Analyzing Our Fascination With True Life Crime

Jan 20, 2016

Long before the debut of Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer, cable television networks have been devoting programming to true crime investigation shows featuring tales of hometown homicides and vicious serial killers.

But why are we so fascinated with murder and violent crime? 

David Schmid, professor of English at SUNY Buffalo and author of Violence in American Popular Culture says the public’s interest in true crimes, particularly homicides, stems from a need to cope with fear.

“True crime narratives give the American public one way of engaging their fear about crime in a fairly manageable and predictable sense,” Schmid says.

David Harris, distinguished faculty scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law adds that while true crime shows expose flaws in our criminal justice system, viewers gain interest simply because these crimes are good stories.

“These [real crime shows like Making a Murderer] bring it right up close to you so you can see these flaws, and they become very hard to ignore in the context of a real story in a real case,” Harris explains.

Paula Reed Ward, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and author of Death By Cyanide, notes crime television shows are an inaccurate depiction of the way crimes are solved, arguing that real cases do not end triumphantly within an hour’s time like many television shows suggest.

“When you hear a compelling story, and you hear all sides of it, that gives people more than just everything wrapped up in a pretty little package,” Ward says.

Schmid adds that a major reason why true crime shows are so popular is because of a level of relatability, and a feeling that violent crimes can happen anywhere and to anyone.

Ward saw this relatability aspect first hand when she covered last year's ‘Mediagenic’ criminal trial of Robert Ferrante, the former UPMC researcher who was convicted of murdering his wife with cyanide.  As an affluent, educated, white couple with a happily depicted marriage, Wards says the story broke headlines because of its abnormal, yet relatable nature.

“Who would think that these people who had such a seemingly great life would fall to this human condition?” Ward asks.

Harris says while the judicial process will never be perfect, utilizing what we have learned through scientific and technological advancements will improve the future of crime solving.

“If we would pay attention to what we actually already know, where there’s strong, scientific consensus, instead of denying it and saying ‘our system is just fine, look at how great it is,’ we could improve things a lot,” Harris says.

Schmid’s hope for the future of crime stems from his appreciation for the new true crime trend of transparency, which he believes will lead to greater accountability.

“True crime needs to continue to push the envelope.  It needs to continue to be willing to explore the kinds of crimes, the kinds of situations that perhaps traditionally, it has not done, so that we can have sustained attention paid to a much wider variety of crimes than true crime has traditionally focused on in the past.”

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