In recent months specials and miniseries have focused on past gruesome crimes, like the JonBenét Ramsey murder, and their subsequent trials. And after the ratings report, it was clear we just couldn't get enough of the O.J. Simpson series on FX. Similarly, Making a Murderer is arguably the largest Netflix success story since the web platform launched. And Adnan Syed's story, told through the podcast Serial, grabbed the nation's complete attention. According to some experts, the science behind our true crime obsession reveals something about us.
Scott Bonn wrote about this for Time, using his research about serial killers to speak to the general obsession with true crime. He's a criminologist at Drew University and the author of Why We Love Serial Killers. So, according to Bonn, there are a few of reasons that play into our obsession: First, we can't look away from them, similar to how we are with natural disasters or other calamities. Second, it gives us an adrenaline rush. Third, we can pretend to solve the crime. But it says the most about this one basic instinct you have:
The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear. As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allow us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real. For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.
But there are other experts with their own theories about the obsession and what it means for you. Alison Natasi of Hopes&Fears interviewed a number of experts. Vernon J. Geberth, a former NYPD lieutenant commander and author, said it might make you feel safe. He told Natasi that perhaps it's "some sort of curiosity or excitement about evil acts that allow the viewer to insulate him or herself from the reality of the horror by viewing the events through the prism of entertainment. This tends to make the reality less threatening, because the event happened to someone else."
Katherine Ramsland, an author who has a doctorate in philosophy and runs the Master of Criminal Justice Program at DeSales University, told Natasi there are three things it helps you with: it gives you a puzzle to solve; it gives you closure; and "people gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe."
Michael Stevens, the producer and star of the VSauce YouTube channel, also put together his answer to morbid curiosity. He argued there are a number of reasons, and thus there's plenty of possible self reflection when you pick apart all the pieces. One is that from the standpoint of evolution, we don't like uncertainty. So perhaps you're watching to make sure the same thing won't happen to you.
Ultimately, fear and a sense of safety appear to be a big part of it. If you relish in fear or are trying to reassure yourself that you're safe, that could explain why you can't get enough of these sorts of TV shows.