Is True Crime Good for You?
I never gave much thought to true crime until I began working on my new true crime anthology series. Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d been a consumer of true crime since my teens, though at the time I wasn’t conscious of the fact that all those news magazine shows and documentaries on TV were, in fact, “true crime.” I watched them because I found them fascinating and informative. I got caught up in the mechanics of the crimes and the crime-solving process, the how and why of it all. Plus the narratives were compelling—which is likely why so many people find themselves attracted to them. These days true crime seems to be everywhere we turn, from books, television and film, to blogs and podcasts.
Have we become obsessed with true crime?
That depends on who you ask. There are many reasons for why people are interested in true crime. It appeals to our innate sense of curiosity, our desire to know what makes others tick, even if that ticking is something shocking, aberrant and abhorrent to us. True crime allows us to see humanity in all its various incarnations and, in some cases, how that humanity has been lost, possibly forever. Yet there’s also a sense of satisfaction when these narratives reach their rightful conclusions. The criminal is caught, prosecuted and punished. Another dangerous individual is taken off the street, making us sleep a little more soundly in our beds at night. Sure, we wish it could’ve happened a lot sooner and with far less pain and bloodshed, but real life isn’t a fairy tale. This is probably as close as we’ll get to a true crime “happily ever after.”
Women are some of the biggest fans of true crime, which is interesting when you consider that most crimes, especially violent ones, happen to women. Aside from what I’ve already mentioned, there is another factor at work when it comes to women and true crime. Many experts suggest that women use it as a way to educate themselves. By seeing what has happened to other women, they become more aware of the kinds of things to watch out for, potentially reducing the risk of ending up a victim themselves.
Some true crime devotees take their interest in the subject a step farther by acting as lay detectives, becoming involved in the cases themselves. When you consider the number of crimes that go unsolved each year, having extra sets of eyes combing through the data can aid law enforcement and, in some cases, has. These extra sets of eyes have even found malfeasances in the criminal justice system that have led to individuals being wrongly convicted. True crime enthusiasts have helped to find criminals who have stayed under the radar of law enforcement. They have kept cold cases and missing persons cases in the public eye when overburdened law enforcement services have already moved on to the next case, and the next. If this is an “obsession,” it’s certainly a public-spirited one.
Is our interest in true crime unhealthy?
Maybe the answer lies in what kind of true crime you’re consuming. Does it glamorize criminals, particularly the most heinous of them all—serial killers? Does it sensationalize the crimes and dehumanize the victims? If so, then perhaps there is cause to worry. Yes, true crime takes us into the darkness, though it also gives us some understanding of how this darkness came about. But if consumers of true crime are using it purely for titillation without being able to see the bigger picture, than a line has been crossed that probably shouldn’t be crossed.
Is there a prurience to our consumption of true crime? Perhaps to some level. Though consider this: many countries allow public access to court proceedings. When I was in journalism school in Los Angeles, my assignments included sitting in on court cases, then writing about them afterward. I was there in a “professional” capacity, though many are not. Every Tom, Dick and Edna can waltz into a courtroom, make themselves at home, and listen to the most private and painful details of a person’s life. The law allows them to do so. Of course, writing about it is another matter.
Which brings me to the burden of responsibility a true crime writer must carry. True crime writers are, in effect, acting as journalists. We do our jobs in much the same way and gather our information in much the same way. It goes without saying that there must be accuracy to details. But there must also be sensitivity to and consideration of those who appear in our stories, particularly the victims. These are real people we’re talking about, not cardboard cutouts. Good true crime isn’t merely a stark black and white portrait, but a whole palette of colors used to paint a fuller image. Producers of quality true crime are well aware of the burden they carry to not only tell the story, but to tell it without causing more harm to those who have already been harmed. Are there sensationalist true crime writers out there? Sure. But at least we have the option to pick and choose who and what we read.
True crime has come a long way since the lurid sensationalist books of the past. Although these books are still being produced, true crime fans have become more sophisticated. They don’t just want the grisly details, they want analysis and insight. Good true crime should make you think. It should enlighten you and even educate you. Anything that can do that is surely worthy of our time.
Mitzi Szereto (mitziszereto.com) is an author and anthology editor of multi-genre fiction and non-fiction books, including her new release The Best New True Crime Stories: Serial Killers, Florida Gothic, Ladies of Gothic Horror (A Collection of Classic Stories), Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts, and Getting Even: Revenge Stories. She’s appeared at international literature festivals and taught creative writing around the world. She has the added distinction of having the first anthology of erotica to include a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She’s the creator and presenter of the London-based web TV channel Mitzi TV, and also plays herself in the pseudo-documentary British film Lint: The Movie. Her blog of personal essays can be found at Errant Ramblings: Mitzi Szereto’s Weblog. Her next book, The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns, will be published in summer 2020. Follow her on Twitter @MitziSzereto.