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The Science Behind Your Love of True Crime

Jan 15, 2016

The Science Behind Your Love of True Crime


Our fascination with true crime is nothing new. If you think back to biblical stories, Cain kills his brother, Abel, motivated by envy. Making A Murderer and The Jinx proved successful, so of course it is no surprise that new true crime podcasts are popping up almost weekly.

Why is entertainment so sure that people will tune in?

According to Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., our morbid obsession with violent stories is the same as our need to slow down to see the results of a car accident. It’s all about the “thrill of the spectacle” and the punch of adrenaline we get without actually having to move from the couch. Adrenaline is the hormone that produces a strong stimulating effect on the brain that can actually be addictive. When adrenaline is triggered it gives off a sense of euphoria.

After a kill, a killer gets an elevated dose of the same adrenaline you get from bungee jumping. This is where we get pulled in—a lot of people wouldn’t consider bungee jumping and even fewer people consider following through on murder. Murderers are so extreme in their threshold for adrenaline that it feels almost surreal to those who don’t kill. That’s probably why we can tolerate listening to the gruesome details of Hae Min Lee’s murder— because it is so far removed from our own reality. On a basic level, we don’t understand why someone would murder and these stories try to reveal the intricacies of the killer’s thought process.

Scott isn’t the only doctor with theories on our morbidity. In an interview with Hopes&Fears, criminal justice expert Katherine Ramsland said there are three points to explain the phenomenon: 1. It gives us a riddle to solve, 2. It offers a sense of closure, and 3. It reassures people that they are safe from the same horrible fate.

Dr. Michael Mantell, a criminal psychologist, makes the point that our obsession with crime is also all thanks to the media’s reliance on crime. Yes, “Cain and Abel” was way before journalism, but in the 1950s, news outlets decided that”if it bleeds it leads.” So if we are bombarded with images of JonBenet Ramsey 20 years later, then they’re giving people permission to forget the agonizing pain of the actual event.

Thankfully, while we have become numb to much of the violence, as fascinated as we with the actual crime, we just as much crave the crime’s resolution.

“Remember, what Americans want is a tragedy with a happy ending,” Michael said.