Is True Crime Written in Our DNA?

By Maddie Proctor ‘21

Has our obsession with consuming true crime—novels, TV shows, documentaries—gotten out of hand? Why is the violence, the psychology behind the sociopath, so compelling?

One might argue that it is human nature to obsess over danger. Since the cavemen, humans have struggled to adapt to dangerous conditions in a crucial but twisted game of what Darwin dubbed “survival of the fittest.” Maybe we are so engrossed with true crime stories because they expose the dangers that lurk beneath our subconscious. Modern horror movies scare us by shocking us with scenes of gore and evil that are beyond our human experience, but true crime presents us with the horrors of reality. It is precisely our ability to relate to the victim that makes true crime so terrifying and yet thrilling.

True crime’s undeniable link with reality expresses itself in another, more disturbing way. Because the events and the people from the stories are real, we can relate to not only the victim but the villain themself. Maybe what sets true crime apart from other genres of horror and drama is that even the criminal leads a truly human life. From a biological perspective, you are no more human than Bundy, Gacy, or Holmes. The realization that we have 99.9% of the same genetic makeup as some of the most notorious serial killers in history is a terrifyingly interesting one. Of course, humanity is not purely defined by biology. So, let’s look at what makes someone human through the lens of morality. Moral humanity is muddled to say the least, especially considering such inhumane actions. Does dehumanizing another person and taking away their life strip a criminal of their humanity, or are they simply broken human beings with a psychological problem, chemical imbalance, or messed up childhood? One’s background never justifies their evil actions, but it may help us to understand and relate to how they feel. For many, an important aspect of morality and humanity is religion. From a religious perspective, it is always a sin to kill and to bring harm upon your neighbor. However, Christianity also asserts that we are all sinners. No matter the lens with which you view humanity, we are more similar than we like to think.

If true crime allows us to relate to its characters, perhaps it is so popular because it allows us to play the role of the detective. Especially in a widely educated society, our brains gravitate toward logic, problems, and puzzles. Today’s society further compounds the glory of the problem solver because of its emphasis on fame and recognition. While humanity has always been driven by competition and success, true crime exploits our modern day need to be the hero. We want to be the ones to solve the unsolvable. This aspect of true crime could also be looked at in a more positive light. Because of the empathy we feel for the victims, we want to help them and protect our neighbors from the horrors that others have experienced.

Yet another aspect of true crime that appeals to human psychology is our desire to be needed. True crime shows and interviews often feature relatives and friends who truly miss and want justice for their deceased loved ones. The need for community is embedded deep in human nature, and community is revealed in the midst of tragedy.

Competition is the force behind most human action. It drives our economy, ecosystem, and day- to-day interactions. It can be argued whether our competitive nature is beneficial or detrimental to the human race, but one thing is for certain. We all have some desire to win, to beat the guy next to us, to be the first to touch the wall in every aspect of our lives. This desire to be better than others comes into play with moral relativism. Maybe we like true crime because our personal sins are comparatively less destructive than that of a murderer. It is human nature to
downplay our mistakes, to say I messed up but at least I didn’t kill someone.

So, are we fascinated with true crime because it makes us feel better about ourselves? Because it allows us to relate to the victim, the criminal, and the detective? Or is it because we are unwilling to face the dangers in our own lives and look for an escape in film and literature?

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