At every turn, there’s an HBO special Netflix series or new podcasts about murder, crime, and the criminal mind. Witness the popularity of Making of a Murder a few years ago. And what about ˆThe Sopranos or the decades-long Law & Order franchises? This fascination is not new. Fifty years ago, some of the most popular shows on television were about crime and punishment, like the Perry Mason drama or Colombo. And I can’t leave out the Alfred Hitchcock movies, many of which are odes to the moviegoers’ thirst for human debauchery.
By 2006, the Amazon website was selling over 1,400 books about murder and crime. As a forensic psychologist, I got into the act and wrote a book about crime and the justice system. I’m also trained and practice as a psychoanalyst. I could have simply maintained a practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis instead of entering an arena fraught with unspeakable tragedy and sorrow.
So why is crime, with its all too frequent ruinously deadly consequences, so intriguing to us all?
Over the years, I’ve reflected on why I entered the field of forensic psychology, and why I like it, instead of remaining safely within the confines of my consulting room, just me and my non-criminal patients. Why have I exposed myself to the horror show that is so frequently the case when I step out of my consulting room and wade into the criminal justice system?
Ironically, the seduction of criminal forensic psychology is for me in the baseness of it all. It’s a rendezvous with something that is hidden in all of us - what Freud called the Id, and what I’ll refer to in my book as the daimonic – which is in balance in most of us, most of the time. It is usually regulated by social convention, fear, duty, compassion and courage, guilt, identifications with loved ones, or all of the above.
All of that gets melded into something I’ll call virtue, yet is always teeter-tottering with its darker, shadowy side. Just like virtue, this dark side is in us. Those impulses to cheat, to wound somebody, to transgress the boundaries that all stay silent and contained within. The evolutionary psychologist David Buss, in his book The Murder Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill, conducted a study and found that 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid fantasy of killing someone.
Such thoughts are common in all of us, but usually remain in the realm of thought or fantasy during moments of fleeting rage or irrationality. The impulse is controlled. Not so with the defendants I’ve evaluated as a forensic psychologist. The lid has popped off: a psychic hernia has occurred. A terrible act has exposed something about the human condition, a potential part of us all that cannot be denied, rationalized away, or controlled.
I continue to practice forensic psychology and you, I’m guessing, continue to watch shows about murder and crime. Why? We all have has our own conscious personal reasons for watching crime scenarios. Research into investigating who watches crime shows and their various motivations revealed that, for instance, women say they love true crime shows because they want to absorb tips on how to survive dangerous encounters with predatory men.
For men, watching shows about crime and murder seems to stir feelings of manliness. A related factor that may prompt an interest in both men and women is that an interest in crime and violence evolved as a way of spotting danger in the environment (for instance, rival tribes, animal predators, etc.) so as to prepare a defense. Some researchers concluded that the fascination with crime and murder provides an escape from the drudgery of everyday life.
These reasons and motives make sense. But at the same time, they all ring hollow as a basic driving attraction to the human suffering that accompanies criminal behavior and homicide. To grasp the urge that allows so many of us to tolerate and repeatedly view circumstances that are both fascinating and repugnant requires a deeper dive. Something more elemental is at play.
All the research findings about motivations from watching media that showcase crime and murder seem to have a common denominator: all have something to do with a desire to stare into the nature of our human nature. It’s a safe way of facing that dark side of the human condition. More subtly, It also offers a psychologically safe way of observing those on-screen characters who act out the dark elements of our nature as we temporarily identify with them at a virtual distance, all while gaining an understanding of something that’s part of us that's usually sequestered and unconscious.
I’ve come to realize that my willingness to absorb the tragedy and trauma inherent in maintaining a forensic psychological practice is a compulsion to face a reality: The difference between the savage and the civilized, the saint and the sinner, the ridiculous and the sublime, is deep yet dubious.
Wiest, J. B., & Levin, J. (2019). Effects of Gender and Age on US Adults' Interest in Cinematic Serial Murder. Violence and Gender, 6(3), 168-174.
Morrall, P., Worton, K., & Antony, D. (2021). Why is murder fascinating and why does it matter to mental health professionals?. Mental Health Practice, 24(3). 34-39