Ever since we all binge-watched Netflix’s Making a Murderer over the holidays (if you didn’t, what are you waiting for?), it’s been a hot topic of conversation everywhere from Facebook newsfeeds to the bar on New Year’s Eve.
If you remember back to last October, the same type of craze surrounded season one of Serial, a podcast produced by NPR and journalist Sarah Koenig that investigated the case around Adnan Syed’s conviction for allegedly murdering his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Like Making a Murderer, listeners were left debating whether he did or didn’t do it.
Whether or not we realize it, our obsession with true crime shows may actually come from a place of self-preservation, explains Amanda Vicary, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the psychology department at Illinois Wesleyan University who has researched why women, in particular, are drawn to true crime.
“Many popular crime shows and books focus on things that one would think people would find disgusting — dead bodies, blood, etc., yet these shows are consistently at the top of the ratings,” Dr. Vicary explains. “My research suggests there may be something deeper going on — that on an unconscious level, perhaps we are interested in these shows because they can teach us how to survive.”
Vicary’s 2010 study revealed that women are into the topic of crime and enjoy reading about it more than men, “especially if there is information on the reasons behind the murder or how to escape if captured,” she adds. “By learning about how people commit murder and why people can basically learn how to prevent being a victim themselves.” It’s unlikely anyone consciously thinks about this while deep in that Netflix black hole, but maybe you’ve changed your behaviors in the smallest ways after learning so much about the criminal justice system or the motivations (alleged or proven) behind brutal murders.
Evolutionary psychologist Marissa Harrison, Ph.D., agrees. “My interpretation is that we have evolved needing to pay attention to harmful stimuli, so we can avoid that which can harm or kill us” The horror-based intrigue we feel may be thanks to a genetic predisposition to pay attention to things that are alarming and proceed with caution to enhance our own chance of survival.
As for the whole “whodunnit” aspect, Vicary says her research hasn’t looked specifically into that (and studies on this factor are pretty dismal). But her guess about why we can’t stop obsessing for days after the finale is because we want to feel like we’re part of the story.
“People like feeling a part of pop culture — everyone is sort of solving the crime together.”
That, combined with the fact that there’s really no final resolution, keeps us hyper-focused on figuring out the truth. “Our brains like to make sense of stories. Putting a period on the story makes us feel better,” Dr. Harrison explains.
Of course, the addiction factor is probably upped by the one thing we ask ourselves every hour-long episode: “What if that were me?” Once you realize you could easily fit into one of the characters’ shoes, and the criminal justice system could one day fail you, you’ve got a stronger, more personal motive to seek justice.