True crime podcasts: a criminal psychologist explains the big problems with our obsession

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In their new podcast, Bad People, Dr Julia Shaw and comedian Sofie Hagen examine our fascination with true crime podcasts – and any self-confessed fan will want to hear what they discuss.

It’s official: we are a nation obsessed with true crime podcasts. You probably only need to scroll through your own podcast library to realise this. We are horrified yet fascinated by serial killers. We spend hours pondering unsolved disappearances. We need every detail about the world’s biggest scandals.

The craze arguably broke out back in 2015, when the first season of Serial captivated listeners across the globe with the story of the disappearance of American student Hae Min Lee. Her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for her murder, which led to journalist Sarah Koenig’s investigation into uncovering what really happened, and potentially prove Adnan’s innocence, through episodes that played like a gripping drama series.

“Do you think he did it?” we asked colleagues after listening to the latest episode on the way to work. Everyone had a theory, thinking they picked up on something their friend didn’t. It even led to an appeal for Adnan’s case

Five years on, we still don’t have an answer to this question, and we probably never will. And yet, type “most popular podcast” into Google and Serial is up there. It sits alongside the other huge true crime podcasts that have continued the genre’s ever-growing trend, including My Favorite Murder, Crime Junkie and Dr Death.

Now, there’s another new podcast to add to the list, except this one takes true crime fans on a different journey with a new perspective.

“Confession: I hate true crime,” criminal psychologist and Bad People co-host Dr Julia Shaw tells Stylist. “It’s probably in the same way that I expect doctors hate medical shows. I understand the fascination – I am a criminal psychologist, after all – but it’s often explored in a sensationalist and speculative way; it often doesn’t explore the research. 

“The problem this creates is that it perpetuates misconceptions: it’s not always because they had an abusive childhood, it’s not always the mother. As interesting as guessing is, I prefer research and science.”

Bad People
Bad People is the new podcast that analyses our obsession with true crime.

That’s why Shaw has partnered up with a huge true crime fan, the comedian Sofie Hagen, on the Bad People podcast. The new series ventures into the taboo, dissecting real criminal cases, and taking a closer look at the science behind the crimes that shock and scare us the most.

“It’s really important to me not to sensationalise these things. But we can indulge our fascination while also learning about how we can better talk about understanding these issues and, ultimately, prevent them from happening in the future,” explains Shaw.

But where exactly has this fascination with true crime come from in the first place?

According to Shaw, part of the excitement around true crime comes from “being appalled” or the feeling that you “know you’re doing something that’s a bit taboo”. Think of it a bit like telling a white lie, breaking the rules or telling a friend something you don’t mean: a small act like this can be thrilling even though you might feel uncomfortable, bad or even guilty while doing it. 

It could also be because we don’t feel proper fear in the real world very often, so we like to be excited in safety. “There are lots of ways in which we indulge that sort of taboo-ness, and pushing those boundaries are part of the excitement,” she adds.

Of course, this obsession with glamorising crime and treating it like a work of fiction presents its own problems. Are the victims overshadowed by the perpetrators? How selective have the hosts been with the evidence? What do the victim’s family and friends have to say about it?

We also can’t ignore how most true crime podcasts tend to focus on cases with female victims. It’s something that Shaw has noticed, despite the fact that, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s Global Study on Homicide in 2018, men are around four times more likely than women to lose their lives as a result of intentional homicide. 

“Because homicide being committed against a woman is rarer, it’s usually much more unusual and ‘interesting’,” Shaw offers as the only, if somewhat uncomfortable, explanation. 

There’s no denying that the world of true crime is a murky one that we just can’t seem to escape. But we can be conscious about what we’re consuming.

Like Shaw says: “It’s the things that are often the hardest to talk about that are also the most important to discuss, as long as it’s in the right way.”

You can listen to Bad People with Sofie Hagen and Dr Fiona Shaw on BBC Sounds.

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Images: supplied by podcasts

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…