12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like there’s a new—and wildly successful—book, podcast, or show devoted to a crime. Investigation Discovery, a hit from when it debuted in 2008, continues to top the ratings (and even throws its own true crime convention, IDCon). From Serial and Dr. Death to In the Dark and Atlanta Monster, there’s no shortage of true crime podcasts. The genre is so huge that Netflix—whose offerings in this arena include The Keepers, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, and The Staircase—even created a parody true crime series (American Vandal). Which raises the question: Why are we so obsessed with true crime? Here’s what the experts have to say.

1. BECAUSE IT’S NORMAL (TO A POINT).

First things first: There’s nothing weird about being true crime obsessed. “It says that we're normal and we're healthy,” Dr. Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, told NPR in 2009. “I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.” Of course, there are limits: “If all you do is read about crime and ... all you do is talk about it and you have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I'd be concerned,” he said.

2. BECAUSE EVIL FASCINATES US.

The true crime genre gives people a glimpse into the minds of people who have committed what forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse”—murder. “In every case,” he writes, “there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.” This fascination with good versus evil, according to Mantell, has existed forever; Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told AHC Health News that our fascination begins when we're young. Even as kids, we're drawn to the tension between good and evil, and true crime embodies our fascination with that dynamic.

We want to figure out what drove these people to this extreme act, and what makes them tick, because we'd never actually commit murder. “We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves," Lost Girls author Caitlin Rother told Hopes & Fears, "but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take.”

3. BECAUSE OF THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE ...

Even if we’ve been fascinated by crime since the beginning of time, we likely have the media to thank for the uptick in the true crime fad. “Since the ‘50s, we have been bombarded … in the media with accounts of crime stories, and it probably came to real fruition in the ‘70s,” Mantell said. “Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime.” Later, he noted that “The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today [deals] with crime particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list.”

4. … AND BECAUSE WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY FROM A "TRAINWRECK."

“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters," Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, wrote at TIME. "The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”

In fact, the perpetrators of these crimes might serve an important societal role, as true crime writer Harold Schechter explained to Hopes & Fears. "That crime is inseparable from civilization—not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives—is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers," including Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, he said. "If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished—which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And that is precisely what true crime literature provides."

5. BECAUSE IT HELPS US FEEL PREPARED.

According to Megan Boorsma in Elon Law Review [PDF], studies of true crime have shown that people tend to focus on threats to their own wellbeing. Others have noted that women in particular seem to love true crime, and psychologists believe it’s because they’re getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

One study, published in 2010, found that women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker; that they were more likely to be interested in books that contained information about a killer’s motives than men were; and that they were more likely to select books that had female victims. “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men," the researchers concluded; "the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.” Amanda Vicary, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post that “by learning about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”

Watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes “could be like a dress rehearsal," Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told DECIDER.

According to crime novelist Megan Abbott, men are four times more likely than women to be victims of homicide—but women make up 70 percent of intimate partner homicide victims. “I’ve come to believe that what draws women to true crime tales is an instinctual understanding that this is the world they live in," Abbot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "And these books are where the concerns and challenges of their lives are taken deadly seriously.”

6. BECAUSE THERE MIGHT BE AN EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT.

Dr. Marissa Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, told Hopes & Fears that she believes people are interested in true crime because we've evolved to pay attention to things that could harm us so that we can better avoid them. “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli,” she said.

7. BECAUSE WE’RE GLAD WE’RE NOT THE VICTIM ...

Psychologists say one of the main reasons we’re obsessed with true crime is because it gives us an opportunity to feel relieved that we’re not the victim. Tamron Hall, host of ID's Deadline: Crime, identified that sense of reprieve at ID's IDCon last year. “I think all of you guys watch our shows and say, ‘But for the grace of God, this could happen to me' … This could happen to anyone we know,” she said.

Packer told DECIDER that a big factor in our true crime obsession is something sort of like schadenfreude—getting enjoyment from the trouble experienced by other people. “It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else,” she said. “There’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”

8. … OR THE PERPETRATOR.

On the other hand, watching true crime also provides an opportunity to feel empathy, Mantell said: “It allows us to feel our compassion, not only a compassion for the victim, but sometimes compassions for the perpetrator.”

"We all get angry at people, and many people say ‘I could kill them’ but almost no one does that, thankfully," Packer said. "But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ [There is] that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them; someone else did.”

9. BECAUSE IT GIVES US AN ADRENALINE RUSH ...

“People ... receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds,” Bonn writes. “If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

10. … AND BECAUSE WE’RE TRYING TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY.

Humans like puzzles, and true crime shows and podcasts get our brains going. “By following an investigation on TV,” Bonn writes, “people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”

“True crime invites obsession for three reasons," Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told Hopes & Fears. "People gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe; and most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve. This gives them a sense of closure. It is also a challenge that stimulates the brain.”

11. BECAUSE WE LIKE TO BE SCARED … IN A CONTROLLED WAY.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real,” Bonn writes. “For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.” Schechter told the BBC the same thing—that stories about serial killers are “fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”

Our interest in what motivates violent crimes boils down to being afraid, A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida told the Huffington Post; true crime allows viewers to “dive into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of the couch.”

