With the recent proliferation of true crime media, I see more and more people wondering where the appeal of such morbidity comes from. It’s a question worth asking, particularly since the popularity of true crime in this new decade only seems to be growing. The modern-day true-crime boom that appeared to begin with the likes of Making a Murderer has birthed a new generation of people who consider the study of true crime a hobby like any other — but, to go back to that original question, why?
While ‘true crime’ may be a relatively recent term, our fascination with the macabre is far from being a new phenomenon. We need only look back at the kind of spectacles considered entertainment in previous centuries to see that a fixation on the morbid has always been part of the human experience, and that violence certainly isn’t a product of the modern age — if anything, we’ve become less violent as the years have gone on.
Many of the most famous methods of public torture and executions that we know of today come from ancient civilizations. Public stoning has its roots in ancient Greece, as common as a form of capital punishment in ancient Israel, and is still carried out today in the United Arab Emirates. The earliest known use of impalement occurred in the ancient Near East, as early as the 18th century BC. In Dynastic China, the Five Punishments were physical penalties used to keep slaves in line and ranged from the removal of certain body parts to death in various forms.
In the Roman Empire, gladiators entertained vast crowds of public spectators by engaging in bloody, often lethal combat with other gladiators, wild animals and convicted criminals. Executions of slaves and criminals were also held during these spectacles. Customarily, the decision of whether or not to show mercy to a gladiator who had acknowledged defeat was left up to the whim of the crowd. The gladiator games became such a popular fixture in Roman life that they lasted for almost a thousand years. We can also thank the Romans for such delights as the breaking wheel, crucifixion — a punishment which Jesus himself was portrayed as suffering — and poena cullei.
The Middle Ages, however, was the period most notable for public shaming, torture and executions. Beheadings, sawings and hangings were all acceptable forms of capital punishment during the Medieval period and beyond, and were well attended by large, excitable crowds. Stocks and pillories were erected in every town and village in England after 1351, and were a favoured way to humiliate criminals publicly — passers-by would often throw rubbish at them, insult them, spit on them, and even subject them to whipping.
Now, the main reason many of these punishments were administered publicly was to deter other would-be criminals from breaking the law. They were primarily used to scare other people into behaving rather than as a source of entertainment for the masses. However, there is an undeniable aspect of entertainment to all of it, particularly if we consider the monotony of day-to-day life in a period like the Middle Ages — after all, putting someone in the stocks or the pillory effectively passed the power of punishment to the people, and by many accounts, they gladly participated. The same can be said of the practice of stoning, and the entire spectacle of the gladiator games.
So, humankind has a long and storied history regarding crime, punishment and our fascination with those things. As the years drew on and society became more and more civilised, with England banning public executions in 1868, this only morphed into a different beast. When Jack the Ripper was at large in 1888, the details of his gruesome murders made newspaper headlines, with exaggerated details and sinister illustrations abounding. Penny dreadfuls — cheap, often sensationalist fictional stories about the exploits of criminals or supernatural beings — also became popular around this time.
The 20th century saw the rising popularity of film as entertainment, and thus, the birth of horror movies. Early classics like the German film Nosferatu (1922) and Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1925) paved the way for the later subgenre of creature features that made up the Golden Age of monster movies in the 1930s, with hits like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) still revered today. Horror movies, and the act of watching them publicly, calls to mind a long-running theme of communities coming together to gawk at the macabre so as to fill an afternoon. In the 1930s, that horror was only made more palatable by the separation of the screen.
And while the appeal of the morbid still continues to evolve, behind a screen is where it’s tended to stay. By the end of the 60s, most Western homes had a television set, and with television sets came news channels. With those came the highly publicised investigations and trials of a seemingly new breed of boogeyman — the serial killer. We had our fair share of them in England with the likes of the Wests, the Moors murderers and Sutcliffe haunting our screens, but the most famous cases hailed from the US, with the Zodiac killer terrorising California in the 60s, Bundy, Gacy and Berkowitz dominating the 70s, and Ramirez and Dahmer running into the 80s.
It goes without saying that serial killers are terrifying enough on their own, but the media of the time didn’t seem to think so. News reports, both on television and in the newspapers, dealt in sensational details and heart-stopping headlines. Every new body was reported on, as was every new detail that the media could lift from the mouths of investigators. Criminal mugshots glared out from television screens. In the US, perp walks — that is, walking the suspect through a crowded and public place — were arranged with the media in mind. The ‘serial killer boom’ was in full swing, and the threat of murder loomed large in the public consciousness.
Cinema also began to take full advantage of this new, and very real, kind of villain. Horror movies edged into new territory in the 70s with the emergence of the slasher movie subgenre, most notably Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Looking back at the context of the time, it’s easy to see why film had taken such a drastic turn into this kind of subject matter.
As the 80s drew to a close, the once-booming genre of horror in film began to lose its lustre. The ‘serial killer boom’ was also beginning to wind down by this time, but the public fascination with true crime in the media certainly wasn’t. With the introduction of Crimewatch in 1984, true crime was no longer restricted to the news channels — it had earned its own place as legitimate after-dinner entertainment within many Western homes. This was only reaffirmed by the proliferation of Crimewatch spin-offs and similar shows running in separate countries like Germany, New Zealand and Singapore, and of course, the US had their own true crime hits with Unsolved Mysteries in 1987, followed by America’s Most Wanted in 1988.
