Over the last few years, true crime podcasts and TV shows have gained a huge following thanks to documentaries like Netflix’s Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx. Week after week, millions of people across the world tune into unique stories of heinous crimes, awaiting more details to be revealed about the cases. Like scripted dramas, audiences are teased with cliffhangers and plot twists as investigations progress. As a private investigator, I get regularly asked about various true crime series; people wonder why these stories have exploded in popularity.
Naturally, murder cases are often the subject of true crime programming. And it seems that producers regularly choose the kind of murders that are gruesome and inexplicable. Look no further than Netflix’s Amanda Knox and the In the Dark podcasts to see this. But despite the eeriness of the genre, why are people still hooked?
One of the main reasons is that, until recently, there were no substantive means for people to discuss and exchange ideas about crime cases until these programs came along. Now, an average person’s curiosity on a murder case can be explored without typically negative stigma when projected in the context of these shows. Indulging in shows like Serial, Sword and Scale, and Making a Murderer is like going beyond police lines, and then discussing the gory details in open, publicly accepted forums. It’s as if the public has been granted access to information that was only available to law enforcement officers. People often tell me that it feels “wrong” and “unnatural” when listening to Sword and Scale, but they enjoy discussing and examining the details and intricacies of each story week after week nevertheless.
Aside from curiosity, another factor is our natural desire for certainty. Those (like me) who watch these shows cannot just stop halfway through an episode. Even if the case isn’t completely solved after one or two episodes, or after an entire season, listeners and viewers must at least be given what they want by confirming what they think they know about the case. Mystery makes for a good story, but a continuous case moving forward makes it even more thrilling and addicting. The podcast Undisclosed is a perfect example of this; this case is still very much unresolved as Adnan Syed’s story continues unraveling--in real time--in Maryland’s judicial system.
True crime shows also reflect viewers’ continuous craving for justice within America’s criminal justice system. People who are hooked on true crime programming follow the cases with the innate desire to see the cases solved to see the accused, wrongly convicted, or wrongfully exonerated, experience the justice they deserve. They also strive to see that all of the victims involved, family members, and loved ones receive the justice they deserve. For example, Adnan Syed supporters badly wish to see him exonerated and released for a crime they believe he was wrongly convicted of almost 20 years ago. But the same supporters wish to see justice for Hae Min Lee’s family as well.
As the media provides a platform for the public to share their insights on true crime stories, it is also a way for them to be aware of what is happening in society. These shows add a layer of complexity and discomfort that allow audiences to value their security while being vigilant about their surroundings. These shows, from a deeper level, aren’t just a way to pass the time, but a way to discover a crucial part in culture. And these shows are here to stay for a very long time, as they have become a part of American culture.