Opinion | Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

Maura Kate Mitchelson, Opinions Editor

When my mom was pregnant with me, she spent hours watching the television masterpiece “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Before I even entered the world, I was surrounded by the sounds of legendary TV detective Bobby Goren solving some of New York’s most heinous crimes. I’ve always said that my fascination with crime began while I was still in the womb.

I have vivid memories of sitting at the kitchen counter as a child, eating Eggo waffles and listening to reporter Ann Curry discuss the Casey Anthony trial on NBC’s Today Show. My mom and I would scoff in unison at the TV anytime a clip of Anthony, who was accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, in the courtroom would appear on the screen. (Everyone knows she did it, and if you do not think so, you are lying to yourself.) Even then as an 11-year-old, I was hooked on every word and detail of the case.

Today, I spend hours binging the newest true crime specials and listening to murder-related podcasts, like “Last Podcast on the Left.” These stories have been an interest of mine for so many years, and part of me is concerned by how intrigued I am in the gory details, but another part is comforted – because I know that I share that interest with many others.

People love to hear the disturbing intricacies of crimes because it elicits one of the most primal emotions, fear, without actually putting themselves in harm’s way.

“Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime. It’s two sides of the same story,” said Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist for the San Diego Police Department, in a 2009 NPR aticle.

We watch shows about Ted Bundy, see movies about Jeffrey Dahmer and read articles about John Wayne Gacy because they terrify us, but we feel comfortable enough to experience this fear because we know there is no imminent danger. While cozy in our beds, swaddled in our blankets, we can still get the adrenaline rush we crave. Without, you know, the murder.

In many of the most well-known homicide cases, the victims are young women, the same demographic that comprises a large number of true crime content consumers, according to CBS News.

Why is this? Specialists assume that the fascination is caused by a mix of factors, including the fact that women tend to live in a greater state of fear than men, are typically are more empathetic to victims, enjoy seeing the perpetrator get caught and want to be prepared in case something were to happen to them.

Because women are innately more fearful, assigning a face to these fears can be almost cathartic. It is hard to swallow the fact that some women watch these shows and movies as a way to prepare themselves for the worst case scenario, using these stories as a “what not to do” guide.

I am not sure how many hours I have spent researching true crime stories, but I honestly don’t regret it. These stories are gripping, captivating and bone-chilling, and that’s why I love them.

As I am writing this, my mom texted to me let me know that the new episode of ABC’s 20/20 features an interview with the daughter of the BTK serial killer, so … I gotta go.