Is our obsession with gruesome true crime causing distress and anxiety?
It’s almost six years on from the release of Making A Murderer. In late 2015, the much talked about Netflix documentary transformed regular people into armchair detectives, whipping out their magnifying glasses to decipher whether Steven Avery was wrongly convicted or a cold-blooded murderer. Despite the fact that true crime and our fascination with it has been around for decades (arguably as far back to the time of Jack the Ripper), viral shows like Making A Murderer still felt out of the ordinary at the time.
Just before that, and also creating a major buzz, was the first season of the Serial podcast, released in 2014, which looked at the life of 17-year-old Adnan Syed, who was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The gripping podcast raised doubts about whether Syed murdered Min Lee, and such was it’s reach and popularity, it sparked a national conversation and was a factor in Syed being granted a new trial.
Today, binge-worthy true crime documentaries roll out on a regular basis as more people become engrossed in understanding the thoughts behind criminals who more often than not commit violent crimes against women. Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons, released in March this year, took the internet by storm with its tale of deception and death. The Ripper, a four-part miniseries about the Yorkshire Ripper, who took the lives of 13 women, came out in December last year. Allen v. Farrow, a four-part documentary series on HBO, shares personal stories and accusations of sexual abuse against Woody Allen. Then there’s The Sons of Sam, Sophie: A Murder In West Cork, Memories of a Murder: The Nilsen Tapes, Why Did you Kill Me?, NightStalker, Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel – and that’s just a few from 2021, all of them about the stalking, sexual assault or murder of women, and often featuring botched or weak investigations into the crimes.
“These shows can feel empowering in some ways, as they help women to be more informed about the techniques and strategies used by criminals and attackers,” says Dr Nilufar Ahmed, a psychologist at the University of Bristol. But the side effects of watching shows like this aren’t all positive. “Over time, the more you learn about yet another woman murdered, attacked or kidnapped can lead to an increased fear about safety. If there aren’t enough other aspects to balance your consumption of negative and distressing material, it could cloud your perception of the world and lead to you becoming more anxious.”
Amanda Nguyen, a 31-year-old senior account manager agrees. “I was initially drawn to true crime out of morbid curiosity. I’ve always had a bit of a macabre taste in film and TV. My father even let me watch The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal before I was 10,” she says. “It became a natural progression into true crime when researching the origins of the crimes in the horror novels and films I was watching. I justified it as a safety and security mechanism to ensure that I could recognise red flags in the people around me. Part of the appeal was also about watching a true crime case unfold and seeing justice being carried out.”
But overtime it started to skew her own idea of the world, especially after watching Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel on Netflix (a documentary about Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student of Cantonese heritage who disappeared in 2013 in downtown Los Angeles while travelling, and whose body was later found in the hotel’s water tank). “I think my emotions were exacerbated by all the news of anti-Asian sentiment and racist attacks that were happening at the time (and are still happening),” says Amanda, who is an Australian of Vietnamese descent. “It’s becoming an increasingly confusing and scary time – I’ve had to actively mute or unfollow certain news channels as I was getting too anxious and angry at all the anti-Asian attacks that were happening.”
Dr Ahmed notes that while it’s important to stay safe, these shows can cause some people to become overly cautious or pessimistic about the world, as Amanda says it has done for her. “These shows lead to an adrenaline rush brought about by the increase in stress levels. Overexposure to stress can negatively affect the body,” Dr Ahmed says. “It is always important to stay safe and vigilant, but hyper-vigilance can lead to paranoia and anxiety.”
But 35-year-old journalist Jessica Bateman says the content simply became too disturbing for her to continue watching. “I really got put off the genre when I watched Don’t F**k With Cats,” she explains. Don’t F**k With Cats was released on Netflix in 2019 and followed the search for a criminal posting gruesome videos of animal abuse online. He eventually turned to manslaughter. “I thought it was absolutely disgusting and disrespectful that they included footage of an actual murderer, and the whole series seemed to be giving the killer exactly what he wanted – celebrity and infamy.”
“Shows have become more graphic in the last decadein their depiction of violence and in the level of detail for crimes both in real-life and in fictional accounts,” explains Dr Ahmed, noting that disturbing real-life footage being released is partly due to the fact that fiction has also become increasingly more gruesome. “Real-crime programme makers have begun to share details of crimes that previously would not have been as part of their strategy to engage consumers. This can be stressful for the consumer as the images and descriptions linger long after the programme has ended.”
Both Amanda and Jessica mention that they also feel as if the victims are cast aside in these shows. “I remember Making A Murderer and Serial both made me feel a bit uncomfortable once I’d finished and reflected on them, as they mainly focused on the suspected male perpetrators and largely ignored the victims and their families,” says Jessica. “What I see are more injustices than justice being served,” adds Amanda. “There’s also more value, media attention and empathy given to victims who are traditionally white and middle class, and a blatant dismissal of victims from different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a bit infuriating to say the least.”
Joanne*, 40, says her true crime addiction crept up on her. “The moment I realised my true crime addiction had gone too far was one Sunday. It was a lovely crisp sunny autumn day and I was cooking in the kitchen. I hooked up my phone to the bluetooth speaker and put on my engrossing new true crime podcast called Suspect; unsurprisingly it was about the brutal murder of a woman in America, presented as a whodunnit,” she says.
“As I cooked (which usually takes me out of my own head), I noticed I felt a bit on edge. Later, on my coastal walk with the dog (another usually very relaxing time) with my headphones in, I felt the same feeling: a shadowy feeling in my stomach. It was anxiety, so I turned off the podcast and walked the rest of the way in silence.
“It was only when I got home I thought about how many ‘relaxing’ days off I’d spent listening to or watching details about the grisly murder, kidnap or rape of women. In just a short time I binged Dr Death, Teacher’s Pet, The Night Stalker, Des, The Staircase, one of the many Ted Bundy docs and The Ripper.
“Since then I’ve made a conscious effort to dial back on anything in the true crime genre and instead I am watching easy and more wholesome shows like The Great British Bake Off, Young Sheldon and Project Runway.”
The appeal of true crime is obvious: “It gives us an opportunity to access the darker side of our psyche. As human beings we all have the capacity for these behaviours inside us. The shows help us to explore the darker side of human psychology and behaviour in a safe way,” says Dr Ahmed. But, while it can feel gratifying to get into the mind of a criminal – even simply for entertainment – there is no doubt it can affect how we think and feel during the day, as well as how we sleep at night. If you’ve had too much, Dr Ahmed suggests limiting your consumption of these shows – especially if it starts to warp our perception of the world: “If you find that you are struggling to sleep or are always wary, it might be a sign to step back for a while and consume some different content.”
*Name has been changed
Additional words by Katy Harrington