Flip on the television, peruse a local bookstore, or browse a list of podcasts and you’ll see it: true crime stories are having a moment right now. Whether it’s popular podcasts like Serial or multi-part documentaries on Netflix like The Keepers and Making a Murderer, it seems like audiences just can’t get enough murder and mayhem.
But who is watching, and why is everyone so obsessed?
Amanda Vicary is a social psychologist and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who studies the social psychology behind crime and media use. Like millions of other Americans, Vicary is a self-professed true crime addict and has noticed that statistically, true crime devotees are most likely to be women.
“One example is that women tend to listen to true crime podcasts more [than men],” Vicary says. She’s right: One popular true crime podcast called Wine and Crime (helmed by three women) reports that they get half a million downloads each month – and a staggering 85 percent of their audience is female.
“I wanted to do a study about this,” says Vicary. “I wanted to find out, one, is it true that women really do like learning about crime? And if so, why?”
For her study, which was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vicary scoured Amazon reviews of books dealing with different types of violence. Vicary found that men were more likely to read and review books about war, while the true crime books were more reviewed by women.
So Vicary dug in deeper: What were the elements of true crime that attracted female readers? Vicary then had research subjects read synopses of fictionalized crime books to see what, specifically, drew in male and female readers.
“Compared to men, women liked reading about the psychological content of true crime stories,” Vicary said. “Stories where a killer was interviewed by an FBI profile, or that you’re trying to get to the inner workings of a killer in some way.” Women, she found, were also more likely to read true crime books if the victim in the story was female.
“My conclusion was that women all seemed to like reading about survival, whether it was preventing or surviving a crime,” says Vicary. “Research shows that women fear crime more than men, since they’re more likely to be a victim of one. My thinking is that this fear is leading women, even subconsciously, to be interested in true crime, because they want to learn how to prevent it.”
What surprised Vicary about her research was what she didn’t find: Neither female nor male subjects in her study were drawn to stories with explicitly emotional or sexual content. “If I mentioned that a family was really upset by a crime, or if I manipulated the sexual content of the book, like the victims being raped, it didn’t seem to draw people to the story or away from it.” More than anything, women wanted to know either the psychology of the killer or specific survival skills they could use to escape one.
Many social scientists agree with Vicary that watching true crime shows and listening to podcasts is one way we can feel prepared, and perhaps even comforted. Similarly, according to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist who studies violence and media, purposefully exposing oneself to violence can serve as an “inoculation” against fear, a way to build up our tolerance to something scary and seemingly inevitable. But other social scientists have different theories: Some say that our cultural obsession with true crime is a means of thrill-seeking; others say people are naturally fascinated with taboo subjects like rape and murder, and for whatever reason, we just can’t seem to look away.
One thing everyone can agree on? True crime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.