The first serial killer who captured the general public’s attention is believed to be Jack the Ripper, a man who murdered at least five women in 19th-century London and was never caught.
His heinous crimes were sensationalized by the papers and spread worldwide, inciting near-hysteria. Even now, nearly a century and a half later, our obsession with true crime has not faded. If anything, it has gotten even more extreme. In this new age of technology, media outlets like newspapers, magazines, books, TV shows and movies are released at record speed, almost faster than their audience could consume them. This, of course, begs the question of why. The stories depicted in such media represent those of the most depraved minds in humanity, yet millions around the world willingly spend their time engrossed in them. What is it about the “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” that morbidly fascinates us? Turns out the answers are numerous, and it all boils down to our psychology.
A major factor is the desire to protect ourselves and our family. When we consume this sort of media, it’s almost like a “dress rehearsal” for us, according to psychologist Dr. Sharon Packer. These shows and movies demonstrate to us exactly what we should or should not do, if we are ever in a similar situation. They tell us who the murderer might be, what their behavior might be, and who their victims might be — all crucial elements that we can use to keep ourselves safe.
This also explains why studies find that the majority of true crime viewers are women, as they are the population that feel most physically vulnerable in relation to crime. Experts like social psychologist Amanda Vicary, Ph.D., believe that, though most won’t cite protection as a reason for their interest in crime, subliminally that is what’s occurring. In fact, with this rationale, the fascination can even be attributed to evolution. We have evolved to pay attention to anything that could harm us, and by delving into the world of murderers, women — and everyone else for that matter — learn to never end up as one of their targets.
Psychologists also believe that relief and adrenaline also compels us to keep watching and reading about true crime. “Thank God it wasn’t me” is an instinctive reaction that leaps to mind as soon as we hear about any violent encounter that befell someone. What follows this relief is the adrenaline that comes from the idea of cheating death. At the most basic level, all animals, including humans, spend every day trying not to die. Out of all creatures on Earth, though, we are the only ones who know that such reasoning is futile. To our knowledge, we are the only ones that know death is inevitable, and that at the end of the day nothing we can do can stop our time from coming. However, through true crime, we inadvertently relive all the moments where we could have died, but didn’t. A serial killer could have targeted you. You could have been the victim. But you weren’t, and attached to that relief is the addictive idea that you found a “symbolic loophole” in the matter of life and death, as clinical psychologist Dr. Krista Jordan puts it. That’s what makes true crime so engrossing — it suggests that death could be defied.
True crime has riveted us for hundreds of years, and it will continue to for a hundred more. As the majority of the killers spotlighted are from the mid- to late-20th century, it will be interesting to see if the rise of social media and increased globalization will have any effect on our fascination in the future.
Samidha Mishra is a junior at San Mateo High School. Student News appears in the weekend edition. You can email Student News at firstname.lastname@example.org.