The Dangers of Our True Crime Obsession
Takes on our consumption of violence and the obscene.
Writing this, I am aware that the subject matter is somewhat of a grey area in popular discourse. True crime appears to be all the rage these days. I understand why — the thrill, the intrigue, the shock factor — but something about it doesn’t sit right with me.
Crime as a genre of entertainment has been around for quite some time, from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie. Investigation and the wit and deciphering skills of detectives have made for fan favourites, with the popularity of the whodunnit experience even being commercialised for all to enjoy with games like Cluedo. Much of the appeal of the genre is in the suspense, heinous acts and their execution that thicken the plot step by step.
True crime is defined as: ‘books and films about real crimes that involved real people’. It should, in theory, should be no exception to the understanding we have for fictional crime movies and books. What’s the difference between a gruesome murder in a small town in a novel and a gruesome murder in a small town in real life? Here are some reasons why we ought to discuss more about how art mirrors life which mirrors art:
It is not hard to imagine that in our current attention and virality-seeking era, with mental perversion and twisted ideas of gaining fame and/or infamy, that hearing consistently about these crimes may inspire others to imitate them. Take for example school shootings, horror films and racially motivated mass shootings.
White supremacists express reverence for successful perpetrators of racially-motivated crimes in online spaces. It is known that they tend to draw inspiration from others with similar ideas as them, who have committed similar similar past crimes.
School shooter culture has become something that is joked about and iconised, with memes about ‘the quiet kid in class’, young intenders stating their desire to be remembered in history as another iconic villain. Songs like ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster the People, the opening lyrics of ‘Broccoli’ by DRAM and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ by the Boomtown Rats, are examples of the effects this type of crime and violence have on pop culture. While writing, in mentioning this article to my 15 year old sister, she informed me of the ‘psychotic killer aesthetic’, which I was shocked to discover is indeed real.
This is not to say that the reality aspect of true crime is the culprit for its influence on other criminals. Horror films, particularly slashers, have had grim inspirational effects, with young people glamourising the idea of elaborate and creative murders. There is notoriety and an element of badassery that some may see as attractive in the actions that generate shock and public disapproval. Whether in fiction or reality, it seems there is always room for the negative effects of exposure to some of the worst acts committed by others.
It could be argued that the average sane and healthy person would not be inspired to commit inhumane crimes simply because of exposure to information about them, but the proliferation of this content could have an aggravating effect on those who are struggling with behavioural and psychological issues in the first place.
Despite my own strong inclination to steer clear of what I see as reprobate genres of entertainment, I am aware that my contempt for violent horror films might be seen as overly paranoid by others. However, it’s obvious that this is a concern that we all share, albeit to varying degrees: disclaimers, R-ratings, restricted screenings and parenting groups that campaign for children’s reduced exposure to crime and violence indicate that collectively, we have an inkling of the potential harms of gruesome content. Protecting children’s impressionable young minds is not just so that they don’t get scared, but also so that they do not develop a twisted understanding of the world and the ‘normalcy’ kinds of acts that take place in it.
I am of the opinion that every viewing is a step to normalisation, even on a subconscious level, and it is worth remembering that we most certainly are what we eat, regardless of age.
There have been many questions in the public sphere about whether platforms like Netflix that host and produce true crime television glorify convicted murderers and violent behaviour through series starring idolised handsome actors as the criminal protagonist.
An example of this is the 2019 film ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ starring Zac Efron as serial rapist and murderer, Ted Bundy. The internet, especially TikTok, was a strange place around the announcement of the series’ trailer, with a wave of fetishising the criminal for his looks and supposed charm. The psychological effect of casting a well-liked actor as a criminal, as well as depicting his loved ones and humanity is a grey area.
On the one hand, these castings could be a prompt for us to question our perceptions of criminal psychology and to consider the human sides of even the worst of people. It could be the subject of film study for us to consider the importance of cinematic technique in the portrayal of heroes, villains and the morally grey. In reality though, for a culture in which the masses choose films based on hype and binge-watch their movies and TV of choice, there is little respect for the intricacies of creative art and more focus on shock factor and what is most likely to garner more clicks from a morbidly curious audience on a bored Saturday.
When movies show violent criminals delivering twisted monologues in a moving and dramatic manner, there is no doubt a manipulative effect as we focus on their eloquence and dark inspirations, rather than the indication that they are of a deeply disturbed mind.
This question about the ethics of streaming services’ platforming of such content does not only apply to the telling of true crime, but was also brought to light during the heyday of the psychological thriller ‘You’, a three-season series about a compulsive stalker. When shows are made cloaking disturbing actions in intrigue and sex appeal, many are left wondering what that means for society in the bigger picture, how we view these behaviours, and ultimately, the fact that these behaviours are ‘rewarded’ when they are broadcast for our viewing pleasure.
Beyond that, there are also the implications that come with any successful media production — their standing in the public mind. They become popular references and inspire other creative works. When this is done with true crime, there is the problematic fact that this has an inspirational effect, and further steeps violent crime into our culture indirectly. When true crime becomes as respectable a genre as any other, inspiring colouring books and hoodies as merchandise, it has the secondary effect of tipping the hat to the murderers who created the stories in the first place.
