True Crime: Entertainment or Exploitation?

By Lily Bourne

Entertaining, detailed, and often gruesome, true crime stories have become a common “guilty pleasure” for many to tune in to. But how far is too far when your enjoyment stems from someone else’s tragedies? Shows like the newly popular Dahmer bring victims’ stories into the scrutinizing eyes of the public, and for better or worse attract much more attention onto the killers themselves. 

After listening to a true crime podcast or watching a documentary, it is easy to understand why people are drawn to this particular genre of media. Transforming real tragedies into engaging narratives, producers and podcasters alike begin to emulate mystery books, like those popular with children. Viewers feel compelled to search for clues and decipher riddles, all while easily distancing themselves from the reality of the situation. Experts bring up many other possible explanations for the world’s infatuation with true crime, including the idea that we subconsciously believe watching or listening to these stories will prepare us if we are ever put in a similar situation. Women are especially drawn to true crime books and podcasts which include information on the male perpetrators’ motives against a female victim, clearly gathering information to, in theory, protect oneself against a possible threat. People also consume this media to feel thankful they are not in the victim’s place, or to feel some sort of self-righteousness for not being like the perpetrator. However, not being as bad as a serial killer is not very high praise. Issues arise in the true crime community from both sides; the creators and the fanbase. 

True crime and makeup, mukbangs, coffee, and cocktails are all popular series on Youtube. Creators detail gruesome murders while applying their blush or trying out a new Columbian roast. Many argue that these videos disrespect the tragedies the victims and their families went through by treating them as nothing more than some extra content. Not only that, but these Youtubers and podcasters are just normal people, not licensed detectives or lawyers. Therefore, it is not fair nor reasonable to expect them to collect, organize, and comprehend the large amounts of evidence that often go into these cases. Unfortunately, this can leave the cases misinterpreted by unfit “investigators” trying to fit a nuanced story, possibly taking place over years, into one or two short episodes. Often, victim’s families will not be asked for consent before sharing their stories, further pushing a common claim on the clear misplacement of values in the true crime community. Most people’s major issue with true crime is simple; there is no empathy for the victims or their families. Creators continuously exploit helpless people’s traumas for their own monetary gain. For example, after the release of Dahmer, Netflix’s new hit documentary detailing the 17 murders of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, many of the victims’ family members spoke out in frustration. Sister to one of Dahmer’s real victims, Rita Isbell has expressed anger with Netflix for not asking permission in including her likeness in the show, nor financially compensating the victims’ families in any way. To her, Netflix was clearly using these tragedies as a cash grab, with no regard for the actual victims. And it worked. Dahmer reached over 700 million hours viewed in just three weeks, and is Netflix’s second most-watched series ever, indicating the mass popularity of true crime at this time. 

However, the creators aren’t the only people at fault in this tumultuous relationship of media consumption. Some viewers, especially of serial killer focused stories, have created cult-like followings surrounding infamous killers such as Dahmer and Ted Bundy. By casting charming young actors like Evan Peters and Zach Efron in the roles of these murderers, intentionally or not, directors encourage their young, impressionable audience to see these men as more sympathetic. Many online forums can be found listing off “Top 10 Killers We Would Want to Slice Us Open”, with Bundy, Manson, Dahmer, and more included, all convicted of atrocious crimes. True crime fanatics have also been known to cross boundaries in their obsession to “solve” cases. In 2021, Gaby Petito, a van life influencer, went missing and her story began to spread on the internet. Frenzied fans dug into the family’s personal life, convinced they would find something the police couldn’t. This greatly upset the already troubled family, and showed the dangerously parasocial effect true crime can have, allowing people to believe they can overstep boundaries in the name of the “law”. 

So the question finally arises: is enjoying true crime really that bad? I mean, clearly there are some awful downsides, but in the end it is natural. Humans will always have a morbid curiosity, and as with many things, there are degrees of harm to this genre. Some creators deliberately gather large amounts of evidence, aiming to bring forgotten victims’ stories back to light, to bring awareness, or to prepare people in case they find themselves in a dangerous situation. Essentially, next time you go to watch “The Most Dangerously Sexy Serial Killers of the 2000s”, maybe just switch the channel.