It starts with a murder. It always starts with a murder (or something along the same lines). Then come the police and detectives and interviews of witnesses, friends, family. And then the ultimate reveal of the killer (or what happened to them if you knew of their identity the entire time). The same cycle over and over, yet we can never stop watching. Why?
True Crime documentaries attempt to make sense of the senseless. Our brains crave this need for understanding now more than ever, with the true crime genre skyrocketing in popularity.
It feels like every few weeks there is a new true-crime documentary coming out on one of the countless streaming services that currently exist. The true-crime genre has grown exponentially in recent years, with Netflix releasing over 65 true-crime documentaries, and about one-third of Americans saying they listen to true-crime podcasts. Stories of serial killers and murderers have also been gaining a large following in recent years.
But why do people choose to watch shows that are based on such unpleasant and unforgivable events?
It is in our nature as humans to “solve.” We’ve grown up solving puzzles, escape rooms, crosswords and even murder mystery board games. Games like Wordle push us to think deeply and solve a problem. True-crime documentaries provide this same desire to decode a highly complex set of details and make it make sense. Humans are instinctively drawn to solving murder mysteries because it can give us more insight into how to avoid these scenarios and protect ourselves from the evil that exists in society.
Studies have shown that when watching disaster or destruction, the amygdala — the part of our brain that is responsible for emotions — triggers humans to analyze this threat, and that’s where our survival instincts kick in. Whether or not this disaster threatens us, our body instinctively continues to stare to face our fears, psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson explains. Viewers that watch true-crime documentaries subconsciously trigger their own fight or flight, questioning what they would do if they were in that situation.
Subsequently, our negativity bias, a cognitive tendency for our brains to feel and learn more from negative events compared to positive ones, results in humans stepping away from the matter gaining knowledge. Humans feel deeper and think harder, therefore, when watching sad or gruesome movies like true-crime documentaries, it not only triggers the audience to empathize and connect with victims, but also to think on our feet and picture oneself in that same situation.
There are psychological aspects behind every true-crime show that rope viewers in. Studies have shown that most documentaries follow a format, called the Narrative Formula, consisting of three aspects: conflict, evidence and resolution. The Narrative Formula begins by providing a conflict that is followed by clues, interviews and recounts of the act of violence. There may be clips of a forensic scientist discussing some sort of evidence that drew guesses or a local neighbor that tells their perspective. In the case of certain true-crime documentaries where the suspect is known all along, history and background can be given.
Looking back at their upbringing and relationships can give the audience some sort of insight into why this person came to commit such horrific crimes. Viewers can make inferences and try to understand the background, but it is still unknown how, where or what happened. It leaves viewers worried — the background of the perpetrator has been given, along with clues and recounts, but justice has yet to be served. It is at this point that most viewers themselves try to “solve” what happened. As the documentary unfolds, and inferences become facts, the Narrative Formula shifts from this state of unknown to this state of hope. This sense of closure and relief provides moral clarity among the audience.
The formula that these documentaries show us is purposefully supposed to be like a roller coaster ride — you start off scared and terrified for what’s about to come and by the end of it, you are relieved and glad to be secure. It’s the adrenaline rush that keeps us wanting to watch more and more true-crime. However, in this case, adrenaline is released in our bodies from the comfort of our own homes while watching a documentary, keeping us at a safe distance from violence. That is what keeps us coming back for more — the balance between thrill and comfort. It is just enough to keep us watching without backing down.
For all of you true-crime fanatics, here is a list of media (in no particular order) to satisfy that detective itch:
- “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Widely credited as the best true-crime book, “Helter Skelter” tells the story of the infamous 1969 Manson Murders — the investigation, arrest and ultimate prosecution. Author Vincent Bugliosi served as the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson and his book is a first hand recount of his experience with the murderer. The title takes inspiration from Manson’s belief in an apocalyptic race war, which he took from the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” The book received rave reviews, and should be at the top of your “TCTBR” (true-crime to be read.)
2. “Criminal Minds”
Probably the most well-known pop culture crime series, “Criminal Minds” fills 324 hour-long episodes with every murder, kidnapping or assault case you can imagine. It follows the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) and their method of analyzing a crime scene, getting to know a victim, creating a profile and ultimately identifying the unidentified subject), iconically known on the show as the “unsub.” Almost every episode tackles a different case, so if you are looking for something that will keep you glued to the screen, give “Criminal Minds” a watch.
3. “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by John. E Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Retired FBI agent John E. Douglas (along with co-author Mark Olshaker) recounts his 25 years hunting down some of society’s most prolific serial killers, taking him across the country from San Francisco to Atlanta. He has done countless research into the killers that have made their way to household names. Douglas is the blueprint for notorious fictional agent Jack Crawford (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and his story, published in 1995, is worth the read. It was also adapted into a series available on Netflix.
4. “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote
A true-crime media list would not be complete with Truman Capote’s 1966 classic “In Cold Blood,” detailing the four murders of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959. Before the suspects were identified , Capote learned of the crime and shortly after, traveled to Kansas to write about it, interviewing detectives, neighbors and residents to try to understand what happened. Capote took the following six years to write the true-crime novel, which gained instant success and acclaim, some even regarding it as the first non-fiction novel.
5. “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”
Released on Netflix in 2019, “The Ted Bundy Tapes” quickly rose to popularity. In his mini docuseries, director Joe Berlinger compiles archival footage and audio recordings of Bundy as he awaited execution on death row. The four episodes splice together over 100 hours of interviews — both with Bundy and his family and friends — to attempt to give a chronological timeline of the killer’s life, murders, arrests, trials, escapes and ultimate death.
6. “The Thin Blue Line”
Regarded as one of the best and most captivating true-crime documentaries, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” saved an innocent man from death row. An American man named Randall Dale Adams was charged with the 1976 murder of a police officer. Through a combination of art and journalism, Morris exposed irregularities in the case and cleared Adams’ name. He takes advantage of reenactments, music and interviews to change the previous narrative. Not only does “The Thin Blue Line” call out the criminal justice system in the United States, but it also paved a new way for documentary filmmaking.
Launched in 2014, “Serial” tells stories of true-crime, spanning from what occurred to the investigation and conviction. Each season tackles a different case. Season one narrates the events surrounding high school senior Hae Min Lee’s disappearance, discovery and murder. Season two talks with Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. citizen held in a Taliban prison for almost five years. He was brought home by Obama to planned celebrations, but his arrival was followed by a sudden change in affection by the public and two criminal charges. Season three, the most recent, tells new abnormal stories of seemingly normal cases, all within the four walls of a courthouse. “Serial” is perfect if you are more of a listener — it can come with you anywhere.
8. “Unsolved Case Files”
If all of these options above failed to grasp your attention (maybe you’re more of a hands-on type of person), the game “Unsolved Case Files” gives you evidence photos, incident reports, potential suspects and anything else you may need to crack a murder case. You can find these on Amazon, and each one is different — do a little digging to find one that finally scratches that detective itch you may be searching for, not in TV or movies or books.
A version of this article appeared on p. 15 of the Nov. 2, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.