True crime bloodline: investigating our murder story obsession

From the investigative journalism of "Murdered and Missing," to the lurid horror of "Dirty John," to the eccentric storytelling of "My Favourite Murder," we're a culture hungrily consuming tales of murder and the criminal mind. It's a darkly popular form of entertainment in this era of podcasts and streaming docu-series — particularly for women. Yet True Crime narratives have been hugely popular for more than 400 years.

Curiosity about murder satisfies human nature and a kind of self-defense strategy, says culture critic

Podcasts and docu-series are breathing new life into the murder-heavy True Crime genre. (Cory Correia/CBC)

**This episode originally aired April 23, 2019.

"Our episodes deal with serious and often distressing incidents. If at any time you feel you need support, contact your local crisis centre." 

That's the warning preceding a popular podcast called Casefile, consisting of an anonymous Australian man reading a long and often graphic narrative of a crime — just one of the hundreds of fact-based crime and murder podcasts and docuseries popping up in this time of streamed entertainment. 

Though True Crime books and TV shows have been popular for decades, the last five years or so have seen us bingeing our way hungrily through our own worst nightmares.

Climate disaster, war and terrorism, political conflict: given the anxiety-inducing state of the world, why are we so drawn to individual stories of trauma? 

It turns out that our curiosity about crime and the criminal is nothing new, says University of Essex sociologist Eamonn Carrabine. From biblical Adam and Eve to the Prometheus myth to the 19th century's Jack the Ripper, narratives of good and evil have always fascinated us, as have the criminal's mind and actions. 

In British stories of crime and punishment from centuries ago, Carrabine notes a desire to "educate, to provide religious instruction, but running alongside that… the fascination with the outcast, and how they're upsetting conventional social boundaries." 

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright Truman Capote (1924 - 1984) (left), dressed in an overcoat, glasses, and hat, stands on a lawn near American actors Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (right), both dressed in character, while on location filming the film adaptation of Capote's book 'In Cold Blood,' Kansas, 1967. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Today's equivalent could be the numerous Netflix documentaries intent on solving cold cases, exposing wrongful convictions — or non-convictions — or exploring the psychological profiles of serial killers. True Crime stories still combine the grisly details with an instructive mission.

Culture critic Soraya Roberts calls this phenomenon the "trash balance" of True Crime, which can tip over into the sensational and exploitative. But Roberts argues that our curiosity about murder and harm is both satisfying human nature and a kind of self-defense strategy. It  can sometimes result in greater social understanding, or even results-oriented activism for victims.

The True Crime genre has also often collapsed fact into fiction. Truman Capote's 1966 "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood, is credited with setting the template for modern True Crime stories. It details the random, brutal murders of an entire Kansas farming family by two young drifters in 1959. By focusing on the horrifying details of a home invasion, and in realizing both the victims and killers as characters, Capote creates an arresting, if speculative, tale.

The difference between popular representations of crime, and actual crime, is a focus of Elizabeth Yardley, Director of Birmingham City University's Centre for Applied Criminology. 

Many True Crime stories don't reflect the statistical reality of homicide. In seeking to appeal to a largely female audience, True Crime's victims are often women. To maximize commercial appeal, those victims are often murdered by strangers. There is a narrative need to make the victims uncomplicated and mainstream, and the perpetrators complicated and unusual.

Still, there are signs that things are changing, with more sensitive podcasts about the context and experience of crime, like CBC's Murdered and Missing, or which feature victim-centred stories that critically examine events in the context of flawed institutions.

Investigative podcasts such as Missing and Murdered look at the wider social context of crime.

None of this entirely explains why today's audiences have a constant appetite for the genre. Why do we seem so emotionally drawn to True Crime? Writer Ann Rae Jonas has an authority on the subject that few possess: she lost a sister to homicide. She wonders if the extreme nature of many True Crime stories actually makes people "feel more detached even as they think they're engaged."

Criminologist Elizabeth Yardley speculates that if we're living in a "wound culture" in the West, where our economic and political choices give us alienated lives that are "incredibly individualistic… incredibly privatized," yet where we come together around a common spectacle: other people's harm and trauma.

Guests in this episode:

  • Eamonn Carrabine is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, Colchester.
  • Ann Rae Jonas is a writer and editor in New York.
  • Soraya Roberts is a culture writer and critic in Toronto.
  • Elizabeth Yardley is a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology. 

Further reading & related websites:

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.