Why do we love true crime and is it healthy for us?

Books, TV shows, movies, documentaries and now podcasts about real-life crime have been popular for years, but, as the “Saturday Night Live” skit “Murder Show” from earlier this season so cleverly highlighted, it was a guilty pleasure for many — slightly dirty and never discussed. Adweek, however, recently noted that there has been a dramatic increase in interest in the genre over the past 12 months. “Why Did You Kill Me,” “White Boy,” “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” “Murder Among the Mormons” and “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” all “cracked the top 10 most-popular shows” on Netflix, for instance, while Forbes noted that the biographical documentary “The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness” was briefly the No. 1 show on Netflix when it premiered in May.

Still, some worry that consuming true crime stories is psychologically unhealthy, potentially retraumatizing survivors of violent crimes on the one hand and desensitizing viewers and readers to the real meanings of these behaviors on the other.

As a psychotherapist, I generally assume that something so popular must have some mental health implications. I started asking questions and discovered that many people I know are secret fans of the genre or could connect me to someone who is. I learned that while there can be some sense that you’re watching out of curiosity — like rubbernecking after a car accident — there’s also a lot of psychological “stuff” going on.

For example, Lauren Jacobsen, who has been watching true crime since she was a teenager, told me that it seems odd but she falls asleep better when she is listening to the podcast “My Favorite Murder.” Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (“Captain Marvel,” “Bitch Planet”) similarly told me that true crime podcasts soothed her “around the start of the Trump administration and then ramped up at the start of the pandemic.”

Melinda Swahn, on the other hand, said, “These shows are fascinating because they show other real-life humans. They open the door to how others live.”

And a man I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “It’s entertainment, which is horrible to say, but it’s also fascinating to see how an investigative journalist can dig beneath the surface and put pieces together to come up with a new answer to a crime that was unsolved or solved incorrectly.”

What could make media about violence feel so calming?

A pervasive sense of helplessness, which many people have felt — some for years, some only for the past few months — can be modified or even lifted by seeing someone else speak about their pain and have it recognized.

Kathleen Check, a psychotherapist in Chicago with whom I spoke, said true crime media provided “a particular kind of escapism” during the pandemic. But, she added, “tuning in and following the specifics of a crime also creates a [false] sense being able to ‘see inside’ the mind of a criminal, thus creating a psychological protective barrier: ‘If I know how criminals operate, I can protect myself.’”

Rick Nizzardini, a licensed clinical social worker in San Francisco, told me, “These shows touch on the hallmark elements of trauma: a sense of powerlessness, a shattering of our sense of safety in the world and the violation of attachments to family, friends and community.”

He added, “This can raise emotions to the surface that often feel dissociated or cut off from processing, but can be helpful for recovery in the right context.”

True crime may then help us manage our fears about the world. DeConnick’s friend Neil Gaiman sent her an early draft of his children’s book “Coraline,” which, she told me, “is a rather frightening book that often terrifies adults but children seem to universally adore.”

She added, “He says that kids already know dragons exist; what they crave is assurance that dragons can be defeated.”

Several fans of true crime also told me they feel both blessed and guilty knowing their lives are better than those of the people featured in true crime media.

Perhaps some of that guilt might be alleviated by knowing that studies show some survivors feel like true crime puts a voice to feelings and experiences that are not always widely heard in our society. For example, in a study of domestic violence survivors who listen to true crime podcasts, Kelli S. Boling, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that survivors felt they had become part of “a collective identity and a virtual community where their voices are heard, their stories are normalized.”

Still, the disturbing nature of true crime can sometimes also create problems for those who consume it. Nizzardini, the clinical social worker in San Francisco, also told me, “A concern is if a viewer becomes overly triggered without having a support system to discuss and process these feelings, memories or somatic symptoms.”

Those of us in the mental health field know that speaking one’s pain out loud, having one’s voice heard and experiences validated, and seeing others conquer their “dragons” can be soothing and healing. But it is also important to protect oneself from being overwhelmed or overly distressed. And each of the fans with whom I spoke told me there were shows they did not watch because they “hit too close to home” or because they were too disturbing.

Knowing your limits and setting boundaries is an important way of managing painful overstimulation.

Like the women in Boling’s study, audiences can build a sense of community and support by sharing the experience of consuming true crime media. Many of the fans I spoke with bond with a sibling, a friend or even a romantic partner over the programs.

And because most true crime media focuses on cases that have been solved, seeing the judicial system in action, or as a force for positive change in some cases, can also be empowering. Boling wrote in an email, “True crime podcasts are starting the conversation — often on a national level — and pushing society to make measurable changes to support victims of domestic violence.”

In the end, it seems that, despite the stereotypes about its fans, true crime is about much more than morbid fascination with other people’s pain. If people’s boundaries — including the individuals featured in the shows — are respected and triggering material avoided by those who are consuming, these programs can actually be beneficial to the emotional well-being of individuals, groups and communities.

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