fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

Our totally healthy true crime obsession

Don’t feel guilty about indulging in a genre that’s been around as long as storytelling itself.

Adobe

Maria Marten was in love with William Corder, although by all accounts, he didn’t deserve her. Corder, the 22-year-old son of a relatively well-off farmer in Polstead, England, was the kind of guy who passed forged checks, stole his girlfriend’s child support money, and earned himself the nickname “Foxey” for his propensity to steal and lie. Marten, meanwhile, was the pretty 25-year-old daughter of the local mole catcher and a single mother of one. But Marten wanted to marry him, and although he’d pressured her to keep their relationship secret, he eventually agreed to elope.

On May 18, 1827, Corder told Marten to meet him at the Red Barn, a building on his property known for its red-tiled roof. That afternoon, Marten, dressed in men’s clothing, left her family home and child and headed for the barn. It was the last time she was seen alive.

Advertisement



Corder claimed that they’d gotten married and moved to another town, but after not hearing from Marten for nearly a year, her family became suspicious. On April 19, 1828, Marten’s father went to the Red Barn — and found her decomposing body in a sack of grain, with Corder’s green handkerchief still knotted around her neck.

Maria Marten was hardly the first woman to be murdered by her partner. But we know her story even today because media at the time made sure no one forgot it. Within weeks of the discovery of Marten’s body and Corder’s arrest, publishers were already peddling true crime accounts under titles like “The Red Barn: A Tale Founded on Facts.” As Corder awaited trial, “The Murder in the Red Barn” played on stages across England, country fairs featured Punch and Judy-style puppet shows about the crime, and canny potters even sold porcelain figurines of Marten, Corder, and the barn.

Advertisement



While the cottage industry that grew out of the murder in the Red Barn was unique, there was nothing new about how the crime was dissected and packaged for the ravenous public, even in the early 19th century. That’s because there is nothing new about true crime, a genre that seemingly effortlessly negotiates shifts in medium. Before the advent of mass media, itinerant ballad singers carried the stories of terrible deeds done by terrible people from town to town. Among the first items that rolled off the first printing presses at the beginning of the 16th century were pamphlets detailing the crimes of highwaymen, murderers, and, always a fan favorite, witches. Every new medium since — from broadsheets sold on street corners and late-19th-century magazines like The Illustrated Police News, to 20th-century newsreels and detective comic books, to radio shows and TV docuseries — has been enlisted to tell the tales of real crimes committed by and against real people. The last few years have seen a boom in podcasts and, in particular, true crime podcasts — 18 percent of American podcast listeners rate true crime as their favorite genre. But really, as long as there has been crime, there’s been true crime.

We’ve also always had an uneasy relationship to true crime and what it represents. Modern headlines ask “Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem?” and declare “Your true crime obsession could be hurting your mental health.” The authors of these stories worry that true crime podcasts are exploitative and ask us to consider the “human cost of binge-watching true crime series.”

Advertisement



These were the same kinds of worries expressed by observers when Maria Marten’s story was popular. Shortly after Corder’s guilty verdict, The Atlas, a weekly London-based newspaper, sarcastically noted that “murder is no longer a coarse, butcher-like proceeding; it assumes the air of romantic interest — it becomes inspired with horrors of a higher grade.” Others worried that looking upon such foul deeds might somehow leave the spectator sullied. In 1842, Punch magazine asked, “Is there no crime in systematically killing the finest sensibilities of our natures by daily and hourly familiarizing them with the atrocities of monsters?”

But worrying whether true crime is bad for us seems beside the point, because the genre’s longevity is evidence that it clearly gives us something we need. The question is, what?

Joshua Jackson as Dr. Christopher Duntsch in "Dr. Death," a TV show based on a true crime podcast.Peacock/Barbara Nitke/Peacock

Things could always be worse

There is nothing “unnatural” or strange about being fascinated by dark material. We are primed to pay more attention to negative events and outcomes than to positive ones, for reasons both psychological and biological. We humans learn very early on that when something hurts us or causes pain, we should pay attention to it. As we get older, our big brains can turn those instances of pain (the hot stove) into abstract concepts (other things that might be hot) and we pay attention to things that could hurt us (campfires, curling irons, coffee). Once we’ve mastered hot things, there is a whole universe of other potential dangers just waiting to be discovered and avoided, so we tend to look to negative events and stories in the hopes of gaining more information about those things. This “negativity bias” informs how we make decisions about what not to do — walk alone down a dark alley, for example — and what we watch on Netflix.

Advertisement



“When people just told stories around a campfire, they were true crime stories,” says Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of “Scream,” a book that explores why it’s fun to be scared. (Disclosure: Kerr and I co-authored “Ouch: Why Pain Hurts and Why It Doesn’t Have To.”) “They were stories of people getting eaten or killed or poisoned, of really bad stuff that happened.”

Just as sitting around the campfire and telling stories about hungry crocodiles helped our ancestors avoid hungry crocodiles, modern true crime teaches us ways of avoiding being eaten by or becoming metaphorical crocodiles. True crime can identify dangerous behavior (like if your partner threatens you and says that if you give him all your money, he can make you and your dog immortal, run) and the broken structures that have enabled it (how many of Dr. Christopher Duntsch’s patients were left severely maimed before the spinal surgeon who came to be known as “Dr. Death” was shut down?).

