- True crime documentaries, true crime podcasts, and other forms of murder media continue to be a growing obsession in the United States and beyond — especially among women.
- Murder media can have positive psychological effects on its mostly female audience, whether they’re motivated by hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) or eudaimonic (meaning-seeking) reasons.
- For example, women may feel more empowered, less anxious, and more knowledgeable when they consume true crime stories.
- But these emotional and graphic stories can also have a negative effect on mental health, especially for people who have been victims of violent crime.
- Listeners, watchers, and readers of murder media can change their habits–or even just make small modifications in their favorite content–to avoid psychological distress.
One foggy April morning in 1672, a woodsman stumbled upon a gruesome scene in the woods just outside the French village of Barfleur. The woodsman was already familiar with Madame Perrault’s forest cottage. Madame Perrault was an ailing, elderly woman, so the woodsman often stopped by with bread and soup from the village when he was chopping down trees near her property. But on this morning, the old woman’s door was ajar, and a crimson cape lay ripped, practically shredded, in the unkempt flowers beneath a curtained window. The woodsman approached the cape tentatively, feeling in his gut that something was very wrong. Fearing for Madame Perrault, the woodsman gripped his axe and dashed through the half-open door…
If you were intrigued by that story–which was a true crime retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood folktale, of course–then you may be one of the millions of people (like this writer) who devour murder media like it’s rainbow candy.
Murder media is a catch-all term for true crime documentaries, true crime podcasts, thriller novels, and basically every variation of addictive, binge-worthy media that centers a corpse. This material can feel like a guilty pleasure, something we don’t necessarily want to confess to our acquaintances. Is it wrong to enjoy graphic descriptions of crime scenes? Does it say something negative about our psyches when we can’t stop consuming gory tales of murder? The answer is no, and some of the psychological reasons why we love murder media are actually quite wholesome.
Disclaimer: It’s critical to note that this blog is interested only in the murder media itself and how the living respond to it psychologically. I’m not dismissing or diminishing the lives of victims, who deserve respect and sanctity. The victims of murder and violent crime are unique, irreplaceable humans–not entertainment. The goal here isn’t to look at them, but the packaging of them, and what our consumption of that product says about us. And so we ask: Why do people like true crime so much?
What Are the Psychological Effects of True Crime and Murder Media?
Murder media is all over the place: on Netflix with “Murder Among the Mormons”; on HBO with “Mare of Easttown” and “The Undoing”; on Apple podcasts like “Crime Junkie”, “My Favorite Murder”, and Casefile; on websites like Crimereads; in books like “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (about the Golden State Killer) by Michelle McNamara. Everywhere. People are obsessed with true crime. Especially women.
According to a landmark study by the crime psychologist Amanda Vicary, women are responsible for 70% of Amazon reviews for books on true crime. The audience for the podcast “Wine and Crime” is 85% female. Even though men commit 80% of violent crimes, women are more drawn to true crime stories. Sociologists, psychologists, and lay consumers have all offered their explanations for why murder media resonates with so many women. What motivates their reading, watching, and listening behavior? Reasons can be hedonistic, i.e., concerned primarily with pleasure, which leads to enjoyment. Or they can be eudaimonic, i.e., concerned primarily with meaning and insight, which leads to “appreciation”. Here are some of these psychological motivations in more detail:
- Murder media can operate psychologically like a fairy tale or a bedtime story, in that it may help people manage their fears within a narrative framework.
- True crime stories can educate women about how to cope with scary situations and distant threats. They can teach them practical tips and survival techniques that might prevent them from being victimized themselves. Through murder media, women can learn how they could be vulnerable to predators and what they can do about it. They can learn how to avoid the serial killers next door. Or a woman might listen to true tales of domestic-violence-turned-deadly so she’ll learn to recognize red flags in her boyfriends’ behavior.
- Murder media can teach us essential forensic knowledge that we need for–you know–stuff in our everyday lives. Thanks to the CSI effect, we know what to do if we find a dead body in the woods (first secure the crime scene!). And we’re always on the lookout for dead bodies in the woods.
