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True Crime: What’s the fascination?

Why is it so popular?

Since the 1920s, known as the ‘Golden Age’ for detective fiction, when Agatha Christie was the reigning queen of crime novels, crime has always been popular. But it seems as though the true crime genre has taken over pop culture. Podcasts, streaming services, TikTok videos, and television networks dedicated to documenting real life cases are taking over our screens. Netflix alone produces multiple shows that continue to rank number one for consecutive numbers of days, such as Tiger King, Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich, Don’t F**k with Cats, and The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel.

According to Parrot Analytics, the crime genre was the most in-demand sub-genre across all series in Australia in 2022. Another report found that 908,000 Australians downloaded true crime podcasts in 2015. This number jumped to 1.6 million by 2019, and true crime is now the fourth most popular genre for 14–34-year-olds. In 2022, Casefile True Crime was Australia’s most popular podcast, with 868,283 average monthly listeners.

But why has it become so popular?

Professor Susan Turnball, a professor at the University of Wollongong who specialises in the crime genre, said the rise in popularity of true crime began in the year 2000 when Big Brother first aired. Therefore, reality TV, or the “content”, took over the generation born in that era, and realism is what they’ve grown up with.

“You look at what’s actually on any night of the week on Australian television, there’s virtually no Australian produced drama content on free to air, apart from the ABC, and then there’s very little. So, all that’s on offer is realities, so there is a way in which that content of reality has actually become the default drama for a generation,” she tells upstart.

So what does she think people find fascinating about true crime?

“One of the answers that I came up with is that there are two things going on: one is the form and one is the content,” she says.

“In true crime you have a very specific form, which is that something real happened in the world, and we already know the outcome.”

Professor Turnball says the viewers and listeners are asked to reinvestigate what has already happened, and to put the pieces of the investigation together. It functions as a form of escapism and involvement in something other than yourself.

“The whole point is you’re there, a real investigation, experiencing and learning everything that happened in ways which might be both more confronting, and therefore more emotionally engaging, than fiction, because it really happened,” she says.

For university student Lucy Redmond, true crime is both intriguing and an escape.

“I feel like it’s a good way to get my brain out of, you know, my day-to-day thinking. It’s a bit of an escape, it’s really entertaining,” Redmond tells upstart.

Another reason Professor Turnball says people are so infatuated by true crime is because there’s a driving story, a problem, and the desire to know the outcome. For true crime to work, you have to care what happened.

“See, the stakes are higher in a murder investigation than they are in any other. And particularly if the murder involves a child, so there’s ways in which if you raise the stakes high enough… then [so is] the desire to know. Not just what happened, but why?” she says.

Similarly, psychiatrist Jean Kim M.D, said that true crime can provide a reassuring sense of conflict and resolution for viewers.

“The story of the victim is often tragically familiar and human, with situations that all of us could easily fall into. Forensic analysis and detective work provide a fascinating analytical puzzle for the viewer to follow along,” Kim wrote.

Bonnie Murray, a university student, says she enjoys watching true crime because it’s real, and anyone is capable of committing the crimes.

“I get scared, but I feel like I’m more intrigued, and it also makes me fantasise about that my own life,” she tells upstart.

“Is my next door neighbour a killer? Is my best friend a killer? Is there something that’s happened in my area that I don’t know about? So, it makes me just fantasise about what’s around me.”

As well as escaping the boredom of people’s mundane daily lives, Kim said that true crime provides people with moral clarity, where the stakes are clear in telling people what’s right and wrong.

Overall, there are many possible explanations that keep consumers clicking the “next episode” button on true crime content. As platforms, such as Netflix, continue to release more true crime, it seems like the genre’s popularity won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Article: Samantha Smith is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (sports journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her at @ssamanthasmith5.

Photo: crime scene by Alan Cleaver available HERE and used under a Creative Commons license. This image has been modified.

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