Why Do I Find True Crime So Relaxing? A Psychologist Explains All
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If you asked what I do to wind down, and I responded: 'learn about bloodthirsty serial killers, and the twisted ways they murder their victims', I know all too well how it sounds.
But the fact is, I'm far from the only one who nestles down with a good true crime doc after a hard day's work, or on a lazy Sunday. Over the past few years, the somewhat gloomy genre has absolutely exploded into public consciousness.
During lockdown, when relaxation was about the only pass-time on the menu, Tiger King's Joe Exotic was the word on everyone's lips, to the point where his murder-for-hire plot against Carol Baskin became a cultural discourse in its own right. And even before that, there was barely a soul who hadn't seen Netflix's Making A Murder, and watched at least two deep dives on Ted Bundy, the Night Stalker and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
But just what is it that we find so enjoyable about true crime, and why do so many of us turn to the macabre when we want to unwind?
Tyla reached out to Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant at Essentialise, to find out.
"Morbid curiosity is one of the reasons why true crime can be so compelling", he says, when quizzed on the matter. "To explore things that are usually farfetched from the realms of fiction, knowing that this actually happened does spark a curiosity.
"We get to step into an evil pair of shoes, indulge in gore and gruesomeness, step out and play detective, and all while having a clean pair of hands."
Lee adds that "human intrigue in evil is something that will always be present", explaining that a key reason we find the lives of criminals so fascinating is because their brains work so differently to ours.
"[True crime docs] reveal the inner workings of the minds of those who are willing to break social norms, something that we are rarely party to," Lee adds. "So we get the ability to explore things we wouldn't consider doing ourselves.
"Given evil sits well outside social norms, we are both fascinated and fearful of it at the same time.
"We hear a lot more about evil in the world through social media nowadays, and this only fuels a desire to understand why it happens and delve into the minds of those who are willing to commit acts of evil and their victims."
Of course, there's no denying that however tragic and even hard to watch a true crime story might be, the genre is meant to promote excitement and escapism, and we're probably turning to it as a means of temporarily disengaging from our own lives.
True crime docs, books and podcasts are packed full of suspense, mystery and tension, which trigger adrenaline - a positive hormonal response, which makes them enjoyable.
But Lee explains that what makes true crime relaxing is the subsequent comfort we feel seconds later, as a result of our own immediate safety.
"We get to indulge in the intrigue of good and evil playing out, with the rising tension and thrills, all while comfortable and safe at home," he reflects.
"I would certainly say there is a level of schadenfreude involved in watching true crime. We get to experience the fear and horror of crime and approach the threat but ultimately know we are safe and comfortable in a controlled environment.
"[We also think] 'If it's happened to them, it's less likely to happen to me'."
This sense of safety is boosted because the viewer is constantly picking up information about heinous crimes, absorbing it and even subconsciously convincing themselves they're less likely to be a victim as a result.
It's essentially an act of self-preservation - an instinct which is natural in all humans.
"There is certainly a cathartic effect of watching true crime and understanding how to protect yourself from crime and violence," Lee says. "We get ideas about how we could protect ourselves from similar scenarios, which helps us to feel more secure in an ever-changing world.
"From a social and evolutionary psychological perspective, there is something to be said from understanding how to survive if you are likely to be targeted by violence and aggression.
"A level of proactivity by understanding those likely to perpetrate these acts is a valid and wise survival tactic. And given we struggle to separate online news not being a nearby threat, the desire to have proactive knowledge is ever more valued."
Unsurprisingly, he adds that such a fascination is "more potent in women and minority groups, seeing as they are more likely to be targeted and victims."
"The sad reality is that women are more likely to face violence in the very homes they [consume it]," he adds. "True crime gives a pre-emptive understanding of what may trigger violent crime, warning signs and knowledge from the victim, and an exploration of good versus evil, with a solution and justice at the end.
"Given the privilege that males have, alongside the fact they are more likely to commit crime, it's only natural that some women will find the positive outcomes and the enhanced knowledge of evil".
Our fascination with true crime certainly makes sense, but is there a danger of taking it too far?
Lee explains that too much bingeing can leave us "continually preparing ourselves mentally and over-empathising for the victims," which in turn can cause us emotional distress.
Plus, any "anxiety-inducing recounts" that may be close to our own experiences can eventually end up being triggering.
So, should we be passing on the next Netflix serial killer doc? Lee says - like all good things - it's all about moderation.
"Turning to true crime shows serves a variety of healthy psychological processes, and it's normal and healthy in sensible doses," he says.
"I would suggest enjoying true crime as part of a balanced entertainment mix, and avoiding true crime that may trigger past experiences you have been through."