I would like to consider myself to be a good person.
And, I’m assuming, most folks reading this article would like to consider themselves to be good people.
It wouldn’t be remiss to say that both these statements are true.
But literally right before I wrote this article, I was listening to a true crime podcast talking about the gory and gritty details of some of the most heinous serial killers who ever lived: Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. They talked about incredibly sensitive content that, had I personally witnessed it, I would need years of therapy and support to begin to process and cope. At the same time, I renounce the acts and deeds of these people and yet click on the next episode to learn more.
I certainly am not alone when it comes to true crime fandom – millions of people love learning about killers, tragedies, natural disasters, cults and creepy phenomena. If you scroll on Netflix’s documentaries page, most of the content will be interesting and informative, but likely about a negative subject. Sure, Netflix and other streaming services have positive and feel-good series and documentaries, but the shocking will always get more clicks than the serene. Perhaps people (ironically or not) identify with characters who have done terrible things, such as Walter White or gangsters.
“If it bleeds, it leads.” This quote was spoken in the movie Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The main message of this movie was that news and media companies will always try to grab the attention of viewers by finding and portraying the most shocking story out there.
But why are we drawn to such horrendous stories, whether fact or fiction?
I’m sure there’s legitimate science and psychology behind the reasoning. But from an entertainment standpoint, I believe that it’s because we want to hear and see things that are out of the ordinary. We do not encounter gangsters and serial killers in our everyday lives in the same way we don’t encounter Mickey Mouse day-to-day. Either way, these real or fictional characters give us their stories, even if those stories are absolutely horrendous and terrifying.
When these stories are frightening and horrifying, most of us are still able to separate ourselves from it because we have the perspective of time. When we hear about infamous serial killers, most of them existed years ago and they ended up getting caught. Their story is concluded and we feel safe knowing that the killer is no longer on the streets. If we look at historical atrocities, they also (most of the time) reach some kind of end and we can breathe a sigh of relief. Or if we watch violent movies, we know what we’re watching is fake death and violence – no one is actually dying. Because we are not witnessing real death or real pain, we can separate ourselves from it. And even when we do see footage from historical events or hear recordings that shock us to our core, we can in some way separate ourselves from it because we’re watching/listening/reading about it, not actually experiencing it.
For me, I find it fascinating how humans always are looking for a story that pulls us in, whether it be feel-good, funny or terrifying. And media companies know that we want more of it. Because at the end of the day, these stories, fiction or nonfiction, take us away from the average into something extraordinary – even if that extraordinary thing morally appalls us.