From the BBC to Netflix, true crime seems to be everywhere at the moment. Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Amelia Perry explores the genre's popularity and offers some recommendations.
Content warning: article contains references to violent crime
Whether it’s the odd late-night episode of Making a Murderer when nothing else seems appealing, you binge-watched The Serpent, or you counted down the days until The Ripper was released on Netflix last year, it seems that as a nation we’re all partial to a good crime documentary. But what about a true crime podcast? As someone who finds the psychology behind it all particularly fascinating, here are my top three:
- My Favourite Murder (2018- ) – If you are a true crime aficionado, chances are you’re familiar with this one. Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff talk you through the facts of their favourite murder cases as well as hosting “minisodes” dedicated to crimes that take place in their fans’ hometowns, providing a healthy dose of comedy along the way.
- The Fake Heiress (2019) – Radio 4’s Vicky Baker and Chloe Moss explore the scandal surrounding Anna Delvey as she conned half of New York into believing she was a member of high society. Partially dramatized, this is a gentle introduction into true crime.
- Morning Cup of Murder (2020- ) – Each day, Korina takes us through the complexities of a case that happened on that date in history. The average episode is only ten minutes long, meaning that as the title suggests, it goes perfectly with your first cup of coffee.
It is by no means a new genre, and I am in no way unique for finding it so absorbing, but true crime stories, particularly those that focus on murders and serial killers, seem to have grown more and more popular in recent years. It is undoubtedly a macabre fascination, and while it can at times be uncomfortable, it’s also incredibly addictive. But Britain’s obsession with true crime, however, seems to have grown exponentially during the pandemic – so what is it that makes true crime so compelling during a national crisis?
For a start, there’s the scope for psychological analysis, which for once, we have time for with all the extra time at home. We’re an empathetic species, which is exactly what drives us to try to understand the complexities of a case. Audiences enjoy trying to pin down exactly what motivates a killer, and the satisfaction of finding the answer is unparalleled. There’s a reassuring element to this, too. If you are able to put your finger on what went wrong, what marks them out as different, and what ultimately drove them to commit a crime (or several), you can comfort yourself that you are not the same as them, that nothing in your past could lead you to the same end. True crime prepares us for the most dreadful eventualities imaginable. There’s a sense of comfort in telling yourself that you’d know what to do if you found yourself in such a situation or in some cases a sense of pride that you’d trust yourself not to go home with a serial killer, or that you’d spot a criminal from a mile away.
Next is the sense of guilty relief, the schadenfreude, that comes with the feeling of having dodged a bullet. Take the example of Curtis Straughter, who was approached by Jeffrey Dahmer whilst waiting at a bus stop, something that millions of people do on a daily basis. Statistically, it could have happened to any one of those people. There’s an oddly comforting feeling of having cheated the system or escaped death in some way. And finally, there’s the phenomenon of the negativity bias, an evolutionary mechanism by which we give more weight to negative experiences in our memories, which affects our actions going forward. Thus, true crime satisfies this bias by giving us negative experiences to process, all while providing us a safe way to explore the dark sides of human nature and confronting our fears.
It seems also in part to be due to the fact that it makes us feel better about the current situation – yes, okay, we might be forced to stay in our houses with very little to do for the foreseeable future, but at least we’re in no way involved in the events that we see unfolding before us in a documentary. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a silver lining, albeit a fairly small one.
But the act of being in lockdown itself seems also to play a part of it. The requirement to stay inside wherever possible means that we’re facing fewer external threats than usual. We can’t be approached at a bus stop by a sketchy stranger, which makes exploring the genre from the comfort of our own sofas feel safer and the events that we see seem much more unlikely and further removed from reality.