Our Lingering Fascination with True Crime


The 10-part true crime documentary, The Making of a Murderer, had America completely enthralled when it debuted on Netflix in December 2015. Not only were people unable to look away from the fascinating story of convicted criminal, Steven Avery, but they also found themselves still immersed in the storyline even after they turned off the television. As a result, social media blew up for months on end with conversation and debate.

Avery’s personal predicament wasn’t the only thing that captured people’s attention, either. Many headline-making crime stories, like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Manson murders and the Ted Bundy killings, evoked a similar response.

But what is it about true crime that continues to captivate us? What does this interest say about us, and what does studying crime cases teach us about humanity?

Why Does Crime Fascinate So Many People?

Although it’s tempting to think that topics like murder and crime are fascinating simply because people have a morbid curiosity, humanity is actually much more complex than that. The following are just a few of the many reasons we can’t look away in the face of the macabre, the seedy, and the untoward.

True crime delivers an adrenaline jolt.

We all know someone who loves to skydive, race motorcycles at top speeds, or otherwise seek out their thrills by engaging with something dangerous. He’s an adrenaline junkie, someone that can’t get enough of the powerful thrill that comes with taking chances.

Engaging with stories about true crime actually delivers a similar jolt of adrenaline as a reward. Eagerly binge-watching an entire season of Forensic Files in one sitting is capable of delivering the same adrenaline you’d get jumping out of a plane, even if you feel morally and psychologically sickened by the subject matter.

True crime provides a safe way to flirt with fear.

Many emotions have the power to motivate a human being, but fear is by far the most powerful one. Fear gets your blood pumping and heightens the senses. It can make you feel like you’re firing on all cylinders. However, there are very few situations in life that allow you to safely experience fear. Even jumping out of a plane with a parachute comes attached to some degree of risk!

Shows, movies or books about true crime allow you to flirt with fear in a safe, controlled environment. It’s exciting to watch documentaries about the Jack the Ripper murders or to read about a horrific historical figure like Madame LaLaurie, especially when they are not a threat anymore. You can simply turn off the TV or put your book down.

True crime challenges your mind.

It’s not just the horror of the crime itself that fascinates people. The investigative process is often just as fascinating, if not more so.

Just think back to the last time you watched a psychological thriller or read a mystery. Part of the fun was whether or not you could figure out what really happened before you arrived at the big reveal.

Following a real-life investigation as it unfolds can be even more exciting. It gives people the chance to play armchair investigator, seeing if they can ascertain “who did it” before the real investigators do. The human mind loves a puzzle, and true crime comes along with plenty of them.

True crime often addresses taboo topics that aren’t typically open to discussion.

There are some topics you just don’t talk about at the dinner table or in polite company, and true crime focuses on quite a few of them. It provides people with an acceptable context in which to think about these topics and even discuss them with other people.

For example, take the case of Casey Anthony, the woman accused of killing her own child in 2008. Polite society and popular culture tend to portray all women as natural mothers and born nurturers, when in reality, there are many that feel trapped by motherhood. Stories like Anthony’s allow us to confront and contemplate such issues, whether or not they’ve affected us personally.

True crime invites you to better understand your fellow man.

As social animals, it’s normal for human beings to try to relate to one another. We want to understand why one of our own might snap. What makes a group of lost hippie girls join the Manson family and participate in horrific crime? What drove Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy to murder not once, but repeatedly?

Even when we know all the theories, we may continue to ponder human nature. We love to know what makes other people tick. We also become curious whether we are vulnerable to acting similarly. When we understand what drives another person, we also gain new insight into what drives us.

Although it’s not necessarily for everyone, the study of true crime is something that fascinates an astonishing number of people. For some, it’s something of a guilty pleasure. For others, it’s a field of serious study or interest. For all, it’s a topic that challenges the mind and invites the exploration of one’s deepest, darkest fears. 

Who’s Most Interested in True Crime?

It’s a common misconception that most criminology enthusiasts are men. In fact, according to a 2010 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, more women are true crime fans by a landslide.

For instance, Michael Boudet says a whopping 70% of the people that listen to his true crime podcast, Sword and Scale, are women ages 25-45. What about true crime appeals so strongly to women in particular? The following are some possibilities.

