This Is Your Brain On True Crime Stories

There may be psychological reasons these accounts are so compelling.
Illustration Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost Photos: Courtesy of CBS Netflix Serial HBO Robyn Von Swank

I’ve always been fascinated with true crime stories, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I became addicted. It started with my discovery of the cult podcast “My Favorite Murder,” which I listened to for hours a day as I cooked, exercised and cleaned.

When I couldn’t get enough of that, I dove into other podcasts like “Undisclosed” and “Someone Knows Something,” watched murder-centric series like “The Keepers” and “The Jinx” in the evenings, and capped off my days by reading gripping non-fiction novels (like the poignant book After the Eclipse) about the devastating nature of unsolved crimes.

Suffice it to say, I was hooked. What was once a healthy fascination morphed quickly into an obsession ― and I paid the price in nightmares and anxiety, two conditions I’d never previously experienced.

The psychological appeal of ‘true crime’ entertainment

As a genre, true crime has had a major resurgence in popularity in the last five years. This is thanks in part to series like “Serial,” the addictive 2014 podcast about a man named Adnan Syed who was convicted of murder and recently granted a retrial. “Making a Murderer,” the binge-worthy and controversial Netflix documentary, also gained a large following as it explored a grisly murder and the American judicial system.

Gone are the days of staying up late waiting for “48 Hours” to get your fix of mystery and murder. Now, with streaming services and Apple’s free podcast app, hours of horrifying, compelling entertainment are at our fingertips. But what exactly is fueling our obsession with these stories? Is it mere accessibility or something more?

A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, told HuffPost one reason true crime might be so fascinating is because it offers us a glimpse into the deviant parts of the human psyche.

We’re drawn to these stories, she explained, partly because we want to understand the motivation behind such gruesome, bizarre, senseless acts of violence. “We want to understand because we are afraid,” she added.

“True crime might be so fascinating because it offers us a glimpse into the deviant parts of the human psyche.”

Watching true crime at home, Marsden said, gives us the opportunity to explore our fear in a controlled environment, to effectively “dive into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of the couch.”

There may be other psychological motivations as well. Learning about true crime appeals to our innate instinct for survival, said Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University.

“By learning 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 HuffPost.

This internal motivation is especially true for women. A 2010 study from the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal found that women are more likely to seek out true crime stories than men.

“It makes sense when you think about the types of crimes covered by podcasts and documentaries,” most of which are brutal, confounding cases where women are the victims, said Vicary, who co-authored the study.

“In terms of preventing being the victim of a crime, women just have more to gain compared to men from listening to these podcasts and reading these books,” she said.

Are there any benefits?

Though the gains Vicary mentions are sometimes difficult to quantify, there are a few concrete, positive outcomes that result from true crime obsession.

“If people are changing their behavior in socially acceptable ways after learning about crimes, like making sure to lock their doors at night, then it’s probably a good thing,” she said.

The “murderino” community, an international network for fans of the “My Favorite Murder” podcast, also comes to mind. The group has evolved into a support network of sorts. People can unload their anxieties and share safety tips with each other personally or via social media platforms like Reddit and Facebook.

But gathering practical information about how to protect yourself only goes so far before you risk entering a dangerous, paradoxical cycle — one that intensifies and perpetuates your fear, rather than diminishes it.

“Women may want to learn about crime because they fear being a victim themselves, but then with every podcast they listen to or book they read, they are just learning about another woman who was kidnapped or killed, which can then increase the fear even more,” Vicary said.

The toll that comes with overexposure

In addition to increased anxiety and nightmares, overdoing it on true crime can have other negative ramifications. Consuming this genre in excess can potentially increase your feelings of paranoia and inhibit you from taking risks, even minor ones, Marsden said.

“For example, you may find yourself passing up on opportunities to spend time with friends or family because you do not want to risk putting yourself in a potentially threatening situation, [like] leaving a parking lot late at night,” she said.

That’s why Marsden recommended periodically examining your behavior and emotional state to better understand the ways in which you might be personally affected by reading or watching crime stories.

At the height of my true crime obsession, for example, I noticed a marked shift in my mood, from generally upbeat to melancholy. I also had a difficult time detaching from the material I absorbed, which left me with a kind of low-grade, perpetual tension.

“Prolonged exposure to true crime stories affects your body negatively because your stress levels spike when you're watching or reading it.”

Prolonged exposure to true crime stories affects your body negatively, Marsden said, because your stress levels spike when you’re watching or reading it.

Of course, not all diehard true crime fans experience negative side effects, and each person has a different tolerance level when it comes to the volume and type of content they can consume. But if you find the material increasingly upsetting, or if your obsession starts to disrupt your everyday life, it’s time to reevaluate.

“If it gets to the point where someone is afraid to go outside or is having nightmares on a regular basis, then it may be a sign to lay off the books and podcasts for awhile,” Vicary said.

You can still indulge your love of true crime, but do it in small doses, Marsden suggested. And don’t be afraid to take a step back if you need to. If popular culture is any indication, true crime documentaries and podcasts aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

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