Julia Shaw, a London-based psychologist, author of the best-selling “Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side,” and cohost of BBC’s “Bad People,” a true crime podcast that examines the stories of people we call monsters, points out that the genre isn’t necessarily all good. For example, true crime that digs into the “stranger danger” narrative may give the false impression that we’re more likely to be hurt by someone we don’t know. Reinforcing cultural boundaries and expectations can also be harmful if those expectations are along the lines of “she shouldn’t have gone to the bar in the first place.” But true crime accounts have gotten more sophisticated in their storytelling and investigative ethics. They tend to avoid the victim-blaming narratives of previous generations and spend less time psychoanalyzing from afar.

Advertisement



Eric Bana as John Meehan and Connie Britton as Debra Newell in a scene from "Dirty John," a TV series derived from a true crime podcast.Jordin Althaus

“It’s moving away from tangential people telling stories, a narrator and reconstructions and actors, to interviews with people who had some kind of firsthand contact — that’s building a case on the evidence, rather than someone thinking up the story based on fragments,” Shaw says. The overall effect could be a more educated viewership. True crime today, just as it did during the heyday of the Illustrated Police News, offers average people a glimpse into the work that goes into criminal detection, informing our expectations of police and investigative activities.

In some cases, true crime investigations have even done the work of detection — exonerated the wrongly convicted, tracked down perpetrators, identified murder victims left nameless for decades. An expose in Golf Digest in 2012 and a subsequent documentary led to the release of Valentino Dixon, a man imprisoned for 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Interest in the 1982 disappearance of an Australian woman was reignited in 2018 after the hugely popular “Teacher’s Pet” podcast cast doubt on her husband, Chris Dawson, leading to his eventual arrest; he is currently on trial for her murder in Sydney. James Ford Seale, the Ku Klux Klansman who in 1964 tortured and killed two Black teenagers, Charles E. Moore and Henry H. Dee, was assumed dead until a documentary film crew found him alive in 2004, leading to his 2007 arrest and conviction.

Even when true crime media doesn’t crack cold cases, it may offer you a sense of justice being done and of bearing witness to it (the resolution of the podcast “Dirty John” is particularly satisfying, though horrifying). And though exploitation is a legitimate concern about the true crime trade, the fact is that this is sometimes how victims are given the justice of not being forgotten. We wouldn’t know Maria Marten’s name otherwise.

True crime can also give us something that we humans sometimes lack: the perspective that, as Shaw says, “your life might be bad, but it could be so much worse.” Evidence suggests that this kind of “downward comparison” can be a useful coping mechanism for people who are recovering from trauma and can also promote pro-social behavior in people who aren’t. “It’s impossible to see the good without also seeing the bad,” Shaw says. “We’re a species that loves contrast.”

Alaina Urquhart and Ashleigh "Ash" Kelley, the hosts of "Morbid," a true crime and horror podcast.Handout

‘An irresistible and natural curiosity’

It’s long been observed that women are the primary consumers of true crime. Although firm stats are hard to find, women apparently make up as much as 73 percent of the audience for true crime podcasts and write 70 percent of the reviews of true crime books on Amazon. Many true crime podcasts are hosted by women. One reason that women are particularly drawn to true crime may be that diving into these stories, many of which depict women as victims, may be a form of mental rehearsal, of preparing for the worst thing that could happen, visualizing survival and coping. Though women may suffer violent crime at roughly the same rate as men or even a lower one, women may feel more powerless in the face of that potential. But I suspect voyeurism — the excitement in viewing things we’re not supposed to see — also plays a big role. True crime gives us proximity to very bad people without having to actually know them or be bad ourselves.

Perhaps ironically, given the subject matter, much of what true crime media really gives us is a sense of control, a way of preserving the impression of personal agency, however illusory, in the face of uncertainty. We know from decades of research that retaining a sense of control over stressful experiences can make them feel less upsetting. The very structure of true crime helps us come to grips with things that seem incomprehensible: It imposes a narrative on inherently chaotic, unpredictable events.

Of course, not all true crime media is created — or consumed — equally responsibly. Too much “doomscrolling,” the act of relentlessly scrolling news and social media feeds that display negative material, is linked with increased anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. And there is such a thing as “self-triggering.” According to a 2020 Harvard study, some people who have suffered trauma are compelled to seek out reminders of their traumatic experiences, which may impact their ability to heal from that trauma.

But true crime, whether it’s analyzed weekly in “My Favorite Murder” or “Crime Junkies,” dramatized in highbrow fare like “Landscapers” or in the “based on a true story” movies Lifetime churns out every month, or spun in long form like “Serial,” persists because it does give us something we need.

Even the Victorians recognized that. In 1881, London’s Daily Telegraph opined: “This appetite of the mind for the particulars of great crimes and criminals has been stigmatized as vulgar. It is only vulgar insofar as it is universal, the common attribute of every people, age, and clime. . . . [W]hen a human being does a wrong altogether out of the common, his fellow creatures are impelled by an irresistible and natural curiosity to study his diseased nature and to trace his misguided motives to their source. . . . The curiosity and interest excited on behalf of such a psychological study need not necessarily be morbid. The feeling is eminently natural and profoundly human.”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American writer living in London.