Since Victorian pamphlets reported on true crime, people gobbled up stories about murder and other evils. Channels such as Oxygen, Investigation Discovery and Netflix capitalize on this interest with shows such as “Making a Murderer” and “Amanda Knox.” Yet, turning to someone and saying “Hey, what are your thoughts on the JonBenet Ramsey case?” is not considered proper for conversation. Like a car crash, it’s difficult to deny the urge to stare, but staring is not exactly the thing to do at such a moment. If we all want to look, then why is it seen as strange to do so?
Fans of true crime feel ashamed to enjoy learning about grisly cases, which are not exactly Thanksgiving dinner material. But as the internet connects people from all walks of life interested in all sorts of activities, true crime becomes a platform for discussion. With the first CrimeCon this past June, it’s obvious that crime gets people talking.
The Therapy of Podcasts
Podcasts centered around true crime have brought the conversation into the mainstream. The ease of access to a podcast lends itself to enjoyment by a range of audiences. Podcasts such as “My Favorite Murder” are at the forefront of turning this hobby into a way to discuss issues of mental health in relation to true crime. The hosts, comedian Karen Kilgariff and Cooking Channel host Georgia Hardstark, put their anxiety and depression out in the open from the beginning of the podcast. By talking about awful, gruesome tales of murder, they actually alleviate anxiety.
Exposing yourself to your deepest, darkest fears has its benefits. Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, explains the logic behind purposefully seeking out more information on these real fears. She refers to enjoying true crime as a type of “dress rehearsal.” Gaining knowledge about how the worst possible case scenario would play out leads to a feeling of control. Even if reading a book about a home invasion such as “In Cold Blood” produces nightmares, it helps you learn about the details of the events. Hardstark herself said in an email that producing a true crime podcast is “a lot like exposure therapy” in that the more she talks about fear, the less power it has over her. Especially as a woman, researching true crime stories forces fears at the forefront.
Women willingly scare themselves by consuming these stories because the exposure helps to alleviate anxieties. Reading about an abduction case gives insight into the mind of both the victim and the perpetrator. Survival skills gleaned from this information makes a person feel more prepared.
Mental health and true crime also share a link through the perpetrators of crimes. Often a killer is described as being mentally insane. Cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who partially blamed his crimes on his mental illness while his trial ultimately found him sane and guilty, still asserted that his deteriorating mental health contributed to his crimes. His regret, however, shows that therapy helped him to better understand the horrors of what he had done.
Investigating true crime and the characters involved has proven the importance of mental health improves preventing and dealing with crime in daily life.
Horrors of the Legal System
In addition to mental health, true crime also starts discussions about the legal system. The Generation Why podcast doesn’t focus as much on the gory details of a story, but rather the frequent injustices in the legal system. The majority of their episodes shed some light on victims of wrongful convictions or perpetrators of crimes who got to walk free.
Without actually stating their views, hosts Aaron and Justin explore lesser-known cases with controversial convictions. A husband wrongly arrested for killing his wife and college-aged kids walking free after the suspicious death of his friend are just two cases investigated by the podcasts. In an age of constant communication, word spreads about the failures of the justice system. Even with advanced DNA technology today, innocent people still go to prison, which makes exploring the aftermath of a crime the true crime genre.
The Netflix show “Making a Murderer” works on the idea of a wrongful conviction. The popularity of the show led to more awareness of not only the case of Steven Avery but also other similar cases. True crime has always been a popular genre, but now its attraction goes beyond a morbid curiosity. The failure of the legal system does not end the story for true crime fans. In fact, it opens up speculative conversation about the case.
True crime becomes more than just a hobby when it causes people to stand back and look at the system. In light of recent events concerning white criminals and POC victims, the inequality in reporting has caught public attention. Twitter has become a place where users recognize the pattern of headlines that “exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions.” The presentation of a news story helps to shape a reader’s opinion, which is why enjoyers of true crime take the initiative in pointing out wrongful doings by the system.
There is no denying that everyone loves a good, spooky story. Today’s scariest stories are true tales of crime, and their investigation of them gets readers, watchers and listeners of true crime talking. Investigating true crime cases opens up the conversation about mental health, serves as exposure therapy to some people and lifts the stigma of seeking help for others. Injustice has existed in this world since the beginning of civilized society, but now it’s easier than ever to point out and spread the word about injustice.
Maybe a person who likes to read about murder is a bit of a freak, but maybe that person is onto something. So next time Thanksgiving dinner hits a lag in conversation, it just might be worth it to talk about a good, well-rounded, drama-filled murder case.