Why You Can’t Get Enough Of True Crime Documentaries

The true crime genre is certainly nothing new, as people have been sucked in by the allure of unsolved mysteries and the psyche of serial killers for decades. Documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy and more recently Beware The Slenderman have managed to tap into something that many find irresistible. With this, the line between news and entertainment has become sometimes uncomfortably blurry, but it’s hard to deny the appeal.

Over the past few years, however, it seems as though the fascination with true crime stories has exploded to previously unseen levels. Multiple mediums have managed to tap into this zeitgeist boom, with podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder and television shows like Making A Murderer and The Jinx sending previously uninterested people on an insatiable quest for more clues and details into some seriously gory crime. Instead of merely focusing on the death and destruction on fictional television like Game of Thrones, watercooler talk revolves around whether or not Robert Durst is actually a murderer.

Somewhere along the way, uncovering who’s guilty of murder transitioned into a guilty pleasure. According to an article written on Psychology Today’s website by Scott Bonn (a criminology professor at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers), it is the heady mix of fear and adrenaline that comes with the consumption of this kind of media that drives our collective interest.

“The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the thrill of the spectacle. People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing the terrible deeds of a serial killer… The euphoric effect of serial killers on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

Bonn also explains that, as frightening as it may be, people are fascinated with the idea that serial killers have managed to blend into society so well, adding an extra layer of intrigue into the “armchair whodunnit.” The satisfaction of “solving” the crime before the actual people hunting down the killers can be a real rush, causing viewers to queue up the next documentary in their watch list. True crime is a controlled environment, allowing the fear to be real while the risk is nonexistent.

While it may seem that spotlighting murder and violence glamorizes the act, My Favorite Murder co-host Karen Kilgariff told the Washington Post that it’s actually the opposite.

“We’re not relishing [murder]; we don’t love that it happened. Quite the opposite. It’s the digging-the-nails-into-the-arm thing. ‘Can you believe this happened? I know you understand, and you’re not going to think I’m a ghoul for talking about it.'”

Some argue, though, that this interest in such grisly topics is a little too macabre. However, despite seeing the grimmer aspects of this genre, Molly Fosco wrote in the Huffington Post why many, especially women, are drawn to true crime as a way of understanding the world.

It’s more about a deep fascination with the human psyche than anything else… I think we want to understand how someone gets to the point of instability where they’re capable of committing rape and murder. We can’t fathom letting it happen to someone we know, or even worse, someone whose livelihood depends on us, so we need to examine it from an outside perspective.

Part of what has made true crime so pervasive is the community aspect of internet culture. With Reddit threads like TrueCrime and crimedocumentaries, anyone with an account can dive into unsolved mysteries and disputed verdicts, finding thousands of other enthusiasts with theories and opinions of their own. These internet yarn walls abound, helping spin what started as a casual interest into a fuller passion. Some people have gone as far as devoting their lives to solving particularly puzzling crimes just through internet research and poring over documents that have been released to the public record, especially regarding last year’s Making A Murderer.

As interest in true crime only continues to grow, there is certainly no shortage of material to mesmerize fans. HBO’s latest documentary, Mommy Dead And Dearest, is set to examine the conflict between Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose. Raised her whole life under the guise that she was severely disabled despite recovering from most of the ailments that plagued her as a young child, Gypsy Rose rebelled. After the horrific abuse that she was subjected to due to her mother’s extreme case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Gypsy Rose saw no alternative to killing her mother so that she might escape her prison-like life and be with her secret boyfriend. Despite committing the terrible deed of matricide, one can’t help but see Gypsy Rose as a tragic figure.

That’s sympathetic assessment is often the case with true crime documentaries, and that will no doubt have a hand in causing message boards to buzz while encouraging viewers to take note of even the smallest details. And while we may never know the internal workings of a mind like Gypsy Rose’s, it sure is compelling to try and figure it out.

‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’ Premieres Monday, May 15 at 10PM on HBO.