Kash Jain ’24
As we pass Halloween and the horrors that accompany it, it’s time to have a serious conversation about our massive consumption of true crime and crime fiction TV shows, movies, and podcasts.
The popularity of true crime and crime fiction — particularly police procedurals — has risen significantly over the past few years. The rise of streaming services and podcasts has created more crime entertainment than ever seen before. With this has come a growing concern: Is our fascination with terrible crimes, whether real or fictional, damaging?
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: the “video games cause violence” theory. The idea that playing violent video games leads people to act more violently has little support from researchers, and the same can be said about consuming violent, crime-centric content.
While seeing violence on screen may desensitize us to it, it does not cause us to act violently. However, desensitization truly is a major issue.
The trouble with the amalgamation of crime with entertainment is that this may impact how we react to real crimes. Desensitization may lead us to fail to fully process a terrible crime and the person or persons that it may impact. While some fans of true crime content may be inclined to conduct their own investigation into a crime, be it a famous one or otherwise, this can have serious negative impacts on the families and friends of victims. This can be enabled by desensitization and its concomitant reduction of empathy. Podcasts and movies that focus on a specific criminal or unsolved case can also border on exploitation of the victim and the possible trauma felt by their loved ones. Even when the murders being considered and solved are those of fictional characters, this impacts our perceptions of real victims and how we view horrific crimes themselves.
The concerns of desensitization and what we show on screen have been echoed by the actors themselves. This includes Mandy Patinkin, one of the original leads of Criminal Minds, a police procedural following the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, a team of criminal profilers that attempt to identify and catch criminals using behavioral analysis. In 2007, before the show’s third season, Patinkin left, citing creative differences. Five years later, in an interview with New York Magazine, he explained that his reasons were slightly different from what had been stated. Patinkin said that he had envisioned the show as being something very different, not an endless string of serial killers that “was very destructive to [his] soul.” He added that he was concerned about the popularity of police procedurals and “the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”
Patinkin may be right, especially about the commonality and ease with which consumption of this content grows, even to the point where it negatively impacts the health of the consumer.
Overconsumption can go beyond impacting how we view crime and the victims of it; it can also impact our own thoughts and health in a deeply damaging way. Dr. Chivonna Childs, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic, says that some people watch true crime to learn how to avoid being a victim. However, this can unnecessarily stoke fear and paranoia and even lead to depression and anxiety, says psychologist Dr. Erica Rojas. Dr. Jessica Micono, a forensic psychology professor at Regis University, says that persistent hypervigilance can lead to increased overall stress and stress-related illnesses.
Part of the issue here is that crime content is not a good educational tool because this content does not accurately represent reality. Even true crime content poorly portrays reality. True crime writers do not necessarily abide by journalistic norms, often choosing to omit or include certain information to construct a certain narrative. Plus, most crimes covered by true crime content are serious outliers. They may often be horrific, but these incidents are very rare. Over the past few decades, violent crime, including murder, has fallen, yet the amount of focus on specific, tragic cases seems to have grown.
Crime fiction TV shows are also fairly inaccurate. They provide a poor representation of what FBI agents, for example, do on a day-to-day basis. The nonstop chases and direct confrontations with criminals are rare, if they happen at all. These shows may also create a perception that violent crime is much more common than it actually is. These two factors lead to shows with back-to-back, seemingly incessant, horrifying crimes. While this is understandable from a content-creating perspective, because most people probably would not want to watch a crime show that mainly consists of people doing desk work, altered perceptions of how common violent crime is are a serious concern.
Violence is by no means constrained to crime-related media. Shows like Game of Thrones and American Horror Story have become known for their graphic depictions of violence. While content such as this may also desensitize people to violence, its effects likely do not mirror some that are produced by crime-related content, especially when it comes to amateur investigators disrupting victims’ personal lives. Additionally, content that can easily be identified as being fantastical is less likely to fuel paranoia or general fear. Shows about serial killers may increase concerns over similar violent crimes. But, when it comes to depictions of knights, dragons, and ghosts, people generally understand that this is fictional and does not represent reality.
The point here is that not all violent content is equal — the context of the violence and how it is situated in the overall story can lead to different effects on the people consuming said content.
So, what do we do?
Dr. Micono offers a solution: reduced consumption. This may be easier said than done in an era where the number of shows, movies, and podcasts in these genres has become innumerable. Still, it is a solution worth pursuing, especially at the individual level. If you find yourself feeling unsafe, scared, or anxious, reduce your consumption and consider reaching out to someone for help.
Creators of content centered on violent crime should also be sure to make it clear that the content they are making or covering is not representative of reality — they need to make it clear that what they show on screen is extremely uncommon in real life. Producers and entertainers should also attempt to combat desensitization in the content they create by showing that, when these crimes do occur, they leave a deep and terrible impact. The protagonists and victims in fictional shows need to be seen productively addressing the stress and trauma of whatever events occur so that the audience, too, can identify and come to terms with what they consume.
The creators of true crime content, especially content that focuses on unsolved cases or cases with certain unclear elements need to be aware of how their viewers and listeners may react. When they discuss and cover real cases and real people, their audience may want to investigate independently, potentially leading them to intrude on others’ right to privacy. Accordingly, creators should offer disclaimers cautioning their audiences from conducting their own investigations.
True crime and crime fiction are popular and interesting to many, but we must work to ensure that negative effects from their consumption are mitigated so that this content can be safely enjoyed by all.