Behind true crime’s appeal

I was in the pub the other night with a few friends after a particularly strenuous rock climbing session when my friend Sebastian told me to close my eyes.

Not completely trusting him, I refused. But he persisted, so I eventually closed my eyes, wondering what on earth he was up to. ‘‘OK,’’ he said, ‘‘what colour is the ceiling?’’ Seb proceeded to quiz me about my surroundings. I didn’t know anything.

Had Sebastian asked me about the number plate of the car that had slowly driven past me earlier that night, or the height and clothing of the man walking along the footpath in front of me, I could have told him the right answers without hesitation.

You see, recently I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts. I’m avidly fascinated with Casefile, which consists of an anonymous Australian man reading a long and often graphic narrative of a crime. And I’ve learned a lot: to be more aware of my surroundings, to sight out the nearest exit, or the closest person, in case I need help.

From Making a Murderer to Serial to Dr. Death to The Staircase, true crime podcasts and documentaries saturate our viewing and listening platforms. It seems I can barely turn my phone on, or scroll through Spotify, without being bombarded by new grisly and macabre offerings.

This raises the question: Why are we — why am I— so obsessed with true crime? Part of me feels revulsion at my fascination for it. I feel somewhat guilty, and a little exploitative, or voyeuristic. I try to placate this feeling by carefully curating the podcasts I listen to, and documentaries I watch. I try to stick to those that treat victims with respect, and give time and space to those grieving. I stay away from podcasts that sensationalise the crime, or treat tragedy with irreverence and humour.

I still wonder why so many people are fascinated by stories of true crime. I think first and foremost, the genre allows people a glimpse into the minds of those who commit the most horrendous evils. What drives people to murder? What makes them tick? Would we ever be capable of murder?

Perhaps we long for insight into the psychology of a murderer in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Our curiosity about crime is nothing new; from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Charles Manson’s cultish Family and Jack the Ripper’s bloody trail through 19th century London, we are surrounded by terrifying and gripping stories of good and evil.

Many true crime podcasts and documentaries focus on women being murdered by strangers in a dark alleyway, or a secluded forest glade. These stories don’t necessarily reflect the statistical reality of homicide; podcast hosts portray victims as uncomplicated and as expected, and perpetrators as aberrant, complicated and unexpected.

Men are more likely than women to be both perpetrators and victims of violent crime. Yet true crime is particularly popular with women. Many psychologists believe it’s because they’re getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation. Knowledge is power.

Perhaps we are also drawn to true crime stories out of compassion for victims. A well produced piece will give time, weight and dignity to a victim’s story. Maybe we also feel an enormous sense of relief that we are not the victim — or the perpetrator. Who knows what we are capable of?

I know I am also drawn to true crime for the thrill and the jolt of adrenaline I get at each twist and turn of the story. The escapism helps me get through my workday, and I spend hours trying to figure out ‘‘whodunnit’’ before the podcast host actually reveals who did. It allows me to play armchair detective, although I am often left wondering whether the correct verdict was actually reached, and whether the police handled the case correctly.

Many stories raise more questions than they answer, whether it’s who the perpetrator is, if the correct verdict was reached or how the police handled the case. Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll said she thought ‘‘the ones that are the most popular do leave some of that up to your imagination ... That is what good storytelling does’’.

‘‘Because, although these are based on real life cases, they are storytelling.’’

I still don’t really know why I’m drawn to such macabre stories. But I can’t help myself — I know that tomorrow morning, on my walk into work, I will start listening to a new Casefile episode. I will hear the thumping of a recorded heartbeat, and that familiar voice start up: ‘‘Our episodes deal with serious and often distressing incidents.’’

Who knows what I will learn this time?

■ Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

Comments

In terms of policing and criminal investigation, the environment is all. Clues may be found in trademark labels. A particular item may be sold by a specific retailer, so stores stocking it will be visited by detectives.

In Sociological terms, criminals are deviant, until they go straight.

 

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