Why Are People So Obsessed With True Crime?

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Why Are People So Obsessed With True Crime?
From docuseries to TV shows, podcasts, books, films — you name it — true crime is an easy rabbit hole to fall into.

Nowadays, content is king, and there’s major appetite for true-crime. Half of Americans say they enjoy the genre, according to YouGov polling. 

From docuseries to TV shows, podcasts, books, films — you name it — true crime is an easy rabbit hole to fall into.  

Kelli Boling is an assistant professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "What we're seeing is more access to true-crime content, more availability of true-crime content and more production of true-crime content. So I think when you're looking at a popularity scale, it's just easier to access," said Boling. 

But there's a consistent audience tapping into the true-crime treasure trove:  

"White women," said Boling. 

YouGov polling found women (58%) were more likely than men (42%) to say they enjoyed true crime. So much so, it’s a running joke on TikTok. 

Why does any of this appeal to women? 

Boling, who studies true-crime audiences, says it begins with a formula of sorts.  

"So, a lot of true crime is built off of media coverage," said Boling. "Where the media has been shown to cover White victims more than victims of color in plenty of studies across decades. That continues to be the case. So, if the media are covering mostly White female heterosexual victims, then that's what true crime is producing off of, because that's the media that they have access to. And so then they are attracting an audience that looks like that."

So, there’s the audience, but what is it about true crime that keeps women engaged?  

A 2010 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found women were interested in the psychology behind a killer, stories where women were victims and reading about survival. 

Amanda Vicary, the author of the study, told Forbes the consumption of true crime is likely a subconscious effort to protect and educate oneself.   

Some women say they have a healing experience when watching true crime.  

"So a lot of victims in the audience, domestic violence survivors or other victims of crimes that didn't really see justice in their own lived experience can listen to these narratives and see they're not alone," said Boling. 

American interest in true crime as a form of infotainment dates back to the early 1900s. 

"Normally these were women journalists that were writing these columns, and mostly it was because they weren't allowed to write on the news, and so they were allowed to write what was considered more of a fluff piece," said Boling. 

Fast forward to 2014, when another journalist changed true crime's trajectory. 

True-crime podcast "Serial" exploded with a record-breaking number of listeners tuning in to hear the story of Adnan Syed, a Maryland man who, at the time, was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend. The podcast became a true-crime phenomenon. 

"So, it has been documented, what is called "the serial effect," said Boling. 

"Serial" launched podcasts into a new realm, proving they could be profitable and garner millions of listeners. It also expanded access to true-crime content by entering the podcast world.  

"They also flipped the traditional true-crime narrative," said Boling. "And instead of making it victim-centric, they actually centered the accused as the truth teller, which also changed the genre significantly."

By flipping the narrative, the level of engagement graduated from watching or listening, to in some instances helping advance, solve or clear cases. 

Eight years after the podcast’s release, prosecutors dropped charges against Syed in October after serving 23 years in prison. 

Syed’s lawyer, Justin Brown, told The Washington Post, "I always get asked the question, 'Did "Serial" help the case?' It absolutely did help." 

"There are more true-crime podcasts that have exonerated wrongly convicted people. On the other side, they've also found, you know, perpetrators that did these crimes via DNA evidence. So, yes, there's good coming from the genre and people are attracted to it because they want to see justice served," said Boling. 

A genre putting mystery and opportunity to get involved in the hands of the audience.