Let’s all admit it—we can never really resist a good true crime documentary. I myself sat through Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer numerous times, eyes actively glued to the screen. Perhaps it was because I was waiting for another to join the lineup. As the offerings grow exponentially, feeding our insatiable appetite for it, one can’t help but wonder why that is the case.

The present-day crime thrillers hearken back to the penny dreadful days in the 1830s. At the time, the social tectonic plates of Britain were shifting, and literacy rates increased. Published weekly, these cost one penny back then and oftentimes told the tales of criminals (like the infamous Sweeney Todd), detectives, even supernatural beings. The success of the penny dreadfuls at the time signalled economic growth, because the working-class were beginning to spend on entertainment, seeking escape from the day’s toil.

Page from The String of Pearls; or, The Sailor’s Gift, 1850

Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, with 66 detective novels, Agatha Christie had sold over a billion copies in the English language alone. According to Index Translationum, Christie remains the most translated individual author, with 103 target languages—leaving even giant literature names such as William Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle to bite the dust. Published in 1937, Christie’s Death on the Nile is getting an adaptation and is set to take the silver screens this September. Clearly this queen of murder mystery’s reign prevails.

Part of the appeal is that they keep us guessing, therefore urging us to come back for more, for little bits of dopamine-dipped puzzle pieces that will keep us hooked onto the show, constantly at the edge of our seats. Being an armchair detective sure has its perks.

For a lot of us, the gateway was our morbid curiosity. It’s the irresistible and proverbial itch that we’ve got to scratch. It’s the reason why traffic jams exist, because every single vehicle is slowing down to rubberneck at the gruesome accident. And as much as we all say that everyone should just move along with their day, we too rewarded ourselves with a glance at the situation, effectively contributing to the jam.

Still from Netflix’s The Ripper

And no one can deny the shock value; it’s magnetic! Typically, these true crime shows have a set of compelling characters (the victim, the perpetrator, the investigators, and occasionally, eyewitnesses), which allows you to virtually dip into their inner thoughts and motives. British psychologist Emma Kenny posits that humans have an inclination towards voyeurism. People are just immensely curious about each other, even more so when it comes to the dark and ugly.

“A person who is a serial killer doesn’t care about consequences, doesn’t care about victims—he only cares about what he wants,” said clinical psychologist Margot Levin, PhD. Definitively, that is a sociopath and many criminals like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer exhibit sociopathic behaviour. They appeared to have the social capacity of a regular individual, but the lives they lived were a departure from what society demanded of them. Those of us who are not privy to that particular way of life, way of thinking, are naturally intrigued. It in turn affirms our belief of what’s morally right and wrong.

Do you know that women are more drawn to the genre? A 2010 research suggests that especially when the victims are female, women find that they have information to glean from stories and documentaries of the genre.

Still from Episode 3 of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Photo: Netflix

Clearly this particular interest is embedded in their need to survive. Co-author of the study, Amanda Vicary, PhD said this: “If they thought they might learn something about how someone escaped, they liked it. So my big take-home message was that it was all related to survival.”

Another clinical psychologist, Krista Jordan, PhD said that as much as we’re glad we’re not the victim, we’re also pleased that we‘re not a perpetrator. Why? you ask?

“This goes back to Freud and Jung,” Jordan said. “For different reasons, they both felt that people needed to have a means to sublimate the natural, inherent drive of aggression. So you can listen to a true crime episode about somebody who dismembers and eats their victims and begin to picture in your mind all of the things that are being talked about. You get a bigger bang for your buck than if you were fantasising about a kickboxing class.”

Richard Ramirez, the Nightstalker

At the same time, Jordan believes that we are distancing ourselves from the likeness of the criminal. We analyse every minute detail about the offender, that they had a bad childhood, or had intentionally caused harm to animals at a young age, both of which are experiences that (hopefully) we never had. We find this otherness reassuring, and it provides us the refuge of knowing that we’re not sick.

It’s a compelling dosage of both anxiety and relief, at the same time. And as much as these true crime shows and docuseries can be an exhilarating watch, binge watchers—myself included—should always be cautious. As Emma put it, “we should never be desensitised to the horror.”

Najihah Rashid

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Najihah Rashid

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