Fear. I am sure you’d agree that fear is one of the most important (completely critical or even vital) feelings that help us avoid dangers. But why am I talking about it, you ask? Well, recently I came across the trailer of The Serpent. I was quick to draw similarities between The Serpent and the more local, Main Aur Charles and instantly decided to watch the newer version of maybe a less-Bollywoodised version of Charles Sobhraj’s crimes. This got me thinking why would I want to watch the story of a criminal come alive on my screen? Technically, his murders should err me, should ring warn bells in my head, instead, I am excited to watch it.
With every fifth, sixth series or movie being on true crimes, the genre has become increasingly popular on OTT. And with a growing reach of podcasts like The Desi Crime Podcast, My Favorite Murder and Indian Crime Story (among others) in India, the audience does not solely-dependant on OTT or TV networks to satisfy their obsession with a true crime or crime thrillers. In 2020, Hollywood Reporter conducted a study that revealed that crime shows outnumber other drama sub-genre and are among the most-watched series (I am certainly a contributor!).
The interesting thing is that these series are usually among the top ten almost all the time. The understandable question would be why are we so inclined towards watching crimes unfold? Are we fascinated by crimes done by others? Do we find it entertaining to watch a completely unrelatable personality come alive on the screen? Is the personality completely unrelatable? Basically, why are we obsessed with true crime stories?
One of the reasons, that we are attracted towards such grisly-themed content, some argue is to vent out our dark impulses and thoughts and is called the theory of forbidden thinking. Psychology Today elaborates that we all have dark impulses. These can be wanting to slap your colleague, or ramming someone on the road, harming someone, stealing something; or even as subtle as gloating over someone else’s misfortune, fantasising about food especially when you are dieting, etc. If you are nodding after reading these thoughts, is something wrong with you? And how is this a reason to find crime thriller or crime-related shows interesting to you?
The characteristic of forbidden thoughts is that things we're not supposed to think about, usually seem most appealing to us. Conclusively, we should not be thinking about violence, about hurting someone, about being gruesome, so we turn towards watching others do it. We make peace with the fact that it is not us in the story who is doing horrible things. In a way, we channel our dark impulses and vent them out through criminal plotlines.
Another way of analysing our obsession would be checking out ‘schadenfreude’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the German term was used by Freud which meant ‘pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.’ Is this as bad as it sounds? Dr Sharon Packer, Psychiatrist and Asst Clinical Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York explain, “It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else. Whatever the luck of the draw is, at least someone else got the short straw. So, there’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”
She explains that we all, at some point or another think “I could kill him” but most don’t, “But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’” This explains why we don’t mind watching the shows, but why do we enjoy it remains a question.
The excitation-transfer theory may help us understand why gory and macabre is something we like. According to this theory, watching or reading content that scares us is stimulating. In an article in The Guardian, Neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains, “The stimulation experienced via fear is essentially transferred to other experiences, which may not be similar in any way. Basically, scary things make everything else more “vivid”, and this is exciting and appealing.”
Another theory Burnett sheds light upon the reward pathway. This region of our brain helps us experience pleasure whenever we do something that it approves of. This works on a more primitive level and may not be in tangent with society’s good and bad. Burnett adds, “Another thing the brain probably considers a positive behaviour is “avoiding death”.” Well, that explains a lot! So, when we are watching crime-related shows or even horror, we experience high levels of fear and instinctively our brain thinks that we are in danger. And surviving through the movie or series is an accomplishment for the brain, which, on a primitive lever thinks that we have thus successfully escaped the situation, so it rewards us. The neuroscientist adds, “thus, people experience enjoyment and pleasure from being scared.”
Women’s inclination towards true crime exceeds that of men
True-crime shows or podcasts are not essentially soothing or help you relax, but according to an interesting article on The Atlantic, these shows have ‘opened doors to virtual support group’. Other than what we’ve discussed before another reason for people to indulge in podcasts like ‘My Favorite Murder’ may be that the show, which talks about murder, soothes listeners’ fear of being killed.
A community of more than 100,000 fans (largely female), on Facebook, not only supports each other’s enthusiasm for serial killers but also openly talk about their own mental health issues. Many of the fans, who are predominantly female, listen to the podcast as they feel that hearing about a true crime helps them battle their fear of being the victim. Some studies suggest that women are fear crime more than men and thus listening to such podcasts of watching such shows help them with tricks to survive in such situations and may be increasing their chances of survival. It also provides an outlet for that fear.
When I started with this article, I just wanted to explore possible reasons why I enjoy this genre and in the process, maybe, help you figure out the same. Now, I am sure that I like it because I do get a sense of achievement after I’ve finished watching the show so maybe my brain likes the idea of having survived. I hope you’ve been able to figure your reason(s), too. However, whatever the reason be we love true crime, crime thriller, and everything crime related!