12. BECAUSE THE STORYTELLING IS GOOD—AND COMFORTING.

Ask Investigation Discovery’s hosts why people love true crime, and most of them will mention one thing: storytelling. “For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, ‘Tell me a story,’” Lt. Joe Kenda, former detective and host of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss in 2017. “If you tell it well, they’ll ask you tell another one. If you can tell a story about real people involved in real things, that draws their interest more than something some Hollywood scriptwriter made up that always has the same components and the same ending.”

Tony Harris, host of Scene of the Crime and Hate in America, echoed Kenda’s sentiment about storytelling, noting that many true crime shows have a definitive ending: “In most of the shows, we button it up.”

Not only that, most true crime shows follow a similar format—which could also play into our obsession.

“In order to see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share,” Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Hopes & Fears. “In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works.”

And so, in a weird way, these true crime stories—as horrific as they are—end up being comforting. “While living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technological change,” Andrist said, “true crime comforts people by assuring them that their long-held ideas about how the world works are still useful.”

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

10 Shocking Facts About The Black Dahlia, Hollywood’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder

In TNT’s new mystery series I Am the Night, a teen (India Eisley) and a disgraced journalist (Chris Pine) get caught up in the case of the Black Dahlia—the most notorious unsolved murder in Hollywood history.

The case has been a matter of public fascination since 1947, when aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead and dismembered in southern Los Angeles. To this day, no one knows who killed the 22-year-old who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from speculating. Here are 10 things we know about the cold case, based on accounts from local newspapers, the FBI, and the son of a primary suspect.

1. A mother and her toddler found Elizabeth Short's body.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve).

2. There was no blood found at the scene.

The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short's mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body.

3. The FBI identified Short with fingerprints and a proto fax machine.

In order to identify the body, the Los Angeles Police Department pulled fingerprints off the corpse, which it then sent to the FBI through a device called a Soundphoto (a forerunner to the fax machine). About an hour later, the FBI got a hit and was able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints had been entered into the system twice before: once when she applied to work in the commissary of a U.S. Army base and once when she was arrested in Santa Barbara, California on September 23, 1943 for underage drinking.

4. The Black Dahlia nickname has murky origins.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department, accessed on the official website for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
City of Los Angeles Police Department // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her "Black Dahlia." But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.

5. Some linked the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders.

When Short’s death became national news, police officers in Cleveland felt an awful sense of déjà vu. Between 1934 and 1938, a serial killer had terrorized their city, claiming 12 victims—all of whom were grotesquely dismembered. Some theorized that the Ohio serial killer and Short's murderer could be the same person, especially since—like Short's killer—the perpetrator of what came to be known as the Cleveland Torso Murders was never caught.

6. It was also connected to a “Lipstick Murder.”

One month after Short's murder, another woman's body was discovered in Los Angeles—and the circumstances mimicked the Black Dahlia's case in a few ways. It all began with a stranger (in this case, a construction worker) stumbling upon the naked body of a dead woman in the grass. Jeanne French had dark hair like Short’s, and her face was also badly beaten. But this time, there was an unusual message scrawled on her stomach in bright red lipstick: “F**k You B.D.” Just below that were the letters “TEX.” People were quick to link the "B.D." in the gruesome murder to the Black Dahlia, but the police were wary of officially connecting the two. Like Short, French’s murder was never solved.

7. Many people confessed to the crime.

The LAPD had to rule out many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, including several people who turned themselves in. Though some sources quote a lower number, the Los Angeles Times puts the tally of false confessions in Short's case at more than 500. The phony claims came from housewives, clergymen, soldiers, drunk ramblers, and, much later, pranksters who weren’t even alive when Short's life was brutally taken.

8. No charges were ever filed.

Copy of Elizabeth Short's death certificate, Los Angeles County
FBI, Los Angeles County // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The FBI files on the Black Dahlia case indicate that many men were held for questioning—and some even took polygraph tests—but ultimately, no one was ever charged with Short’s murder. Still, a few names stand out ...

9. George Hodel is one of the most notorious suspects.

One of those names is George Hodel, a physician who ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles in the 1940s. According to The Guardian, Hodel was on a list of six primary suspects in the Black Dahlia case, and the LAPD even bugged his home during the investigation. But Hodel—who died in 1999—gained more recent notoriety when his son, Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short in the 2003 bestselling book Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

Steve claims his father’s handwriting matches strange letters the police received, supposedly from the killer. He also uncovered photos of a woman who resembles Short in his father’s personal photo album, and believes Hodel’s medical background would explain the precise, clinical cuts on the body. But some have discounted Steve’s claims since he started linking his father to other infamous unsolved murders, including the Zodiac killings.

I Am the Night, the new TNT miniseries, centers around Hodel as a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

10. Others think it was a bellhop.

Another name that's popular among Black Dahlia theorists is Leslie Dillon. He appears in the FBI case files, but gained renewed attention in 2017 when author Piu Eatwell argued his guilt in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Dillon was a bellhop, writer, and mortician’s assistant who seemed to know a surprising amount of details about Short’s murder when the LAPD hauled him in for questioning. He was eventually let go—thanks to a dirty cop, according to Eatwell—but some of the detectives investigating the case never forgot him.

In 2018, Buz Williams—a retired officer with California's Long Beach Police Department and the son of Richard F. Williams, part of the LAPD’s Gangster Squad—told Rolling Stone that “My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer," and that other cops suspected that Dillon was, at the very least, an accomplice.

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