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Why the True Crime Audience Is Predominantly Female

Observations from my recent U.S. theatrical tour.

Key points

  • Many female true crime fans identify and empathize with female victims.
  • Women may watch true crime TV shows and podcasts for tips on how to protect themselves from attacks.
  • If the viewer understands the terrible motivations of a killer, then he may not be so terrifying after all.
Scott Bonn
Scott Bonn

I recently toured the United States with my theatrical road show “The Psychology of Serial Killers and Why They Captivate Us,” produced by Right Angle Entertainment. I performed in 14 different cities in 18 days—quite an exciting, whirlwind adventure. It afforded me a wonderful opportunity to get direct feedback from live audiences on my unique, proprietary perspectives on serial killers and true crime that I have been writing and lecturing about for some time.

If you are involved in the true crime world, as I am, it is taken for granted that the audience of true crime TV shows and podcasts is about 80 percent female in composition. I have had this confirmed by network programming executives who focus exclusively on true crime. This truth was emphatically proven to me on my tour as, night after night and city after city, my audience was consistently 80 percent+ women of all ages, including mothers and daughters, who were in high spirits and out to have fun—having a girls' night out together.

So, this begs the question: Why is the true crime audience predominantly female? Based on my experience and research, women’s fascination with true crime is driven by their empathetic nature. In particular, women empathize with the victims in true crime stories who, more often than not, comprise other women. Female fans identify with and can easily imagine themselves in the role of the victim in frightening true crime tales. The old religious adage, “There but for the grace of God go I,” applies here.

However, the empathy that female fans manifest is not limited to the victims. It is my observation that women strongly empathize with, and seek to understand, the motivations of the perpetrators—especially male perpetrators—in true crime stories. I believe this has to do with a female desire to feel safe and secure. Many female true crime fans have told me that their greatest fear is being attacked by an unknown assailant.

In particular, single women have told me that they look to true crime TV shows and podcasts for tips on how to protect themselves from attacks by strangers, as well as how to detect sociopathic “red flags” in the personalities and demeanor of single men they encounter. No woman wants to date or marry the next Ted Bundy (who killed at least 30 women)!

On a more superficial level, true crime programming offers escapism and thrills to its female audience. In terms of pure entertainment value and its effect on the audience, how different is a Jeffrey Dahmer documentary from a fictional serial killer movie like “Saw”? Very little, in my opinion, and this is why I call them both forms of “popcorn entertainment.” I believe that true crime TV shows and podcasts offer adults, particularly female adults, what violent video games and horror movies offer children—that is, adrenaline-pumping good fun!

Of course, Dahmer, unlike the serial killer in “Saw,” murdered 17 real, innocent, young men in the most horrible fashion. The actions of Dahmer, including cannibalism, are almost incomprehensible to the average person and, therefore, instill confusion and tremendous fear.

I believe another aspect of the public’s fascination with true crime involves a burning desire and powerful need to understand why someone like Dahmer did such grotesque things to innocent people. Perhaps at a subconscious level, true crime fans believe that if they can somehow understand Dahmer’s motivations and desires, then he and his ilk are not so terrifying after all. I believe this is particularly true for female true crime fans.

The perpetrators in true crime stories, especially the most extreme examples like Dahmer, Bundy, and Gacy, also provide fans with an opportunity to look into a mirror and see their own sinister thoughts, fantasies, and desires. True crime fans might say, “I hate my boss, I want to kill him,” but they don’t really do it. Bundy, Gacy, and company, on the other hand, actually do it! This begs true crime fans to consider what they might do themselves under extreme duress. True crime morality plays provide fans with this very compelling proposition and opportunity.

Finally, I believe there are contradictory forces at play in the true crime universe that particularly entice female fans due to their empathic nature, as previously stated. While fans seek to humanize diabolical killers in order to understand them and, thereby, reduce their fears, I believe they also consciously seek to dehumanize them in order to draw a distinct line in the sand between good and evil, human and monster.

Who delineates the stark distinction between us and them, good and evil, better than Jeffrey Dahmer? A true crime fan can say, “I may not be the best husband or wife in the world, father, or mother, but at least I don’t abduct, kill, and eat people like Jeffrey Dahmer!” In this regard, true crime morality tales offer fans comfort and solace for their own human imperfections.

In conclusion, the empathy that defines female true crime fans also unites them. On the road, I observed clearly that my serial killer theatrical show provided these fans with an opportunity to explore their fascination with true crime and manifest their empathy together in a community of like-minded sisters.

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