Last week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we looked at some of the best villain downfalls in literature. We talked about the satisfaction we feel when we see the bad guys get caught, get punished, and get their karmic comeuppance. This week, I reviewed In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the true crime novel that launched a thousand true crime sub-genres. So, it makes sense that this week I ask the (related) question: why do we read true crime?
Popular opinion might have you believe that true crime started with Capote. In reality, he simply popularised a burgeoning style that had been around for centuries. One of the earliest examples of (ostensibly) true crime writing was John Reynolds’ The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinn of Murder. It was published in 1621, meaning that there has been a market for true crime for at least four centuries.
Why do we read true crime? The car-wreck theory
Have you ever noticed that when we talk about true crime, we’re almost always talking about murder? When was the last time you read a true crime novel about a car-jacking? Tax evasion? Jay-walking?
And we’re not satisfied with the run-of-the-mill one-off quiet murders, either. True crime books (and podcasts, come to that!) usually depict the exotic, the bizarre, the twisted, and the most grisly realities. Why is that?
This gives rise to what I call the car-wreck theory. We humans can never bring ourselves to look away from a spectacle. We slow down as we drive past car wrecks, trying to get a better view. It’s an inherent nosiness that draws our eyes to the misfortunes and mistakes of others. After all, what is the news but one extended edition of true crime television?
But is that really all there is to it?
Why do we read true crime? We’re adrenaline junkies
Our fascination is much more than simply not being able to look away. After all, we happen upon car wrecks, and we don’t control what’s on the news – not being able to look away is just a side effect of coming across a spectacle in our daily lives. Meanwhile, we actively seek out true crime reads; whole genres exist because of our macabre interest.
The fact is, witnessing (or reading about) terrible crimes gives us a jolt of adrenaline – maybe not on the same level as those who actually commit them, but these smaller jolts are addictive nonetheless.
Reading true crime is a form of thrill seeking, like riding rollercoasters or visiting haunted houses. And yet, we keep our parachute on and we keep our eyes on the clearly-marked exits: true crime triggers adrenaline which we experience as fear, but we experience that fear in a safe, controlled environment.
Think about it: we get the thrill, but we view the crimes through the lens of entertainment. We might be reading about a series of brutal murders, but we’re doing it tucked up under the covers, with the front door locked and a hot cup of tea on the nightstand. We can even be (fairly) confident that they catch the bad guy in the end, which allows us to psychologically reconcile the vicarious thrills we get from reading about the killer’s motivations.
Reading true crime is the adult version of monster-under-the-bed stories.
Why do we read true crime? To confirm our beliefs about the world
I mentioned a second ago that we can be fairly confident that the bad guy gets caught in the end, because that’s the formula that basically all true crime books follow (though, admittedly, not all of them).
The structure usually boils down to this: one or a series of horrific crimes, a few red herrings and dead-ends for the beleaguered investigators, a lead that points them in the right direction, and the eventual capture/prosecution/death of the perpetrator. Other genres have all kinds of deviations and exceptions to the norm, they like to challenge the reader’s expectations, but true crime sticks pretty faithfully to this narrative.
Why are we so invested in that story? One theory is that we have an inherent drive to seek out examples of victory and justice. It confirms our preconceived worldview: that violence and wrongdoing should not go unpunished.
What’s more, there’s great comfort in the idea that the “good guys” (police officers, private investigators, plucky teenage detectives) out there will persist until the “bad guys” are caught. Ironically, reading about terrible true crimes actually makes us feel safer. We call this the just world hypothesis.
Even better, we often get to engage in a little detective work of our own. We theorise about how it’s all going to end based on clues in the narrative. When it turns out we’re right, we get the glory of feeling smart, and the relief of having picked it from the beginning. Or, to put it another way, the story confirms our preconceived ideas that we could be brilliant detectives if we wanted to be 😉
Does it matter if the story is “true”?
Well, yes and no. Fictional crime thrillers are also insanely popular, and thousands more are churned out each year. Our concern with the “truth” of the story comes down to whether we feel that we’re being deceived. A fictional crime story marketed as such is fine by us, because we know it’s all made up. A couple of details fudged in a “true crime” novel, however, can make us feel angry that we’ve been lied to.
It is inevitable that every true crime story will have a few inaccuracies, whether as a result of the creative license of the author, or the inherent biases and limitations of the medium (eyewitnesses, on whom authors often rely, are notoriously unreliable, so it’s a flawed system). Yet, we still consume and enjoy these books, and it is the very reality of the stories (fudged a little or not) that makes them so addictive to passionate true crime readers. And, as the saying goes, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
So, why do we read true crime?
We are rubber-necking adrenaline junkies who want to believe that the world is just, and we demand that authors tell us all the gory details with 100% accuracy.
What do you think? Why do you read true crime? Let me know in the comments below (or chat with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
March 21, 2018 at 6:19 AM
Interesting! I’ve never thought about it too deeply, but I know for myself that what I find fascinating about “true crime” is the exploration of how demented humanity can be. The absolute contradiction of humans – being capable of both great compassion and great brutality – is a continuously intriguing topic to me and murder is an interesting facet of it.
March 21, 2018 at 11:38 AM
Oooh yeah, that spectrum is fascinating!! I wonder if there’s any stats on how many books are published about each extreme (people who do greatly compassionate things versus people who do greatly brutal things). Hmmm… Thanks for reading, Mara!
March 21, 2018 at 11:24 PM
Must be why I never read true crime, I am always worried that my views of the world will be confirmed.
I do like the occasional documentary where the villain was never found however. Good to know there are still some clever people around.
March 22, 2018 at 12:44 PM
Oh gosh, I’m the complete opposite! Happy to read true crime, but those “and the murderer was never apprehended” stories freak me the heck out. I become convinced that the villain is going to arrive at my house that very night, and end up sleeping with one eye open. You’re a far braver soul than I, Phil! 😉 😀
March 24, 2018 at 10:48 AM
Man I was just talking about “why I read true crime!” Sometimes I feel bad, to be honest. Especially if it’s an author that’s profiting off the tragedy… something just feels wrong about that to me. I don’t know if I know what my reasons are, but I think I lean toward the adrenaline junkie category.
March 24, 2018 at 3:00 PM
Hmmmm, interesting, I hadn’t really thought about the profiting-from-tragedy of the angle, which indeed sucks… Perhaps there’s a moral balance that can be achieved where some book proceeds are directed to the victim’s families, and/or organisations for the benefit of victims of that kind of crime/in that area? I wonder how many true crime authors do that. From a moral position, I also think it’s really important that the author doesn’t glorify or venerate the perpetrator (there’s a fine line between a sympathetic and intimate retelling, and out-and-out glorifying the person). Thank you for stopping by, gave me some great food for thought! 🙂