4 Reasons We Love Binging Crime Shows
We might be wired to love true crime.
Posted February 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Watching crime television and murder mysteries is kind of like witnessing a car crash: It’s hard to look at, but it’s also hard to look away. There is a level of disgust that we experience while watching or listening to these stories of violence and terror, and yet we keep coming back for more.
Series about violent murders, unsolved mysteries, and serial killer biographies proliferate in every entertainment medium. The popularity of series like To Catch a Killer, The Ted Bundy Tapes, and countless others speak to the hunger that viewers have for the true-crime genre. Every streaming platform has abundant tales of crime, but why are these dark, twisted stories so popular with audiences across the globe?
It seems the answer lies in the way these stories engage their audiences both mentally and physically. Below, we will discuss four reasons why so many of us love the violence and fear of true crime.
1. We love a good adrenaline rush.
Crime shows let us get a hearty adrenaline rush in the comfort of our own home. Adrenaline is something that we seek out on a daily basis, whether it be through playing a sport, climbing a mountain, or seeking out a crime thriller. Like a roller coaster, true-crime series let us feel a simulated fear that we know poses no real threat, giving us a “good stress” known as eustress. The effects of an adrenaline rush push us into a state of biological overdrive, which can feel exciting in small doses.
Listening to serial killer podcasts or watching agents chase down a wanted criminal in a television series causes us to feel as though we are a part of the process, and the accompanying adrenaline rush makes us enjoy the nerve-wracking experience while knowing we are still safe from harm.
2. Our mind and imagination are engaged.
Crime entertainment is like working a puzzle that also gives you a rush of excitement every time you put the last piece in. For the sake of curiosity, these series are often presented in a play-by-play mystery format, where the viewer is solving the case alongside the detectives. These shows and podcasts stimulate us intellectually and leave us with a sense of satisfaction afterward, as if we played a role in bringing justice.
Along the lines of stimulating the mind, crime entertainment also engages our adult imagination in a childlike fantasy of good versus evil. In a post about our love of murder mysteries, fellow Psychology Today writer David Evans once referred to crime shows as “fairy tales for adults” for this very reason: They follow a plot where evil plagues a community, but good wins in the end. No matter our age, our minds enjoy the unpredictable predictability of these stories.
3. We are wired to enjoy true crime.
Or rather, true crime is wired for us to enjoy. Evolution has sharpened humans’ survival instincts to the point where it feels natural and sometimes enjoyable to, well, survive. Even from a young age, we enjoy exercising our survival instincts and homing in on fear in a safe environment. Mathias Clasen, a researcher who focuses on our paradoxical fascination with horror, points to the game hide-and-seek as an example of this in our childhood. This “simulation of predator-prey interaction,” as he calls it, is one of the many ways that we enjoy the thrill of surviving danger that we know is not a real threat.
The true-crime genre engages this primal element within us. Crime-based entertainment is made to activate our survival instincts in the same way that a game of hide-and-seek might activate them as children. As a result, we enjoy our “close calls” with danger as we experience the stories unfolding before us.
4. We are fascinated by our own "dark side."
As functional, non-violent members of society, we are appalled by the thought of committing the terrible acts that murderers, rapists, and criminals are known for. To imagine carrying out such acts ourselves is nearly impossible; yet why do we find it so intriguing?
The universality of human nature connects us all, and perhaps this is what we find so fascinating about these aberrant members of society. Another human—the very same as you and me—committed horrific crimes, and the fact that all humans are hypothetically capable of this is astonishing. Watching these shows is a lot like interacting with our intrusive thoughts. Not to say that most people have these thoughts with any intention of acting upon them, but it is fascinating to engage with our deviant capacities by watching what we humans are capable of when morals are out of the picture.
We are enraptured by our own human nature. Watching crime shows captivates our curiosity that stems from the intrusive thoughts we so often ignore and, to borrow Freud’s outdated terminology, gratifies our deviant, attention-starved ids. Our morals tell us that these thoughts are taboo, which makes them all the more exciting to engage with. Taboos were another thing that Freud examined, but Philip Tetlock has studied taboos in a more modern (i.e., non-incestual) light. Tetlock examined what he termed the “taboo trade-off.” Humans are fascinated with the taboo, but ethics and morals keep us from allowing our minds to entertain these taboo thoughts too seriously. In crime shows, however, we watch someone else act upon their taboo thoughts, indulging in what most of us dare not let our minds wander to. Viewers, in turn, find ourselves fascinated with our own capacity to possess these taboo sides, horrified yet intrigued with what we are capable of. Simply put, we love to safely observe our own dark capabilities without any physical or moral consequences.
A Little Scare Never Hurt Anyone
With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with curling up to a good true-crime show with your free time. In fact, loving true crime for the reasons listed above probably means your moral and ethical compass is aligned with most people in society. After all, we all can enjoy a little deviance every now and then.
Burt, Malcolm B. (2016) Signature attraction: A documentary and exegesis seeking to find out why rollercoasters mean so much to those who love them. Creative Works, Queensland University of Technology.
Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, J. A. (2020). Horror, personality, and threat simulation: A survey on the psychology of scary media. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(3), 213–230. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000152
Kupriyanov, R., & Zhdanov, R. (2014). The Eustress Concept: Problems and Outlooks. World Journal of Medical Sciences, 11(2), 179-185. doi:10.5829/idosi.wjms.2014.11.2.8433
Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(7), 320-324. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(03)00135-9