The Psychology Behind True Crime Addiction
When you really can’t bring yourself to look away, it might be more than fascination, it may be addiction to true crime.
If you love the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” you watch and re-watch HBO’s “The Jinx,” and you always make time for ID’s “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry,” then that’s really all fine and good. If your favorite podcast is “My Favorite Murder,” that’s totally OK. If you think Truman Capote’s 1966 book “In Cold Blood” was one of the seminal works of the 20th century, not a problem at all.
None of that is a problem, that is, provided you also enjoy shows like “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” podcasts like “Radiolab,” and books like, say, Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
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If you find that really the only shows you watch, programs you listen to, or books (or articles or blogs) you read are all about crimes, then you may have a true crime addiction, and you should take a close look at yourself and your interests and see if weaning away from the genre, at least some, may be a helpful and healthy move.
What Is “True Crime,” Anyway?
We use the term “true crime” to refer to a genre of literature, podcasts, a TV series, a blog, or any other type of media that covers crimes in a comprehensive and often stylized way. You can think of it in much the same way as romance, fantasy, or military history are genres that are covered in various formats.
In the case of true crime, the unifying factor among the many types of media and all the different subjects covered is simply that the events and people covered are all real and all involved in criminal activity.
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More often than not, true crime media is focused on murders, and with truly shocking cases, such as those involving brutality or serial killers, or on unsolved cases, being the most ravenously consumed. Elaborate thefts and cons are also popular true crime subjects, but more often than not, the popular books, shows, and podcasts center on death.
Why Do People Become Obsessed With Crime?
According to experts like clinical psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Rutha of the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center quoted in Advocate Aurora Health News: “From the time that we are a young child, we are undeniably intrigued by good versus evil.… We are drawn to true crime and accounts of serial killers and it connects us to our most primal fears.” In other words, the interest is inborn – whether it becomes an obsession is another story. But it’s easy to understand the allure of the genre.
The experience of consuming true crime media is twofold for most people: the first is the ability to embrace some of our darker, more primal urges in a safely secondhand manner – and if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have dark, aggressive urges sometimes, be it when we’re slighted at work or cutoff on the freeway. When someone else has done the bad deed and we are merely learning about it, we get a sense of release of these darker emotions without taking action ourselves.
The second effect comes when we put ourselves on precisely the other side of the equation, siding with the victim. When we sympathize with the deceased (or the conned or swindled) we feel better about ourselves, and we also have a sense of being safer and better protected for having read, seen, or heard the true crime story because it didn’t happen to us and now we’re a bit better prepared in case a similar situation ever arises – or at least we convince ourselves as much.
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The problem is that consuming too much true crime media can start to change the way you feel about the real world. While most of us will never experience anything like the savagery and evil so often covered in the true crime genre, when it’s almost all we watch, listen to, or read about, we can develop an unhealthily dark, jaded outlook on life and on humanity.
True Crime Addiction Is Nothing New
People have always been fascinated with the dark and the macabre – with murder, with swindlers, with heists, with thugs and bosses, with crime and criminals of all stripes, in short. Take a case like that of Jack the Ripper, London’s most notorious murderer, who filled headlines and imaginations across England and indeed across much of the world in the late 1880s and into the 1890s. Or the sensation caused by the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short, who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, in the mid 1940s in Los Angeles. And of course, many alive today will clearly remember how the nation tuned in daily to the interminable OJ Simpson murder trial, which became a part of the national fabric for the better part of a year.
All that is to say that a fascination with true crime is an age-old human phenomenon and one that many people demonstrate. But the difference between a fascination and an addiction is distinct; while people could hardly avoid whispers about the Ripper’s latest victim, lurid crime photos of the Black Dahlia’s severed corpse, or nightly news updates about what Judge Ito or lawyer Johnny Cochran or witness Kato Kaelin had said in court that day, most could end the conversation, fold over the paper, or turn off the TV.
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Some people, on the other hand, found themselves obsessed with consuming every detail they could about Jack the Ripper, per ABC News. So too were people enrapt by the case of the Black Dahlia a half century later. And then almost exactly 50 years after that brutal murder, many Americans found themselves unable to peel their eyes from the screen of the Simpson murder trial, per MSNBC.
So don’t feel you are alone in your true crime addiction; lots of people have dealt with the same obsession with true crime. And also don’t feel that you can’t overcome an addiction to true crime and, with concerted effort, shift your interests and attentions to other topics – and more uplifting and positive topics, at that.
How to Break a True Crime Addiction
If you have begun to feel unsafe, suspicious, and anxious in ways incommensurate with your everyday life, it may be an overconsumption of true crime that’s doing it. And if you feel like something is missing when you go a day or two without any true crime media in your life, that’s an even surer sign of a problem.
Start weaning yourself off true crime in small steps. Set limits to how much you will watch, enjoying one show per say instead of ever bingeing on it, for example. Replace a true crime podcast with one on history or science or some other interesting topic several times a week. And switch to nonfiction on other topics or, initially, crime in fiction, not in real life.
And if you find you can’t distance yourself from true crime, by all means enlist the help of a therapist; with a bit of support, you can surely overcome a true crime addiction.