The World Is Addicted to Crime: Here’s Why
Photo via Britannica
The Netflix show Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has given rise to controversy for good reasons. The series depicts the atrocious murders of Jeffrey Dahmer, glorifying them while constantly batting its eyes at the trauma of victims. True crime shows like this one are meant to, according to directors, “honour” the lives of victims. In reality, they exploit and objectify victims for entertainment, which begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with crime?
True crime has become a profitable industry that, unfortunately, responds to demand. Although the industry should be held accountable by following stricter rules, true crime feeds a deep human need. Some might ask: What pushes someone to commit gruesome crimes? Perhaps, a window inside the mind of a criminal is exciting or enlightening. A closer look into the gothic genre may help further understand our relationship to true crime.
Gothic fiction might remind most of the famous novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Her work is one among many others of its kind. Gothic fiction can be traced back to the 18th century. According to Fred Botting, the genre rose to popularity as a response to “massive threats,” such as the French Revolution. The genre ponders uncertainties of the 18th century while pushing back against “reason and rationality.” Gothic fiction shares values with romanticism by looking at the past and the devastating downsides of technology. However, gothic fiction, as mentioned by Botting, challenges the status quo by blurring the boundaries between “real and fantastic, sacred and profane, supernatural and natural, past and present, civilized and barbaric, rational and fanciful.”
Two major concepts are found in gothic fiction. The first, the uncanny, “disturbs the familiar.” It is the unsettling feeling that something unknown is lurking around. In the case of horror movies, the uncanny creates a pleasurable yet terrifying experience. Effects such as “doubles and alter-egos” leave the viewers wondering whether they are experiencing the threat of a supernatural force or the projection of a character's psyche. We yank ourselves back from the TV screen at the mere sounds of what is bound to happen to a character. We anticipate the unsettling feeling creeping upon our skins. This uncanny feeling leaves us disorientated, with our eyes bulging from witnessing inexplicable forces. When the uncanny is so close to home, like what viewers see in true crime tv shows, it is even more terrifying.
By contrast, the second concept, the sublime, makes us gasp in awe at the “grandeur and higher forces seeming to control us.” Have you ever looked up at the sky and felt like your life has no meaning among the many stars and galaxies? The sublime is a “timeless” experience. Often, the landscape is used to portray the sublime, “grandiose buildings and mountainous landscapes.” The sublime is beyond human reach. Our eyes cannot fathom the beauty and immensity of it all. But sometimes, we can almost reach whatever is out there. It feels tangible and also fragile: subject to disappear like dust. The sublime can be frightening, like death. Death is inexplicable. Has anyone ever come back to describe death? No. With that in mind, both concepts can be used as a critical foundation of gothic fiction or, more specifically, gothic horror.
While true crime portrays reality and may not be fictive, our human response to it can be compared to the way we experience gothic fiction. When consuming true crime in various forms: podcasts, documentaries, and books, our brains go through an emotional experience. We can either experience the sublime, the uncanny, or both at the same time. As we get more into the psyche of killers or victims, some may feel empathy for them or identify with them.
True crime depicts the already violent world we have become accustomed with. Most would feel empathy or sadness for events such as the killing of college students. But what pushes us to consume even more violence than we experience daily? Is there a sadistic explanation for our behavior? Are we perhaps inherently drawn to violence because it challenges us?
True crime is addictive. The American Psychological Association defines addiction as “psychological or physical dependence.” A few weeks after Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was released, it rose to the most-viewed series on Netflix: it is fair to say that the response it produced should alarm the North American population. The appeal of such shows is comprehensible. Their commercialization is meant to attract viewers. However, I would say that the viewing rates reflect a broken society that uses true crime to cope with a mental health crisis. Take what you will, but ask yourself: why are you consuming true crime?