The double-edged sword of true crime stories' popularity, a UWM professor explains
True crime podcasts, television, and streaming series are extremely popular and the genre continues to grow. A 2022 poll declared that half of Americans enjoy consuming content from this genre and even 13% go as far as to say it’s their favorite.
True crime media invites people into the lives of serial killers, kidnappers, assaulters, law enforcement, and even in some cases, the victims. The genre challenges the listeners to solve the mystery and link clues together before the detective or the season finale.
But why is true crime such a pillar in pop culture, and are there ramifications?
“Evil tends to fascinate us, you know, we really want to read all about it. We want to know what drives someone to do these evil thinkable acts because it's so outside of our own realm—for most of us," explains Stacey Nye is a clinical professor of Psychology and director of the UW-Milwaukee Psychology Clinic.
Nye further explains people love the puzzle of true crime just as much as the terror we feel in a controlled environment. She says that, similar to horror films, this genre allows people to conceptualize immense fear without being forced to experience it themselves.
However, that fear is real to those who are more likely to be victims of those crimes. The majority of true crime consumers are women, as 58% of women report they enjoy true crime.
“Ironically, the main audience is women. When I say it's ironic—it's because women are often victims of crime,” says Nye. “But I think it helps women feel a sense of control if they can learn how you know how to not enter in dangerous situations or things like that.”
Nye says that while women enjoy consuming true crime, they also learn from it. Takeaways may be understanding the warning signs of assaulters, manipulation tactics from abusers, or just understanding where these victims went wrong.
However, that train of thought presents one of the problematic aspects of the genre: victim blaming. Nye emphasizes that even when individuals “do everything right,” they can still become crime victims.
“So we don't want to look at these things and say, ‘Oh, well, if she hadn't done that, then she would be saved.’ Often that's really not true. So that's just something to be mindful of our own selves when we're watching and listening to this content, not to blame victims because nobody wants these things to happen to them,” she explains.
Not only does true crime sometimes leave victims to criticism, but it also incidentally promotes their erasure. In the genre, infamous killers’ or criminals’ personalities, secrets, childhoods, and more are fleshed out and narrated for the silver screen. And sometimes, the victims are made out to be just that: victims. These haunting accounts leave out their personal lives, aspirations, interests, or unique traits.
“We know the names of the killers,” said Nye. “We are much less likely to know the names of the victims.”
Nye cites Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix release Dahmer, an account of the life and crimes of infamous serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, as an example of victim oversight in media.
“[Ryan Murphy] did highlight several of the victims, and he did put up all of the victims' names. But my understanding is that the victims’ families were not consulted when he made the show. So that's also a real oversight because the victims' families are greatly affected by all of this media attention. And their voices need to be heard.”
Another issue derived from the genre’s popularity is the perpetuated stigmatization of mental illness. Often, these tales demonize those who battle mental illness. They tend to characterize the mentally ill as exclusively unstable and dangerous, which is not the case.
“I want to say for the record that most people have some form of mental illness at some point in their life, and people who become serial killers are really quite rare. Mental illness does not lead to becoming a violent murderer" she says. "People who become violent murderers may have some form of mental illness, but you can't equate the two at all whatsoever.”
Nye goes even further in saying that when these victims are highlighted, they are often white women. She has found that the media sensationalizes the murder of white women and continue to ignore significantly more targeted demographics.
"There's a huge number of women of color, Indigenous women, and trans women who are targeted, and that's talked about much less. So, I think it would be really important if we're going to continue to put content like this out to try to focus or balance our perspective," she says. "And focus on the people who don't have the access to the money and the resources that many white families have to get their stories out."