What makes criminal minds, tales of violence fascinating

True Crime

What began in 19th century with British writer William Roughead, whose books focused on notorious criminals and their crimes, followed by 20th-century publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter in the 1960s and 1970s, has evolved into the most watched genre today — true crime.

From Roughead’s early works to the modern era of true crime, the genre has captivated audiences with tales of heinous crimes, fascinating investigations, and the psychology of the criminal mind. Whether through books, movies, podcasts or television shows, it is extremely likely that true crime will continue to fascinate and intrigue us for years to come.

Closer home, Sky News Arabia’s new true crime podcast Evidence has become a hit with record listeners in the Middle East. In its first six months, the podcast has racked up more than 700,000 listeners and has become one of the top 200 international audio podcasts in terms of circulation and reach.

Though the UAE in itself is touted as one of the safest countries, crime podcasts offer a reality check. And whether through books, movies, podcasts or television shows, it is extremely likely that true crime will continue to fascinate and intrigue us for years to come. Earlier considered a niche genre, transforming real-life crimes into entertainment, has evolved into a nationwide fixation in recent years.

But does the true crime content, with its inclination to glamorise scams and sensationalise gruesome murders, have negative consequences? And are women more drawn to the genre than men? Let’s look at what Dubai-based experts and lovers of true crime have to say about this

Why women are drawn to true crime

Women have higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. True crime narratives often delve into the emotional and interpersonal aspects of criminal behaviour, thus making them more appealing to women, says Greg Fantham, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

“Women often experience a heightened sense of vulnerability in their daily lives to criminal activities like sexual harassment. Given this, they may be more inclined to engage with true crime narratives as a form of catharsis and empowerment. ‘Story-fying’ these dark realities can give some sense of control over often unsettling and traumatic experiences.”

He sheds light on how true crime narratives allow people to confront and process their fears in a safe, controlled environment, reducing the emotional impact and helping them cope with anxieties associated with crime. “Through this indulgence, women can become informed about personal safety and self-defense strategies, further mitigating the perceived threats. In some ways, true crime becomes a useful tool for addressing the anxieties and insecurities arising from living in a world where women often face a greater risk of being targeted by criminal activities.”

“True crime, paradoxically, may serve to escape reality. We can immerse ourselves in thrilling and suspenseful stories without being in any actual danger. This gives us a controlled way to feel fear and excitement, which can be like a therapeutic release for built-up anxiety and stress.”

Fantham however warns that obsessive indulgence in true crime can lead to negative consequences, referencing an experiment conducted by Josie Arnold, a professor in writing from Australia, who examined her own admitted obsession with crime fiction. The results were published in academic paper, Theory from Practice: A Subjective Academic Narrative of Crime Addiction.

“If unrecognised, it may have negative impacts. An excessive engagement with dark and violent content may desensitise individuals, impacting their emotional well-being and capacity for empathy.” He urges audiences to strike a balance between enjoying true crime and maintaining their capacity for empathy.

“It is essential to re-evaluate our fixation on these distressing narratives and recognise their potential negative effects on mental well-being at an early stage.

A true sense of justice

A long-time resident of Dubai and PR professional Kate Mullen says watching true crime has made her more aware of her environment, people’s behaviour and made her cautious about securing her property or person. “It has also made me more circumspect when dealing with people and assessing their motives. It allows me to feel more in control, particularly when I travel because when travelling I have to adjust my thinking, but on the whole I don’t feel ‘fearful’ but am definitely more aware.”

Kate says she got hooked to true crime since an early age. “My mother enjoyed watching crime related stuff and had a number of books on the subject, and therefore passed the interest to me. Personally, I like to watch or listen to true crime. I enjoy this genre because, to begin with, it is real life, and while I enjoy fantasy to an extent this genre reminds me of the fragility of human life, and the depravity of the minds that commit some of these crimes.”

However, she says she is far from being addicted to true crime, although she doggedly follows some cases, such as Fred and Rose West.

“However, some true crimes are sensationalised, and I turn away.”

Self-awareness and impact on digital-age consumers

Like Kate, Dubai-based literary consultant Ipshita Sharma finds that watching true crime gives her an insight into what people can do when things go wrong and what to look out for. “As women we deal with much fear and loss of control. Many of us have suffered violence or some form of abuse walking down the street or at work etc., and watching true crime gives us an idea of warning signs to look out for and a solution for it, to a good measure.”