They can relate to the victims.

It’s not just a fascination with the criminal mind that draws people to true crime. It’s that the victims are almost always relatable people. You’ve probably looked at a victim many times and thought, “They’re so normal. This could happen to me.”

Women are often more empathetic with crime victims than men. The greater the empathy, the more riveting the true crime will be.

It’s a learning experience.

Women are significantly more likely to become victims of sexual violence than men. In fact, one out of every six American women is a rape victim or has experienced an attempted rape. Plus, 70% of the victims of serial killers are women.

What’s more, every woman is aware of these statistics. In fact, many female true crime fans say the genre teaches them how to spot potential warning signs of violence in people, as well as how they could escape if they ever found themselves in a bad situation. Forewarned is prepared!

It’s a way to face their fears.

For women, true crime isn’t just about exploring fear from the comfort of a safe space. While most men don’t spend much time and energy worrying that something unsafe could happen to them, unfortunately it is a real possibility for women. True crime can be a therapeutic and empowering way for a woman to confront and deal with that fear.

It’s a way to face their fantasies as well.

Although no woman wants anything to happen to her without her consent, she may, nevertheless, have fantasies related to violence or rape. However, such fantasies are incredibly taboo – nothing that most women want to share with the rest of the world. For such women, true crime is just as much about confronting their darkest fantasies as it is dealing with their worst fears.

5 Riveting True Crime Subtopics to Explore

True crime isn’t just about serial killers and mass murderers. History is full of fascinating stories, unbelievable events, and riveting tales that explore the darker side of society and humanity from a variety of angles.

Now that you have a better understanding of why you were so taken by The Jinx, it’s time to discover some new subtopics to explore. The following are just a few excellent places to start. Which ones have your attention?

Local True Crime History

It’s one thing to read about a sensational case that took place in another state or country. It’s quite another to learn about one that happened right where you live or in an area you’re very familiar with from personal experience.

Browsing books and media related to true crimes that happened close to home comes with many benefits. It’s an interesting way to learn more about your local community from an unusual angle. It’s also a great way to take the flirtation with fear to the next level.

Prisons and Penitentiaries

Once authorities have solved a crime, caught the perpetrator and sent him to prison, that’s only part of the story. The prison system and everything that happens within it is also part of the equation – one that’s well worth studying if you’re a true crime enthusiast.

What turned noteworthy penitentiaries like Sing Sing, Alcatraz or Fort Leavenworth into household names? How have punishments and penalties for various crimes changed over the course of history and why? What fascinating crime stories haven’t you heard yet? A study of prison history, especially on a regional level, can answer all your burning questions.

Gunslingers and Outlaws

The days of the Wild West may be long gone, but the stories remain just as fascinating as ever. Gunslingers like Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp aren’t just inspirations for a good western film. They were also among the deadliest killers and most famous lawmen in all of American history.

You can explore how lawmakers handled incidents like stagecoach robberies, gunfights and assassination attempts back in the day. Trace the evolution of law enforcement and investigation from America’s earliest days to today. Soon, you’ll be lost in an entirely new set of engrossing tales to contemplate.

American Gangs and Organized Crime

Street gangs and organized crime entities like the Mafia offer an endless array of true crime stories with strong connections to law enforcement, big business, and politics throughout history.

Explore the legacy of criminal empires like the one Galveston Maceo ran in the early 20th century. Learn all about the connection between organized crime and the bootlegging industry of the Jazz Age. Get to know crime bosses, gang members and criminals, both famous and obscure.

Lesser Known Crimes

Sooner or later, a true crime enthusiast can reach a point where it seems like they have heard it all. If that sounds like you, it’s time to seek out some enigmatic cases and stories for your intellectual enjoyment.

Volumes like those in the Murder & Mayhem series offer serious criminology lovers and history buffs alike a chance to dig deeper into some of America’s lesser-known incidents. Explore the details of some of our nation’s most exciting forgotten cases. Look into the criminal past of individual towns and cities across America. Even look into specific sub-niches like railroad crime or bank robbery.

To study true crime, especially its history through the ages, is to learn what really makes humanity tick. Get started on your next great learning adventure today!