From seeing Zac Efron’s transformation into notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” to witnessing the deadly flaws of the Los Angeles child welfare system in “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” true crime continues to be a popular source of entertainment.
But what is it about these unbelievable crimes that draws millions of viewers and turns them into self-proclaimed crime junkies?
“There can be tawdry and sensational aspects to some of the cases that rivet us, capturing our imaginations and sense of wonder, as in ‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’” said Mindy Mechanic, a psychology professor at Cal State Fullerton.
Mechanic said that viewers enjoy trying to get into a criminal’s mind or attempting to figure out who committed a crime and why. Although dipping one’s toes into the world of crime through entertainment doesn’t make the viewer a professional, it doesn’t take away from the satisfaction of playing the part of an amateur detective.
“Relative to the number of people who study crime, the number of devotees of true/dramatized crime shows/films, books or podcasts is huge,” Mechanic said.
In spite of their graphic and mature subject matter, shows like “Making a Murderer” and “Unbelievable” have gained a large following, and true crime movies like “The Irishman” and “Monster’” have received notable recognition through their Oscar nominations.
“These series are popular because audiences love a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story, going back to the tabloid journalism of the late 19th century,” said Hunter Hargraves, a cinema and television arts professor at Cal State Fullerton. “True crime entertainment is essentially a combination of stranger-than-fiction subject matter and the melodramatic framing devices common to Hollywood directors and writers.”
When viewers watch shows or movies about true crime, they are interested in the relationship between the victim and the offender and understanding both sides of the story.
“Seeing someone who has power or status become the victim of a crime kind of makes that victim equal to everybody else,” said Jarret Lovell, a professor of politics and administration of justice at CSUF.
Whether it’s the powerful and rich doing the crime, or being victims of a crime, the status they hold is gone, which places them on the same level as everyday citizens.
“They’re not immune to all of the things that go wrong in every other neighborhood, and everybody else’s life, and everybody else’s political or social context,” Lovell said.
Aside from entertainment value, stories about crime can easily engage anyone because they activate bodily responses, like an increased heart-rate or adrenaline production, Mechanic said.
“There are similarities with the rubbernecking we bear witness to whenever there’s an accident on the freeway. No matter how gruesome or gory, most people find that they are unable to look away, ” Mechanic said. “It’s that morbid fascination with the lives of others, and these are safe portals into the worlds of those living lives that are hard to imagine or relate to.”
With some criminal cases that have been turned into entertainment, media companies like to create a “level of fear,” in order to encourage an adrenaline rush, Lovell said.
“Most people — if they’re going to be victims of a violent crime, or, in particular, victims of a murder — it’s someone known to them, and often someone who is in the same household,” Lovell said. “Most homicide is not predatory, predatory being defined as the offender unknown previously to the victim.”
Overall, most true crime programs are focused on entertainment rather than education. Even documentaries that tackle true-to-life crime cases are created with an audience in mind, according to Mechanic.
In most cases, these types of shows are not presented as true to life accurately as the victims want them to be.
The debate about whether true crime entertainment is ethical or not is ongoing, but in the end, viewers are consumers, and the entertainment industry will fuel their needs no matter the topic or potential controversy.
“If they’re sleazy for profiting off of it, we’re sleazy for paying for it. At the end of the day, it’s kind of silly to think that there’s something sleazy about humans trying to understand the most deviant form of human behavior,” Lovell said.