Turn on your podcast app or your streaming service and you might think that true crime and murder mysteries are suddenly taking over your feed, but it’s no trend. The public’s fascination with murder and mayhem has been running strong since long before documentaries like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and more recent entries like Unsolved Myseries and The Jinx premiered.
In fact, historically speaking, we love the stuff. Capital punishment was treated as entertainment in the United States with public executions that lasted until 1936. Now, people are left to clamor outside prison walls until a death row inmate breathes their last.
Perhaps the thirst for punishment is connected to the depiction of the criminal as a monster, something a little inhuman. In the early 1900’s, people flocked to the Belle Gunness’ murder farm with the hope of scoring a piece of a victim’s skeleton as a souvenir. Today, you can purchase an original John Wayne Gacy painting on Ebay, or even a letter to a fan from Richard Ramirez. And armchair detectives are still speculating who Jack the Ripper) was.
True crime, whichever case you’re obsessed with, presents a tantalizing puzzle. There is something not quite right about a human who would willingly harm another. And yet, despite how corrupted a killer might be, very little separates them from the next person. To date no killer gene has been found and not even the Macdonald triad can predict every murderous future.
Some killers never foresaw violence in their future. In the heat of passion or an unpredictable moment, they did the unforgivable and sealed their fate. In seeking out true crime content, we are looking down into a mirror of humanity from a ledge of safety and wondering ‘Could I do that?’
On the other hand, we also see something of ourselves in the victims, who so often fall into the shadows. We all know of Ted Bundy, Joseph DeAngelo, and Jeffrey Dahmer. But do you know who Shawnda Leea Summers is? Caryn Campbell? Konerak Sinthasomphone, the child who escaped Dahmer only to be returned to him by the police?
The list of victims is never ending, but it can be easy for people to see a part of themselves in each one. All of them had hopes and dreams. Some of them were in difficult situations and just trying to make it to the next day. They had families and friends and people who cared for them. None of them deserved to die the way they did.
In the world of true crime, people find a community. In online forums, at conventions, in book discussions they can talk freely about the cases, the killers, and the victims that haunt them. They find heroes in those who survived, they celebrate when killers are brought to justice, they keep alive the memory of those whose lives were stolen. And as they peer over the edge into the dark crevices, they know they are not alone.