It’s our undivided attention when we see a particularly bloody and grisly story on the news. The small phantom pains in our limbs as we hear a tale of amputation. It’s the goosebumps on our skin when we listen to Ted Bundy’s voice on a Netflix show. It’s the innate curiosity that keeps us awake through Forensic Files binge sessions. The reason behind why the series premiere of NBC’s “Hannibal” got 4.3 million viewers. Violence and mystery are, and always have been, the driving force behind our most gruesome fascinations.
True crime has turned into a prominent sub-culture of today’s modern media consumption. Many critics are referring to it as a “true crime boom.” This is a phenomenon that began as early as the 1990s, and has persisted to this day. I believe the true crime boom can be referred to as the sudden and overwhelming normalization of crime for mainstream entertainment. In other words, it’s the reason behind why we can see new crime documentaries on Netflix every month.
With each new serial killer documentary, we are inching one step closer towards the immortalization of these perpetrators, not as monsters, but as idols. A fact that is worrisome, especially for the surviving victims. One such example is Kathy Kleiner, now 61, who was one of Ted Bundy’s few survivors. She reflects on the new sudden attention the Netflix series has brought to her life in a BBC article. She says: "I did not ask to be put on the journey with him in his life - with his killing and his abuse.”
This morbid fascination has not spread simply to TV, it has also worked its way into podcast charts. In a 2018 TIME magazine article, author Eliana Dockertman made a list of the Top 10 Podcasts of 2018. The top three were all true crime podcasts. One particular podcast titled Serial stands out. During its initial debut in 2014, Serial broke the record for most iTunes downloads with an average episode download rate of 5 million downloads worldwide. As of September 2018, that number has increased to 340 million. However, in the case of Serial, this attention is not entirely bad. The whole point of the podcast is to expose the mundane cases in the Cleveland court system,while in the process also shining a light on the daily injustices committed there. Many of their seemingly benign cases have ended in a plot twist of the effects of institutionalized racism and discrimination. Essentially, they have exposedcountless cases where the punishment simply does not fit the crime.
Why are we so attracted to these stories? What is it about gore and violence that keeps us coming back for more each week? I’ll admit, I am part of this true crime boom. I am an avid listener of several true crime podcasts. I have watched my fair share of documentaries and Netflix series on murderers and real-life monsters. Yet, I am not entirely sure what keeps me coming back. Is it the latent fear that these shows instilled in me? Is it the emotional responses generated by watching other human beings experience immense pain? Is it the adrenaline rush you get when you turn off the lights and think you hear a sound? Are our physical responses to survival just as addicting as a regular heroin hit? As a biologist and true crime nerd, the answers to those questions keep me up at night.
A study conducted by Kort-Butler and colleagues in 2016, found that, among viewers of true crime shows, there was a higher probability of reporting they felt fear of being a victim of violent crime. Viewers were also more likely to distrust the criminal justice system, and more likely to support the death penalty. So, is our interest in these violent crimes purely sociological? Are we simply looking for righteous justice to be served on those we deem worthy of punishment? Or are these findings simply the symptom of something deeper, more physiological instead of psychological?
The researchers at Ichan School of Medicine seems to think so. In their 2014 study, they analyzed the brain scans of both naturally aggressive and non-aggressive individuals in response to violent movies. They found that people with more aggressive tendencies experienced less brain activity as they watched violent movies, when compared to their less aggressive counterparts. They found this to mean that people that are more aggressive tend to be less disturbed by seeing physical violence. Regardless of their natural aggression tendencies, however, viewing physical violence had a real physical impact on the brains of everyone watching. This makes one wonder if what draws us towards these violent stories is our craving of being able to trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response, while still being in the comfort of our homes.
Personally, I believe the source of our fascination with death combines both the physical and the metaphysical. We are physically drawn towards violence, gore and death because it allows us to reflect on the meaning of life. Perhaps thinking that tomorrow might be your last day on Earth can push you to live a little bolder. For example, let us consider the Body Worlds exhibits. These are exhibits in museums worldwide that showcase preserved human bodies in artistic and frighteningly beautiful ways. They show us the difference between healthy and unhealthy bodies, so that anyone that walks into one of these shows can see death up close and under a spotlight. Over 50% of people that have visited the Body Worlds exhibit have said that the experience has made them consider more the difference between life and death, while 68% of people stated that the exhibit made them consider healthier lifestyles. Perhaps, in the end, that is what most of us are chasing: Understanding. We want to see death, and understand it enough to be able to avoid it. We seek out TV violence because it adds perspective to our lives, without endangering them.
Regardless of our different views on death and violence, the reality of the situation that we are facing is simple. As our exposition to blood and violence increases, so will our tolerance to it. It is this increased tolerance that pushes us closer to a dangerous precipice made up of nihilism and apathy. We risk turning violence into nothing more than another form of entertainment. We risk numbing ourselves to the horrors of modern society. How can we keep chasing our curiosity over death? How can we quell our fear of death, while making sure we don’t forget how to live? I suspect the answer to that question is one we will be searching for during the remainder of our time on Earth. Because in the words of Anais Nin: “People living deeply have no fear of death.”