New York City writer Anna Breslaw agrees. “I sort of exorcise that anxiety through obsessively reading about true crime and learning about it,” she says. “You’re like, I’m not afraid of this. I’m going to face this, and I think it’s like exposure therapy.”
But your mileage may vary with this one. Some experts warn that too much true crime can actually increase anxiety. According to the Cleveland Clinic, while some consumption of true crime can satisfy curiosities, too much true crime can lead to heightened paranoia, anxiety, and feelings of impending doom.
“You may find yourself worrying whether the person you’re chatting with at the grocery store isn’t actually as nice as they seem,” Psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD, says. “When you start asking yourself questions like, ‘What if they have dead bodies in their basement?’ you probably need to take a step back and consider your crime intake.” As with everything in life, it seems like moderation is key.
The More We Know, The More We Can Protect Ourselves
Have you noticed that a good majority of true crime readers are women? It’s true. According to a study from the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, women are more likely to seek out true crime stories than men. Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University who co-authored the post, explained to Huffington Post, “It makes sense when you think about the types of crimes covered by podcasts and documentaries…women just have more to gain compared to men from listening to these podcasts and reading these books.”
The majority of true crime books and podcast focus on stories where women are victims, so women are drawn to these narratives: by reading these stories and understanding what happened to victims that in some way resemble themselves, people are learning more about how these crimes happen. More importantly, they’re getting valuable information about how to prevent these crimes from happening to them. Regardless of gender, there’s something to be gained from that kind of knowledge.
We Like to Think We Could Solve the Case
Just look at shows like Only Murders in the Building and books like The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Or really, the whole amateur sleuth genre. We love the idea that a crime could be solved by an average civilian who just poured over the details of the case and found the hidden clues.
When we read true crime — specifically crimes that haven’t been solved yet — we find a sort of morbid joy and fascination in positing our own theories and discussing the ins and outs of the case with other people.
It’s that desire that keeps r/TrueCrime up and running. It’s why Unsolved Mysteries was such a huge show back in the ’90s and continues to appeal to contemporary Netflix viewers.
We Like to Be Scared
Some of us love to read true crime for the same reason we love horror novels and movies. We like to be scared. Not everyone is going to get that, and some people will always wonder why anyone would willingly force themselves to experience an unpleasant emotion like fear. But for others, getting scared is something they crave.
According to Dr. Olubunmi Olatunji, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, some people enjoy being scared because “scary and thrilling situations release dopamine in the brain…this release can be exhilarating. As a result, some people will enjoy scary and risky situations, while others may find them aversive.”
It’s sort of like riding a rollercoaster…but while reading.
Not All True Crime is Violent
A lot of times, when people think about true crime, they think about real-life murder cases. But not all true crime is violent. In fact, lately there has been a huge rise in popularity for a different kind of true crime: scams and cons. Cue the theme song from my favorite true crime podcast, Scam Goddess.
If you’ve watched any TV series at all over the past few years, then you’ve probably noticed con artist true crime stories are really having a moment. Just look at the success of shows such as The Dropout and Inventing Anna. Then there are all the true crime books and novels about scammers. Clearly, it’s not just violent crime that fascinates true crime readers. A lot of us are also very interested in con jobs.
So what is it that’s so appealing about the con artist? Where to begin? While all crimes are shocking, there’s something about the audacity of fraud that we’re intrigued by. We also love to see these scammers finally getting caught. After they played other people for fools, it’s exciting to see them get their comeuppance.
And okay, while we’re in the middle of a recession and a lot of us are struggling to pay bills, it’s also kind of exciting to see some scammers attempting to gain easy money. When they fail, it’s confirmation for us that there are no easy answers — which is oddly comforting. For some true crime readers, stories about fraud are preferable for these reasons.
If you think true crime is in poor taste or even harmful, if you think it’s disrespectful, and/or if you think it glamorizes criminals and serial killers, I get it. I really do. Those concerns are totally valid and I get why so many people avoid true crime at all costs. But for so many of us, we find a sort of strange comfort in reading about these cases.
For those of you who do read true crime and are looking for more true crime reads, Book Riot has plenty of true crime and true crime adjacent book recommendations for you.