Reading True Crime Makes Me Feel Less Anxious — For A Good Reason

by Melissa Ragsdale
Bonnin Studio/Stocksy

"I'm about to have a meltdown in this coffee shop," I text my best friend. I'm sitting by myself at my neighborhood cafe, and I'm starting to feel seriously anxious. I can feel tears welling up behind my eyes and my breath feels trapped inside my body. Nothing specific has happened, but the pressure has been building up all day. Now, here in this public place, I'm about to blow and have a full-blown panic attack.

My best friend responds. I check her text: A link to a Wikipedia article about a murderer. I'm open it up, and minutes later, I'm absorbed in the story. Strangely, I feel in control again.

True crime has always been a source of comfort for me during times of extreme anxiety. While many people choose to wind down from a long day with reality television or a feel-good rom-com, I've always gravitated towards true stories of murder, espionage, and kidnapping. The true crime genre is inherently disconcerting, but perhaps that's why I find it so comforting. It acknowledges, examines, and to a certain degree, celebrates the unknown and the uncertain. When I read true crime, I look darkness in the face and I attempt to understand it.

I'm also satiated by the thousands of tiny mysteries woven throughout true crime narratives. I consider all of the facts, and my anxiety is given an outlet for releases. Instead of obsessing over my impending financial doom or whether that email I sent was too bossy or whatever else is picking away at my brain, I latch onto the puzzle at the heart of the story.

Unlike the questions that plague me in my own life, true crime allows me to examine a mystery objectively and from all angles. I can slow it down and stretch it out. I can read on in the hopes that a new piece of evidence or testimony will contain some sort of answer — something that will give me closure.

What's more, true crime books are often a form of advocacy. Much of the violence that is documented in true crime books was inflicted upon women. Women's experiences have historically been undervalued, and all-too-often, neither the danger these women were in nor the violence that was inflicted against them was taken seriously at the time. But by writing about these cases, authors offer some degree of justice to the victims. It's a comforting idea: That someone out there will fight for you, no matter how long it has been.

Now, don't get me wrong: I have definitely been frightened and disturbed by true crime stories. There's nothing fun or light-hearted about reading about violence, and I have to remind myself that these are not fictional stories but true ones. People suffered. People died. Nothing about that is OK. Yet, true crime allows storytelling to become a force of justice. When written with care and compassion, true crime is about empathy and humanity.

Maybe it's strange that reading about serial killers calms me down, but I'll bet I'm not the only one who finds solace in these stories. Because while the real world is certainly filled with strange, unsolvable mysteries, writing and reading about those mysteries is a potent way to process and cope with it all. It's a way of gaining back control over a scary, uncertain world. And for me, it's a way of taking over the reigns of my own racing thoughts.