The Guilty Pleasure of True Crime TV
True crime TV is addictive to viewers.
Posted May 30, 2016
Given the tremendous interest in programs such as Making a Murderer on Netflix and HBO’s 2015 six-part documentary series The Jinx about eccentric millionaire, and possible serial killer, Robert Durst, it is clear that true crime television shows are tantalizing to millions of people. This conclusion is supported by the passionate and loyal following demonstrated by Investigation Discovery (ID) network, which is entirely devoted to the true-crime genre of programming.
If you spend any amount of time watching true crime TV, you will quickly notice that the shows almost always involve one particular type of crime: murder. Not robbery, assault, or burglary, but murder. Often, too, the focus is on exotic, bizarre, and especially grisly or disturbing incidents of murder. The incredible but true story of Robert Durst is a prime example of this.
In the extreme, the tales of murder depicted in true crime TV shows involve the gruesome and notorious exploits of serial killers such as the late Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy (The Killer Clown), Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam). The morbid stories of these prolific killers have become popular culture legends.
Can we conclude that people are fascinated with death, and this fact alone explains why true crime shows are so popular with the public? I think not. Because I am a criminologist and college professor who also is a former network television executive, I spent several years conducting my own research on the allure of true crime. More specifically, I focused on what many people would consider to be the most heinous of all true crimes: serial murder.
My research has determined that the public’s fascination with serial killers on television is multifaceted and complex. Serial killers excite and tantalize people, much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters. The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the thrill of the spectacle.
People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing the terrible deeds of a serial killer. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating, and even addictive effect on the human brain. If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of serial killers on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.
Serial killers are so extreme in their brutality and so seemingly unnatural in their behavior that society is riveted by them. Many people are morbidly drawn to the violence of serial killers, because they cannot comprehend their actions, but feel compelled to. The incomprehensibility of their crimes makes serial killers seem enigmatic in the minds of the public. The fascination with serial killers is based in part on a need to understand why anyone would do such horrible things to other people who generally are complete strangers to them.
Another important aspect of the public’s obsession with serial killers has to do with the fact that serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, often blend into society very effectively and for long periods of time. In person, killers like Bundy often come across as average guys, even charming, not like predatory monsters. The fact that many serial killers can blend into society so effectively is genuinely horrifying to many people, because it means that most anyone, even a loved one, could be a serial killer.
The public is drawn to serial killers because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us — fear. As a source of popular-culture entertainment, serial killers allow us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment, where the threat is exciting, but not real. Serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children — that is, good, ghoulish fun. Moreover, by following a serial killer investigation on TV, people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out “whodunit” before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.
After much consideration, I believe that for many people, including me, watching true crime TV shows offers guilty pleasure to thrill-seeking adults. Why guilty pleasure? For me, watching true crime TV is like eating my favorite candy in bed at three o’clock in the morning. Although I may feel a bit guilty about doing it, I cannot stop, because it is such tasty fun!
I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) and Dennis Rader (Bind, Torture, Kill), with whom I personally corresponded, in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for expert consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter, and visit his website, docbonn.com.