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A bloody page in a typewriter that says True Story

From Serial Killers to Cult Profiles: Why Do We Love True Crime?

CU Anschutz social worker explains why some people become addicted to the dark side

Written by Laura Kelley on February 2, 2024

Each week, millions of Americans close their blinds, pour a beverage and snuggle under their favorite blankie to binge the latest true crime docuseries and podcasts.

It seems our “murder shows” have taken the place of romcoms, and many of us just can’t seem to get enough of them. A popular music video on “Saturday Night Live,” which wove humor into this pop culture phenomenon, was only the tip of the iceberg. Series documenting the world’s most notorious serial killers, cults and heinous crimes dominate our watchlists.

Why the fascination with true crime? Below, Laura Kelley, media relations professional in the CU Anschutz Office of Communications, speaks to Amber McDonald, PhD, LCSW, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus’ School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and a consultant for the Denver FBI office to discuss the pull of true crime and whether it could be harmful to our psyche.

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From serial killers to cults to bizarre crimes, it’s become evident that many of us can’t seem to get enough of a true crime fix. Why is that?

The largest driver of the love and fixation of serial killers, cults and criminal behavior, generally, is the chemical release of dopamine that occurs while engaging in the activity, thus creating a sometimes unconscious “addiction.” This in addition to the adrenaline dump that occurs creates a physiological sensation that people enjoy. Dopamine is our “feel good” chemical and, naturally, people will lean into whatever creates that feeling for them.

Statistically, women seem to be drawn to these docuseries more than men, especially when it comes to the pop culture term “murder shows.” Why does it seem like women are more interested in the “true crime binge” than men?

I think this has to do with the socialization of violence and power among masculine people and the impacts this has on femme-identified people. Specifically, femme folx tend to watch these shows for a few different reasons – validation, curiosity and research. Depending on the type of true crime, I also believe that these shows can help femme people feel powerful, and they can gain a sense of empowerment for those who get revenge on their abusers.

A dose of dopamine plus adrenaline also helps if your life is relatively boring and mundane. It’s a safe, inexpensive and socially acceptable way to get a little pick me up.

The fascination with crime isn’t anything new. Recalling back to the days when some serial killer trials like Ted Bundy’s had fans come to the courtroom to watch it unfold (and in some cases, support the defendant). Psychologically, what’s going on here?

The more taboo or more forbidden the activity is, the more hooked we become. This relates back to the dopamine and adrenaline. These shows can contribute to fantasy and adventure through imagining a different life. Pointedly, when presented with extremes, it draws out emotions we don’t often feel, which can be exciting. Also, some use media to normalize their own lives and/or experiences and behaviors.

Offering support to defendants can be rooted in a lot of different things for people. Some folx explain feeling compassion for the defendant after learning about early childhood adversity (e.g., Albert Fish) or other injustices that occurred to them. Thus, creating a “reasonable” explanation for someone going off the rails and engaging in problematic behavior. Some simply want to be different and are naturally prone to supporting the “other” in society for their own individual reasons.

Some of these shows completely change the public’s perception of certain cases and the way they were handled, often casting new villains in a closed case. The most recent Netflix documentary “American Nightmare” comes to mind. Do you think the change in public opinion can move the needle and reopen some of these controversial cases and how they were handled?

Media plays a crucial role in unpacking and challenging viewers on their perceptions of social issues. “Dahmer” was an excellent depiction of racism in policing, for example.

My friends and I joke that we’re using these shows as education to spot red flags in certain people and situations. Does immersing yourself in this dark world have deleterious effects on one’s psyche? For example, does it make us more paranoid about anyone we encounter? How can this impact us mentally?

These types of shows can create paranoia and other more profound mental health problems such as vicarious or secondary traumatic stress if not careful. This is of particular concern for people who struggle with anxiety or social phobias. Further, it can create misconceptions when media dramatizes situations, thus contributing to myths (i.e., stranger danger).

What is important to keep in mind as we’re binging the newest true crime series/podcast? Are there healthy and unhealthy viewing habits?

Everything in moderation. Think of binge-watching these shows like eating too much sugar, or really anything in excess. You’re going to notice a difference in yourself after doing so. These types of shows can impact sleep and not necessarily because of the content, but because of the chemical overload in your system. Also, anytime someone binges anything, I can’t help but ask about what purpose it serves? Likely, you’re shutting off and avoiding something. Again, not bad, but curious.

Topics: Mental Health,

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Staff Mention

Amber McDonald, PhD, LCSW