Fight or Flight: The Truth About Our Fascination with True Crime

It’s no secret that America has an obsession with true crime media. Everywhere you turn, it seems that major streaming services are coming out with a new series about serial killers or unsolved mysteries. This phenomenon is not limited to television and movies. Everyday it seems that there are new shows and documentaries being added to big-name streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

When caught in a binge-watching session of these shows, it can be easy to forget that the content involves real people. By viewing an episode of Cold Case Files or 48 Hours, you’re listening to the true story of a real person that lost their life in a tragic and often gruesome circumstance. As morbid as it may seem, you’re not alone in becoming completely consumed by these stories. In an effort to understand the reason people enjoy these shows so much and the impact it has on society, it is important to look at the components that make up this type of media.

 Associate Professor of Psychology Nicholas S. Holtzman, Ph.D., said in an email that true crime shows and movies are a form of emotional media. While it may not be obvious at first, there could be some benefit to watching these shows and listening to their stories.

He also said that he believes the shock value of these stories is what often captures the attention of the audience.

“I think it could be beneficial in terms of helping people understand the strategies criminals use, which allows would-be victims to develop defenses against those strategies,” said Holtzman.

While consuming this type of media, you may also experience fear or anxiety. When watching these shows your body may also experience a fight or flight reaction, a phenomenon that begins in the brain, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Jonathan Grubb, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said that true crime has been a more emergent form of media recently. A prime example of this is the show “Live PD.”

“I think that it is informing different perceptions and attitudes about law enforcement and about the criminal justice system,” Grubb said.

He said that, to his knowledge, the research on true crime is not as expansive right now as research on CSI and the CSI Effect has been in the past. The show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of the most well-known examples of this kind of media. Other examples would be shows like Law & Order or Criminal Minds. Unlike true crime media, these shows take a fictionalized approach to the criminal justice system.

The CSI Effect is the belief that fictionalized shows have changed the way that people understand evidence collection and what actually makes it into a courtroom in real criminal cases. 

Grubb said the difference is that true crime media documents crimes that have actually happened in society. He said that both true crime documentaries and CSI shows have accuracies and inaccuracies.

He also said that shows sometimes get small procedural elements right but often issues like how cases go to trial and what proportion of cases go to trial can be inaccurately portrayed.

Grubb said that from viewing true crime and CSI media, people often perceive that crime is very high and that violent crimes and homicides all the time.

“What data shows is, since the early nineties, violent crime has been going down and property crimes have been going down,” Grubb said. “People are much more scared of being victims of homicide or aggravated assault than they are of theft, larceny, burglary, but those are substantially more likely to happen to you than being a victim of a violent crime.”

True Crime shows and podcasts have taken the world (and streaming services) by storm, especially recently. Next time you sit down to binge watch your favorite shows, keep in mind that things are not always as they appear on screen. 

You can check out more facts about crime in the United States here.