The genre of true crime has always been fascinating to me. It’s actually what drew me to the field of psychology. Dr. Kelsey Daugherty is a huge fan. Dr. Wes’ daughter, Alyssa, got into forensic accounting after a long standing interest in crime scene investigation. Her new favorite true crime sub-genre investigates financial scams like CNBC’s American Greed. The public radio podcast Serial captivated the nation in 2014 with its investigation of Adnan Syed, who was convicted under controversial circumstances of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. It was recently revisited by HBO in its documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed.
Like Alyssa, I began college with dreams of becoming a criminal profiler until I learned it would involve being around dead bodies (ewww), at which point I switched my focus to more generalized psychology and sociology. However, in my downtime I still binge the newest true crime documentary or read the latest bestseller. I’m even involved in online discussion groups about true crime and wrongful convictions. Over time, I began to notice that the vast majority of true crime gurus are also woman. The research backs me up on this. Approximately 75% of true crime consumers are female, and within the last decade, woman have been speaking out more about it. Some of the most popular true crime podcasts, including Serial, are created and hosted by women.
I began to wonder what psychological and sociological underpinnings lead so many women to devote so much time and energy to this area of study. The literature proposes several reasons. First, women are most likely to be victims of crime. As a result, they might be more likely to educate themselves about crime to counterbalance their vulnerability to victimization. Females have adapted through evolution to pay more attention to potential threats. Immersing oneself in this genre could be an attempt to gain and refine survival skills. However, this could have a negative impact since repeated and/or over-exposure to such trauma might unrealistically skew a woman’s view about how dangerous the world is, thus creating and/or increasing excess anxiety.
Another theory holds that true crime dramas allow women a vicarious experience of power over men through immersion in the criminal justice system. Watching a strange male receive swift and absolute justice for victimizing a woman might feel empowering to women and decrease their anxiety about the threats they face. Psychology Today proposes a neurological reason that true crime can become an “obsession.” Viewers receive a surge of adrenaline when witnessing these stories which has a highly stimulating and addictive quality. The author’s note, “the euphoric effect of serial killers on human emotions is similar to roller coasters.”
I regularly see female clients who, when describing their interest in true crime, say something like “I’m kind of weird… I like true crime stuff…” In response, I usually chuckle and start swapping podcast suggestions, indicating to the client that they aren’t really that weird. In fact, enjoying this genre may be appraoching a universal experience for many women. As Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry, notes in a recent article by Lex Goodman, “true crime is an outlet for women’s pent-up and often misdiagnosed aggression-anger toward injustice, anger toward misogyny and toxic masculinity, anger toward the world.” Ultimately, true crime is a passive way for women to feel more empowered in a world in which one in every three women will be a victim of a violent crime.