The Reality of True Crime


Madelyn McAllister

A student at Aspen High watching an interesting true crime documentary on Netflix.

“Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” has taken over the charts – with 701.37 million hours watched in its initial release. It is Netflix’s second most popular English-language series. These numbers are astonishing, but the true crime far precedes “Dahmer,” released this Sept. 2022.

True crime is a nonfiction podcast, literary, or film genre. Based on a crime, typically murder, kidnapping, or burglary. Storylines go into the specific details of each case, either talking about the exact details or interviewing people related to the case. With only 30% of people claiming they never watch true crime, it wouldn’t be fair to say that true crime hasn’t held an impact on mainstream media over the years.

While true crime may just seem like an interesting way to understand the history behind serious cases, it brings an ethical discussion to the table. Some people believe that true crime glorifies criminals and their stories. Regarding murder cases, true crime may be seen as insensitive to the victim’s families. Criminals have various motives behind their crimes, including the desire for fame. True crime increases publicity, putting criminals in the spotlight. However, true crime isn’t only controversial because of ethical beliefs. Another leading reason is the controversy of true crime revolves around something often disregarded – the judicial system.

Donald Shelton, a well-respected felony trial judge who wrote an article called ‘The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist,‘ shares his perspective on true crime and how he sees its influence on people around him. Published by the National Institute of Justice in 2008, he discusses valid points that hold the test of time.
“Many attorneys, judges, and journalists have claimed that watching television programs like CSI has caused jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants when no scientific evidence has been presented,” Shelton wrote. “The mass media quickly picked up on these complaints. This so-called effect was promptly dubbed the ‘CSI effect,’ laying much of the blame on the popular television series and its progeny.”

The judicial branch was formed in 1789 – the idea of true crime changing the impactful opinion of jurors is concerning. Shelton explains how CSI often exaggerates evidence in crimes, leading jurors to start disregarding cases with less evidence. This can be dangerous, as some of the most serious crimes have little evidence, such as rape. Shelton discovered that if there was no scientific evidence presented, 14% of jurors that watched CSI were less likely to find the defendant guilty in a case involving rape. This being said, it is unlikely that this ‘CSI effect’ Shelton talks about influenced every juror’s opinion. Just because this could be the case does not mean that true crime shows and podcasts should be ended. If you’re a juror or someone who has an influence on the law, stay away from this source of information.

The brain’s reaction to true crime is similar to horror movies – your brain produces endorphins from the intense adrenaline you feel. The feeling of excitement you may feel from releasing endorphins can be addicting. When watching true crime, your brain also produces serotonin and dopamine, two additional ‘feel-good’ chemicals. Although it is a big factor, these chemicals aren’t the only reason why people watch true crime.

It’s certainly not every day that you are exposed to serial killers – but with true crime, this is turned into a reality. Overall, people are interested in the lives of others, even when they most likely shouldn’t be. True crime can take away the thought of feeling invasive into other’s lives, as information is already given to you. Instead of being curious, many true crime shows and podcasts provide you with direct interviews with victims, people involved, and sometimes the criminal themself. If the criminal happens to be a serial killer, it tends to interest people more, bringing along this obsession with true crime. It is fascinating to learn more about the thoughts behind someone that can commit something so horrific, such as serial killers.

True crime digs into the background of serial killers, often revealing some past trauma they have dealt with. This allows people to empathize with serial killers, something that seems almost unheard of. It is interesting to see if you can relate to serial killers. You may find yourself relating to these murderers – similar childhoods, maybe you shared a hometown, quite literally anything. True crime podcasts and shows tend to overshare the lives of the criminals, increasing the number of things a viewer may find relatable.

To be clear, I am not saying that everybody relates to serial killers and, therefore, should disregard their terrible actions. Serial killers should 100% be held accountable. However, it is our natural response to feel sympathy toward people. It is important to find a balance between empathy and accountability. If you empathize to the extent that you neglect the crime itself, then that is where the problem develops. It is not fair to blame this on the makers of true crime shows and podcasts – it is important for the watcher/listener to consume the content, already aware of the effects it may have.

Another interesting aspect of true crime is the comfortability found within unsettling facts and stories. Comfortability in true crime comes in two separate ways; being unable to relate to criminals, allowing for a sense of security, and feeling more prepared for the rare case that the case you are learning about happens to you. Although the chance of an exact crime repeating itself in your life is extremely rare, it can still settle any feelings of anxiety. Additionally, being unable to relate to criminals gives a sense of security. The less you can relate, the less chance there is that you can see yourself in that position.

True crime is entertaining no matter what, whether you watch it for education, relatability, or comfort. Seeing how different cases are justified and explained will always interest me. True crime allows for opportunities that would have otherwise never been given.