Why Are We So Obsessed With True Crime?

Something about the appalling aspect of brutal crimes captivates people, and has been doing so for centuries. As the printing press made its debut and the upper class got their hands on newspapers and tabloids, publishers noticed that one thing made their issues fly off the shelves: evil people. Tales of deviants committing atrocities emerged as one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, and H. H. Holmes are among the pre-television criminals that raised the hairs on the necks of the 19th century public. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle were inspired by these real-life scandals. It was sensational, and this adrenaline rush still applies to the media today.

Now in present time, yet another biopic is rapidly gaining traction after being released on September 21st. Dahmer–Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story received 196.2 million hours watched within the first week of being released. The ten-episode series starring Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Pose) as Dahmer has stirred the pot. Many people believe such a high-profile show with an attractive actor playing a cannibalistic serial killer is a huge component of the glorification of Dahmer’s heinous crimes. Since the series focuses mainly on the murderer’s own childhood and adult life instead of his victims’, it could be said that it evokes sympathy toward a man responsible for the deaths of seventeen beautiful people. Moreover, a majority of his victims were queer men of color whose lives and personalities were erased for TV. 

Like many other serial killer shows before it, Dahmer viewers’ online opinions have been met with anger. Oddly parallel to when Zac Efron played Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile, a group of true crime buffs on TikTok have been calling Evan Peters’ Dahmer hot for having a set of six-pack abs and charming acting skills. Fans are even making edits of murder scenes because they find them attractive. Not only are shows like these causing sympathy with sadistic criminals, but producers, directors, and actors are gaining millions in net worth while survivors and families of the victims receive nothing, often not even notice that their dead family member will be portrayed. 

Rita Isbell, brother to Errol Lindsey who was killed by Jeffrey Dahmer, says that watching someone recreate her powerful court statement was frustrating because Netflix “just did it” without asking for her opinion on the matter. DaShawn Barnes, the actress who took on the role of Isbell, remarked that she is “honored with telling this part of this horrific story.” Peters himself said in a promotional video that playing Dahmer was one of the hardest things he has had to do in his life. He also mentioned that Ryan Murphy’s one rule going into filming was that the story would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view. 

But why are people so captivated by grisly acts? Psychologists have a few theories: Humans have a natural gravitation towards evil. Some things are just too captivating to look away from, no matter how bloody (Dr. Michael Mantell). There may also be an evolutionary aspect. Over time, we have evolved to take note of danger or threats around us, and crime is the ultimate threat. By paying attention to the reasons victims are chosen, we have a better chance of avoiding becoming one ourselves ( Dr. Marissa Harrison). The dawn of national and global news networks has only piqued the interest of more viewers (Mantell). Women tend to be particularly interested in true crime because they are more at risk to be the victim of sexual assault, assault by a partner, and because of this many serial killers reported preying on women. A 2010 study found that women are more likely to watch or read materials that contain information on self-defense, killers’ motives, and female victims (Dr. Amanda Vicary). 

No matter the reason behind society’s interest in true crime, it has become the perfect opportunity for major entertainment corporations like Netflix and Parcast to capitalize on horrifying felonies. It isn’t known if this genre of amusement is contributing to a steadily increasing crime rate. In modern times, the question isn’t of how people are getting a hold of these stories, but rather why?