- Women like to see justice prevail. They like to see the criminal justice system work in their favor, which it too often doesn’t (especially for indigenous women and women of color). In some of the best crime thrillers, the bad guy gets caught. And in the case of a page-turner where the potential female victim ultimately triumphs over her attacker or kidnapper or rapist, the reader gets to experience a vicarious form of redemption and empowerment. Order is restored to a chaotic world.
- Murder media is a socially acceptable way for people to access a person’s so-called dark side. It’s like Halloween, when you’re praised for your convincing Friday the 13th “Jason” costume. But it would be weird if you carried a knife covered in fake blood to work in July.
- You get to solve mysteries as an armchair detective. People like the cognitive challenge of filling in the blanks in a criminal investigation. And they’re curious to read or listen or watch until the very end to find out if their theories were correct. Interestingly, women show more anxiety when listening to distressing content, but that doesn’t alter their iron will to continue.
- It’s an adrenaline rush. And people like to be scared as long as they can come down in a safe environment. It’s like true crime exposure therapy. You face what you’re afraid of over and over again in small doses, from the security of your couch, to make the stories less scary.
- It can relieve your anxiety of being a victim and serve as a form of magical thinking: You escaped. You cheated death.
It’s pure escapism. Personal story: I used to be a literary snob. Then I started reading thrillers on airplanes to overcome my fear of flying. Miraculously, I stopped caring about the turbulence and just wanted to keep turning the mass-produced pages.
- It can be a short-term solution to anxiety, according to one study on increased media consumption during the covid pandemic. The study shows that certain types of film and television watching can lead to positive emotions, and even flourishing.
- It can be validating for victims of trauma to see or hear their pain expressed. Broad recognition in the media might ease victims’ feelings of helplessness. According to one psychological study on domestic violence survivors who listen to true crime podcasts, listening can have potential therapeutic value. And online true crime communities like the Murderinos and the Crime Junkies can help victims feel supported.
- Speaking of the Murderinos, true crime consumption can enhance social bonds. Anyone who loves murder media has probably experienced that euphoric moment when they find out their girlfriend also loves murder media and now they can talk about the latest episode of “Murdered by Murderers: A True Murder Story That Really Happened”.
- True crime stories can serve as a gratifying confirmation of our ethical views about right and wrong. We would never murder anyone! We’re one of the good guys!
- The violent content can cause people to confront their mortality and human vulnerability. True crime can serve as an opportunity to reflect on these issues. Viewers may be willing to suffer through distressing content because they feel the eudaimonic outcomes are real and valuable.
- Murder media may aid in legitimizing and validating the domestic sphere, which is so often dismissed as insignificant. True crime and domestic noir frequently center the female experience.
When True Crime and Murder Media Can Be Unhealthy
But consumers of murder media may experience some negative psychological effects. Surprise! Imagining dead bodies isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. For example, true crime consumption can lead to the following:
- Increased fear and paranoia. People may fret over the risk of relatively harmless behaviors, like walking the dog around the block. They could avoid activities that used to feel safe and pleasurable.
- Desensitization to violence, especially if the listener or viewer is young and impressionable.
- Persistent anxious feelings and/or nightmares. You can watch a 24/7 true crime TV channel right up until the moment you fall asleep–or don’t fall asleep. These emotional stories can get lodged in your brain and disrupt your daily routine.
- Retraumatization for people who have been the victims of violent crime or domestic abuse. Murder media content can be triggering, especially when you don’t have a support system lined up. And the families of the victims can suffer as well, just knowing that the media is out there.
Not only that, but certain types of escapist media consumption are associated with poorer mental health outcomes. And murder media can be acutely distressing when it hits too close to home. For example, I love reading thrillers, but as an anxious parent, I can’t stomach reading one that hinges on a child getting hurt. It’s okay to know your psychological limits, and choose a different book or change the channel.
Once Upon a Time, There Was a Murder
It’s that time of night and you want to relax, so naturally you turn to dead bodies and serial killers. And you may actually end up having sweeter dreams.
Perhaps the takeaway here is that murder media can be psychologically calming and cognitively meaningful for many people, particularly for women, but you should pull back if your guilty pleasure begins disturbing your mental health–especially if you’ve been a victim yourself. And whatever you do, don’t contaminate a crime scene because, you know, forensics.