When I was in 6th grade, my best friend’s brother introduced us to slasher films. We spent our middle school summers with Michael, Jason and Freddy, soaking in every glorious and messy kill. By the time we hit high school, we could predict which characters were going to be goners within the first 10 minutes. Was something wrong with us? Why were we so fascinated with watching people die gruesome deaths at the hands of remorseless serial killers?
This pull towards the most depraved parts of humanity traveled over to my reading life as well. I found myself drawn to books such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (review here). True crime and dark psychological thrillers became the most enchanting form of entertainment for me. Now, “entertainment” is the wrong word, but, again, I found myself asking myself why I had such a deep fascination with the subject.
In June, the New Yorker published a piece titled, A True Crime Veteran On Our Fascination With Serial Killers. In it, the author quotes true crime writer Skip Hollandsworth in saying,
“Everybody knows the feeling of wanting to kill a spouse, kill your parents, but only a chosen few are sick enough to want to go murder strangers. And that’s the scariest kind of crime, and that’s why people are drawn to it, because it’s the most alien.”
I think this is only part of it. Naturally, as a (at least somewhat) sound-minded individual, you want to know why someone would commit such crimes. The genre of true crime affords some semblance of insight into the criminal mind by researching their childhood, their living conditions, how social they were in school, and then brings in renowned psychologists and criminologists to weigh in on the matter.
Think of the sensation of driving by a bad car accident. You know what you see will likely be upsetting and potentially disturbing, but you just need to know. As I see it, the same goes for crime. You want to know what really happened because somehow the uncertainty is more uncomfortable. Maybe, by watching these accounts, you can convince yourself that you’ll be better prepared if something ever happened to you.
“I wouldn’t run in the opposite direction as my friend in the woods!” or “I would never allow an unscheduled electrician come in and check my cables!”
Furthermore, when it’s in a book or movie, there is a level of separation there that allows you to feel terrified and repulsed, without fully convincing yourself that it’s real. While logically, we know these types of horrific acts occur, our brain protects us by allowing ourselves to believe it won’t happen to us; that these are things that only happen in the books and newspapers. With this thought providing some source of comfort, true crime becomes a sort of thrill or guilty pleasure.
I may have found the answers to the questions I asked myself in sixth grade, on why I was drawn to crime, but am now left with a new set. Is it morally sound to view crime as entertainment? As a society, should we be using someone else’s tragedy as a way to derive a thrill? Our culture’s fixation on crime isn’t going anywhere soon, so I think it is important that we keep these points in mind when reading stories of true crime and terror.