Point At Issue: The True Crime Obsession

Magdalena Roeseler  | Flickr Creative Commons

Magdalena Roeseler | Flickr Creative Commons

On Jan. 24, Netflix released a four-part documentary series called Confessions with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Based on a book by author Stephen G. Michaud and author, journalist, reporter, and teacher Hugh Aynesworth, the series was directed by legendary documentarian and Academy Award winner Joe Berlinger. The series is structured around audiotapes that Bundy made while in prison. Berlinger, however, wasn’t done with Bundy with the docuseries. He has also helmed Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that stars Zac Efron playing the character of Ted Bundy. The film is told from the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer with whom Bundy had a six-year-long relationship. If you think that’s all the TV shows and films you can make on one notorious serial killer who died about thirty years ago, you’d be mistaken. 

Theodore, a documentary directed by Celene Beth Calderon, narrates the personal stories of the people affected by Bundy’s crimes. Snapped Notorious: Ted Bundy was a two-hour episode that aired on Oxygen TV on July 15, 2018. And there’s more on Bundy, which you can read here. While there might not be an explanation to the sudden interest of Ted Bundy, there might be clues in the landscape of the media. Documentaries and TV shows and podcasts and films are produced because viewers want them. And what’s one of the most popular genres right now? True Crime. 

There has been some sort of a resurgence in True Crime ever since 2014, and it all began when a podcast. Serial, an investigative journalism podcast produced and hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, was downloaded by the millions when it was launched on Oct. 3, 2014.  It is the most listened-to podcast in podcast history. Close on the heels of this success came another true crime series, this time in TV form. When Making a Murderer was first released on Dec. 18, 2015, only about 565,000 people had first watched it. However, in the next 35 days, the viewership of the series spiked to about 19.3 million. By the time The People v. O.J. Simpson debuted and went on to become cable’s most-watched new series of 2016, it was no surprise that a drama based on true crime went on to become such a hit.

The news about criminal activity is gruesome as it is. But what attracts viewers to watch true crime? According to former television network executive and criminology professor Scott Bonn, the reasons are multifold. Most of the true crime shows are based on serial killers, as the whole sub-genre of Ted Bundy related content shows. Bonn states that the even though the actions of a serial killer like Bundy may be horrible, people cannot look away simply because of the spectacle.

Another reason, Bonn states, is that people also receive a rush of adrenaline as a reward for being a witness to grotesque deeds. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters. In addition to these reasons, we also have to consider the innate curiosity that comes with being human, a curiosity of the ‘why’ behind the crime. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, explains that while true crime offers us a glimpse into the human psyche and all its deviant parts, “We want to understand because we are afraid.” Like many other things, fear motivates us to do things that we might be afraid of, and True crime shows help us “explore our fear in a controlled environment.”

There are psychological motivations too. According to Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, “learning about true crime appeals to our instinct for survival.” She says, “By learning about about murders — who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc. — people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves,” Vicary told Huffington Post for an article published on April 5, 2018 

What also adds to these reasons is of the perceived incapability of the justice system. According to a Gallup Poll conducted on the trust people have in major institutions, only 22 percent of the participants said that they had a great deal of trust in the criminal justice system. That is a pretty low number, and most of the series in the true crime genre seem to offer audiences a peek into the process behind the justice system. It also offers viewers a chance to play armchair detective and helps people participate in the process, and possibly correct the wrongdoings on their own, as evidenced by the protests that were a result of Making a Murderer. In January 2016, a little more than a 100 people attended a rally in support of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, and about 130,000 signatures were collected for a petition asking to grant Avery and Dassey full presidential pardon from the then President of the United States, Barack Obama. Although the pardon wasn’t granted, because Avery and Dassey were both state prisoners, the impact of the TV show was undeniable.

Stories on crime and criminal activity have been fictionalized for centuries, but the current obsession with true crime might be pushing the boundaries of what we deem fit to call “entertainment.” Let’s hope that in the case of true crime, there is no case of art inspiring life.