All of these shows had lengthy runs that spanned the 90s. However, while the televised details of very real cases never ceased to be a hit with the public, as time went on, it seemed they needed more — more oddities, more dizzying twists, more blood. Thus, the 90s spawned a new kind of crime drama, one much grittier than the likes of the somewhat whimsical Murder, She Wrote. Over the pond, the police procedural Law & Order began in 1990, followed by Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit in 1999, and Britain’s own Midsomer Murders started up in 1997. The year 2000 saw the release of one of the most famous crime dramas in the West — CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Over the next few years came a number of spin-offs, most notably CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, and in 2005, the first episode of Criminal Minds aired.
With many of the aforementioned crime dramas running well into the 2010s and shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted receiving highly-anticipated revivals, it’s no wonder the latest generations have such a fascination with morbidity. Many younger people can remember growing up with the Unsolved Mysteries or Crimewatch theme tunes heralding their evening programmes, or with hardened heroes like Gary Sinise and Mariska Hargitay solving yet another case. Add to that the abundance of recent Netflix and Hulu documentaries, podcasters and YouTubers making their money from true crime, and it makes sense. The fascination has only evolved once again, staying behind a screen, but this time, a screen that can fit in your hand.
So, we’ve figured out how this morbid interest has persisted over time, but the why still remains. After all, with a subject matter as terrifying and macabre as death — and every other gruesome thing mentioned in this piece — asking why seems appropriate. What keeps us coming back? What keeps us wanting to look despite ourselves? Why are we so enthralled by ghastly, monstrous things that we would never do ourselves? As a people, we’re so intent on the idea of locking the bad guys up and throwing away the key, yet we can’t seem to leave them alone either.
As a true crime fan myself, I wholeheartedly relate to the fascination of it all. I, too, grew up with Midsomer Murders and every CSI spin-off gracing the television screen, not to mention a very interesting book on serial killers that my father never bothered to keep out of reach. As much as I want to know why we, as a society, regard such subjects the way we do, I also want to know why I do it specifically. True crime has been an interest of mine for well over a decade now, but I couldn’t tell anyone why, and that’s what bothers me. It’s something about myself that I simply cannot explain.
Unfortunately, even in this modern age, there is no clear answer to the question. What we do have are theories, and some of them actually make a lot of sense when trying to understand the fascination of morbidity. One such theory stipulates that it could have something to do with the addictive nature of fear, and thus, adrenaline. Fear triggers adrenaline, which in turn causes us to feel physically and emotionally charged — in short, we get a rush from it, and this rush is the addictive part. After all, the term ‘adrenaline junkie’ had to come from somewhere. Perhaps some people absorb themselves in true crime for the same kinds of reasons that others ride rollercoasters, jump from planes, or do extreme sports.
When it comes to true crime in particular, though, I think it simply comes down to wanting to understand. We’re riveted by the most gruesome of cases and the most inhuman of criminals because we can’t possibly imagine how they operate the way they do, yet we want to understand it. Like horror movies, documentaries give us the chance to try to understand while staying at a reasonable distance, and this distance is precisely what makes the fascination something we’re able to explore safely. Even with the public executions of old, for the most part, there was some distance between the crowds and the condemned, a gap that reinforced their identities as observers, able to look away, or even walk away, whenever they wanted or needed to.
As a species, we’re constantly looking for answers to the unknown, because the unknown is nothing if not unnerving. Trying to explain the seemingly unexplainable while wanting to ascribe meaning to everything is something our brains are constantly working at, and we see it every day — people claiming to see the face of Jesus Christ on a piece of burnt toast and deciding it’s a sign, or the assertions that humans could never have built the pyramids and therefore, it had to be aliens. Far from being a modern thing, it can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece, where stories of gods like Zeus and Poseidon helped to explain the weather or frightening natural phenomena.
People will never stop looking for Atlantis, or give up speculating on who shot JFK, or finally accept that maybe Elvis really is dead. Unanswered questions like these are open invitations for gossip and conjecture — an ever-popular pastime — and there’s no other hobby with as many unanswered questions as true crime. It makes sense that our curious and inquisitive species would be drawn there, hoping to solve a mystery, to fit the last piece of an old puzzle in place.
No theory necessarily provides the whole answer to why we’re so fascinated with the macabre, but then again, perhaps deep down, many of us are okay with that. The not knowing is simply yet another mystery that’s destined to stay unsolved forever, and that’s precisely what makes the question such an intriguing one. After all, the horror becomes significantly less scary once we have it under a microscope. Once a mystery is solved, it loses its appeal as a mythical, unknowable thing. No doubt that’s the real reason why we’re so fascinated with true crime in particular — despite our best efforts to understand some of the worst cases in history, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever receive answers, and that keeps it interesting.
Famous author, H. P. Lovecraft, knew this all too well. He’s credited with creating some of the scariest fiction ever written in the subgenre of cosmic horror, one which emphasizes the horror of the unknowable and incomprehensible. He understood that the unknown was the foundation of all fear, and that to be faced with something incomprehensible or unexplainable could shake us to our very core. It makes sense that we’d rather journey into the depths for an answer than accept the idea of never knowing. As Lovecraft himself put it, ‘the process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.’ I think he just might have been onto something.