“True crime is an addiction, not unlike riding a rollercoaster.”
Back in October 2014, investigative reporter Sarah Koenig introduced the world to the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. Koenig’s podcast Serial kicked off the true crime boom that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most dominant cultural trends of the mid-Noughties, delving into the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Lee and the subsequent murder conviction of Syed, her ex-boyfriend.
Now, new four-part HBO documentary series The Case Against Adnan Syed is taking us back to Baltimore to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding Lee’s death, and the ensuing investigation that resulted in Syed being sentenced to life in prison. Executive produced by Jemima Khan and lawyer (and longtime Syed advocate) Rabia Chaudry, The Case Against Adnan Syed will air in the UK from 1 April, and contains several revelations that did not appear in Serial.
Since Serial first launched, of course, the world’s thirst for sophisticated true crime stories has proved unquenchable. It would now be entirely possible to spend all of one’s free time consuming true crime entertainment, from Making a Murderer and Dirty John to Abducted in Plain Sight and The Teacher’s Pet. And at a Q&A following a London screening of The Case Against Adnan Syed, the series’ Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg shared her theory on why we’re so hooked on true crime podcasts and documentaries.
“I think that we want to feel safe, and I think that stories like this make us feel more aware of the potential harms of society,” she said.
Berg added that she had read “that true crime is an addiction, not unlike riding a rollercoaster. It does something to your brain that triggers this kind of addictive behaviour.”
Criminology expert Scott Bonn has compared the experience of watching or listening to a true crime story to riding on a rollercoaster. Just like rollercoasters allow us to experience physical fear while being reasonably certain that we’re not actually going to die, true crime stories provide viewers with an adrenaline rush – without exposing us to real violence or danger.
Research has neither proven nor disproven the theory that adrenaline rushes are addictive, but there is some evidence to suggest that when thrill seekers’ brains are stimulated like they would be during a ‘rush’, some parts of the brain linked to addiction are more active.
And while one might assume that watching true crime documentaries would result in a lot of paranoid viewers, Berg’s theory that they actually make us feel safer is a valid one. A 2010 study from the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal found that women are more likely to seek out true crime stories than men, and other research has shown that women are more likely than men to fear being victims of crime. This could suggest that we’re drawn to true crime content because we think – consciously or unconsciously – that the information it contains may help us protect ourselves in future.
Some people turn their noses up at true crime documentaries, believing that they reduce complex and upsetting cases to light entertainment for others to consume. However, Berg said she believes they can shine an important light on miscarriages of justice when handled correctly.
“I think it’s important that true crime keeps going like this, because I think there’s such a major problem with the justice system,” she said.
In the US, she added, there are very few prosecutors who are willing to re-try cases when a person has already been convicted – often because they claim there is a lack of new evidence. “But there’s so much evidence that’s been sitting in lockers for decades, and there are filmmakers who don’t want to forget about evidence that could help those in prison.”
The Case Against Adnan Syed contains important evidence that was not used in Syed’s original trial, Berg continued. In particular, one piece of evidence that now features in episode three of the documentary made her sit bolt upright when she first heard about it.
“I was alone on my sofa, and I just said, ‘what?’” she said. “We found stuff that I never knew existed.
“So there is new evidence – and hopefully we can use that evidence in a court of law down the line.”
The Case against Adnan Syed will air from 1 April on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 9pm, with the boxset available to stream in its entirety with NOW TV’s contract-free Entertainment Pass.
Images: HBO/Sky Atlantic/NOW TV, Getty Images