She says that everyone always thinks that “bad” things won’t happen to them, so it’s interesting to hear stories of when it happens. However, as an avid consumer of true crime, she says she has been influenced enough to justify reaching out to women around her. “For example, when my niece left for college abroad, I had very specific warnings and instructions for her.”

“I’ve been reading true crime and unexplained mysteries since a young age. I remember reading about Jack the Ripper when I was nine and the fascination of why and how he was strong. For a long time, I consumed true crime via books but recently switched to podcasts on Spotify. It is almost always going on in the background while I work, try to go to sleep, do my house chores. Podcasts have made it easier.”

“Plus, I am easily addicted — if I even like something, it nearly always ends in addiction.”

This sentiment is echoed by Anastasia Luchnikova, an officer in a Dubai-based private airline (who wishes to remain anonymous) is a lover of true crime, the consumption of which, she says, has become easier thanks to the digital age. She, however, warns people to watch it in moderation.

“It is debatable whether watching true crime is valuable in creating self-awareness because its growing popularity has also impacted us psychologically. It has triggered stress and anxiety and skewed our perception of the world. In the age of technology and media saturation, such interests easily turn into obsessions because we are constantly exposed to stories of violent crime. A friend of mine (whose name I will withhold) suffered anxiety attacks and refused to go wear high heeled shoes because at one time she watched a Netflix series in which the feet of women wearing high heeled shoes were cut off. That also gave me a reason to stop watching true crime.”

“But another way to look at it is that stories, especially true stories, teach us about other people and about how to keep ourselves safe in the world, allowing us experience and learn from terrible things without ever being in real danger.”

While Ipshita enjoys this genre because abnormal psychology has always been of interest to her, Anastasia says while it didn’t allay fears, it did unlock some. “It is scary to think that human beings can be so dangerous and worse, our growing addiction for this genre. It can’t all be good.”

How much is too much?

A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science reveals a greater preference among women for true crime media when compared to men, according to Dr Asfar Afridi, Consultant Psychiatrist, Medcare Medical Center Jumeirah. “This phenomenon can be attributed to several key factors, including the educational, psychological, and relatability aspects of this genre.”

He explains the consequences of consuming too much true crime.

“One of the most noticeable signs of obsession is excessive consumption of true crime is its interference in our daily responsibilities and routines. Another sign is the emotional intensity with which they engage with these cases which eventually leads to distress and anxiety.”

“The third sign to look out for is social isolation. As the obsession grows, individuals may withdraw from social activities and relationships, spending more time engrossed in true crime content or discussing it, often inappropriately or excessively. Additionally, the disruption of sleep patterns is a sign of obsession.”

Dr Afridi explains that an excessive exposure to violent and distressing content can lead to a feeling that world is a scary place. Paranoia and fear can intensify, and coping with real-life tragedies may become challenging for those obsessed with true crime. While not everyone will experience these issues, if the obsession begins to negatively impact one’s life, seeking professional help is advisable, and finding a healthy balance between true crime consumption and other activities is essential.”

(This article was published in Khaleej Times on Fri 17 Nov 2023)

3 thoughts on “What makes criminal minds, tales of violence fascinating

  1. True crime resonates with the old adage of fact being stranger than fiction. Many are fascinated by the stuff that happens around the world. Knowing that it’s actually happened makes watching the story unfold on TV even more enticing. The same way one would be drawn to a horror movie, for example.

    As a Martial Artist, in my seminars I’ve come across people who’ve been or have narrowly escaped being victims of true crime. Having been more streetwise till the discipline of the dojo transformed me, I try to help people identify situations before they unfold, and to respond rather than react so that they can make a safe getaway.

    Fun fact: many moons ago, I used to read a British magazine called True Detective. In response to an ad campaign, I stared write to prisoners on death row in the US. Some of their stories were fascinating. Some were just incredible!

    1. Hey, you should compile those stories into a blog or a book! Would make for a great read I am sure. I would definitely love to read those stories. Also, is it still possible to write to death row inmates?

  2. As a true crime lover myself, this is indeed an interesting article I got to read in Khaleej Times and I vouch for all of the points mentioned.

    Keep up the great work, Anjaly. Loved this interesting read

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