There are those who followed the Casey Anthony trial so closely they could quote words and explain evidence. Amanda Knox’s case drew thousands of fans, each claiming she was either soooo innocent of the crime or very, very guilty. Why are we drawn to true crime? What is it that makes us so interested?
There are several theories.
“The Roller Coaster Factor” where reading, watching, and talking about true crime is titillating and fun. It is akin to riding a roller coaster: you are afraid, but you have to do it. It produces adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone. It is produced by the adrenal glands and released into the bloodstream, part of the “fight, flight, or flee” response in threatening events. Our body changes when adrenaline is released: a rise in oxygen to the brain and muscles, heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood flow is increased to the major muscle groups. If there is nowhere for the adrenaline to go we suffer what is called an “adrenaline dump.” All of this makes for sharper vision, a feeling of invincibility, and better hearing. Some people experience adrenaline when reading about something scary. The other ends of the spectrum, “adrenaline junkies,” have to do life-taking things to experience adrenaline (sky dive, climb mountains, etc). The majority of us are on the low end. Just seeing or reading about something horrid creates enough adrenaline to be exciting.
“The Soap Opera Factor” because these folks love stories with twists and turns. “Guiding Light” was listened to, and then watched by, thousands of fans from 1937 to 2009. The characters were not real; the settings fake. A true crime case is real and can happen anywhere. It can involve many types of people, from the woman next door to the heiress with billions, or the sports star, or the little old lady. It is a television show come to life. And it is better than a talk show because we know it is not “fake” or staged, like talk shows.
“No Way! Not him/her! Theory” Michael Jackson had two camps: guilty because he liked kids, and not guilty because he liked kids. Halle Berry is making the news because she found herself in the midst of a physical fight between the ex and the current beau. We presume because these people are wealthy, famous, and glamorous they cannot possibly have problems like we do: domestic violence, child abuse, drunkenness. This group loves mugshots of the rich and famous. They keep up with the case because it involves someone “you never would have guessed” simply because they are on the silver screen or the playing field. This also applies to people who do heinous crimes but appear to be your neighbor. People are drawn to the case because the criminal appears to be a mild-mannered old man, or a handsome fellow, or the girl next door. Serial killer Albert Fish is an example; this tiny, wrinkled man with the walrus moustache was a heinous child molester/murderer. Lindsay Lohan is an example: people cannot get enough of her illegal misfortunes, as judged by the newsprint. Who would have guessed a Mouseketeer?
Sometimes “The Soap Opera Factor” can bleed (no pun intended) into “The Roller Coaster Factor” or the “No Way! Not him/her! Theory” Television made stars out of a Judge and a Prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case. “The Bronco Chase” has become as famous as raw footage of the Twin Towers falling. And who would have guessed a rich, handsome, successful man would beat his wife? This is why the O.J. Simpson case sold so many books, made such news, and became a part of our history and culture: it had all the factors.
True Crime readers and followers love transgressions, from murder and dismemberment to which star was arrested. It is far more interesting than a romance novel and twice as exciting as a ‘chick flick.’ Crime is real, guttural, and nasty – but perfectly safe when you are curled up in a chair reading or watching.
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Judith Yates lectures on crime and crime prevention. She is working on her first true crime book. Her first book is about crime prevention.
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Credit photo J. Yates