This has also begged the question about the obvious opportunity cost of highlighting violence in our media: the lost opportunity to portray more positive contributors to society, or to draw the same level of curiosity to serious social issues.
The production of true crime content by nature necessitates taking the pain and suffering of individuals and turning it into entertainment. There is a great deal of insensitivity towards victims’ families, with strange voyeurism developing surrounding crime scenes.
This is not something new and peculiar to our times, natural human curiosity always prevails when we hear about accidents and tragedies. In the true crime era though, the level of ‘looking in’ is reaching levels of disrespect to the families of victims of crimes, with little respect given to their time for mourning, family privacy, or simply maintaining the honour and dignity of the deceased. Images initially captured for local news and police records are now circulated on online fan forums as pieces of ‘lore’.
The desire to collect anecdotes of human suffering to feed the demand for shows, documentaries, podcasts and commentary videos means that there is decreasing regard for the real human lives behind these stories. As well as this, in the telling of kidnappings, rapes and murders, victims are often reduced to unfortunate characters who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or were stupid for not getting out of the path of their predator sooner.
Needless to say, the ethics of true crime production are also questionable in the fact that producers essentially profit from the tragedy of others. There has been question about the failure of these profits to be re-directed to causes that support victims and aim to reduce such crime taking place in the first place.
On a regular basis and through a never-ending stream of information, we are fed with information about horrific death, violence and crime across the world in the form of headlines and statistics, as we develop a growing detachment from victims. Many campaigns have had to resort to personalising stories with hashtags such as ‘#wearenotnumbers’ in times of tragedy, to remind the faraway consumer of the humanity behind the stories that flash across their screen. It is no surprise that the boom of true crime as a genre is able to take place in this era, where episodes are effectively just drawn-out versions of news segments.
I understand having a laugh at a foolish burglar or unsuccessful robbery, where no one is harmed and the intending criminal gets their comeuppance before being able to do any damage — these are funny and positive stories about when evil doesn’t prosper. With violent crime, on the other hand, I find it very strange that it has become mere entertainment with such a disconnection from the gravity and perverted nature of the behaviour. In a time when true crime content creators film mukbangs and makeup tutorials while detailing horrific occurrences, this nonchalant and trivialising approach to discussing gory death is rather dystopian and alarming.
It is also worth mentioning that some legal professionals are speaking out about the forensic baselessness of true crime based mostly on speculation, and how at times, true crime coverage can be detrimental to official factual coverage of crimes.
Islamically, I am not a scholar in a position to say that consuming true crime content is evil or forbidden. But I do reflect, using my own judgement, on the likelihood that it may be a corrupting force in society for the above-mentioned reasons.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf speaks about the detriment to the soul that comes from a society that has become accustomed and desensitised to violence.
From this, I gather that it affects our reverence for the sanctity of human life and the very dark and evil essence of crimes that violate this. Once we lose our standard of shock and horror, these things become normalised to the point where we don’t even blink upon hearing them.
Ustadh Tim Humble also mentions the lack of benefit to be found in horror films, as they grow fear in the heart for other than God.
Taking this line of thinking, it’s clear that true crime is yet another form of empty entertainment that increases our paranoia and primes us for an automatic sense of distrust for people we meet.
In conclusion, my guiding principle is as follows :
‘God does not like any evil to be mentioned openly, unless it be by him who has been wronged (thereby) And God is indeed All-hearing, All-knowing’ —
~ the Qur’an, Chapter 4, verse 148.
To me, this indicates space and permission for victims to mention their stories, warn others, grieve and receive justice by alerting relevant third parties. But it also creates a limit on people with no connection having the right to speak constantly about tragedy, discourages fear-mongering, disrespectful voyeurism, normalisation and the effect of making things seem more common than they are.
Pushing our true crime obsession to its logical conclusion, it is not hard to imagine that our curiosity may one day overpower our morality to the point where nothing is off limits and we push the limits further and further about what crimes can be turned into entertainment.
It is hard to ignore deeper factors that come with treating true crime as entertainment like any other. We must ask ourselves what there is to gain and what might be at risk with the rise of true crime. It may seem like yet another wave of moral policing against another trend in entertainment, but from what can be observed, we might want to consider how its effects may run deeper than we think.
Thank you very much for reading, I would love to hear your own opinions on true crime too! If this comes across as hardline, it is indeed me pushing my opinions to their furthest point for the sake of the article (though I do indeed believe them). I have done a lot of brain-picking of my true-crime-obsessed friends to better understand the appeal of the genre and their own feelings on their consumption of it, so this is not a condemnation of fans of the genre, but moreso a prompt to question moral reconciliation with our favourite forms of entertainment.
There is tons more I would have loved to include in this piece, so kindly refer back to the hyperlinks dotted throughout to look further into some of the topics mentioned, and also enjoy this social commentary YouTube playlist I made of some content I came across when researching to write this.
Thank you again for reading!