LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 2, 2021) — Do you sink into your couch after an exhausting day, turn on the TV, fire up a streaming service and scroll through the array of options just to find yourself going back to the true crime section?
Do you lace up your shoes, pop in your headphones and head out on a morning jog only to cue up another podcast about an unsolved murder?
If so, you’re not alone.
It’s apparent, we — as a society — are obsessed with true crime. Why is that? Is this a new phenomenon? And is it an unhealthy obsession?
We posed those questions and more to Richard Underwood. The Edward T. Breathitt Professor in the Rosenberg College of Law at the University of Kentucky is a true crime expert. He has even penned a book — “Gaslight Lawyers: Criminal Trials and Exploits in Gilded Age New York" (2017, Shadelandhouse Modern Press LLC) — on the subject.
In the Q&A session below, Underwood lends his expertise to help us uncover why we can’t get enough murder and mayhem.
UKNow: True crime has become much more than a hobby for you — what sparked your interest in this field?
Underwood: I’m a lawyer and an amateur historian. I enjoy writing what some would call creative nonfiction. I’m often writing stories about lawyers and legal history, and the “true crime” genre is a perfect vehicle.
UKNow: Has true crime always been a cultural phenomenon? Or has the creation of streaming services — such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max — fueled the flames? Podcasts have also become increasingly popular, how have they contributed to this genre?
Underwood: “True crime” has always been around. The “moritat” (a medieval version of the murder ballad) goes back to the Middle Ages. Murder ballads and broadsides — pamphlets and penny sheets reporting the latest crime — were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the late 19th century, newspapers (the era of the yellow press) offered lurid coverage of murders — often with illustrations. Detective magazines and crime magazines, along with movies, television series and documentaries, carried on the tradition. Netflix now provides offerings like "The Keepers," "Evil Genius," "Making a Murderer" and so on. Additionally, podcasts have certainly contributed to the conversation. There is no shortage of “true crime” podcasts.
UKNow: Are we, in the U.S., inherently drawn to true crime?
Underwood: Yes, but that is true of many societies. Psychologists suggest that evil fascinates us. We are drawn by the tension between good and evil, and we want to know what drives people to extreme acts.
Murder became the subject of popular literature in Victorian times. For example, consider the "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Today, the media, particularly television news, bombards us with crime stories. As they say in the trade, “if it bleeds it leads.” I suppose it is our fear — and our desire — to confront or control our fear, that draws us to these stories. We like to be scared in a controlled way.
We are also relieved by the fact that we are not the victim. I recall that Scott Turow, at the Key West Literary Seminar, said that people take comfort from crime fiction in which the bad guy is getting his just desserts. We like “plausible” endings that somehow make us feel that we will not be overwhelmed by crime when we go out into the world. These stories can be comforting. Of course, real life does not have to be plausible.
UKNow: It seems as if women are more fascinated by these types of cases — do you find that to be true? Is there something to be said that by watching true crime women feel more prepared and are less likely to become victims themselves?
Underwood: Yes. Psychologists have opined, women are getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they fall into dangerous situations. Crime writer Megan Abbott points out that although men are four times more likely than women to be victim of homicide, women make up 70% of intimate partner homicide victims, and she believes that women have an “instinctual understanding that this is the world they live in.” I’m reminded of the “murdered girl” ballads you find, not just in Appalachia, but across the U.S. I talk about this intimate violence in my book, “Crimesong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads” (2016).
UKNow: At times, it feels as if criminals are treated as celebrities, because they’re given a platform to share their story — is there harm in this?
Underwood: I know what you mean. Villains like “Railroad Bill” and John Hardy became famous because they were featured in “bad man ballads.” Now, psychopaths like Ted Bundy almost have cult-like followings — go figure! Personally, I think the “harm” issue is overblown.
UKNow: Has our obsession with true crime sparked more media coverage in homicide cases? What are the pros and cons to this extensive coverage?
Underwood: As I noted, this is not new, but new technology (vehicles for storytelling) and the 24/7 news cycle have created something of a tidal wave. The pros and cons are addressed in some of the sources I have listed at the end of this Q&A.
UKNow: What role does social media play in true crime? Does the fact that we can all “play detective” with a community of people make true crime even more intriguing?
Underwood: I’m sure there is an armchair detective aspect. As an aside, one problem we have at trials is the tendency of jurors to disregard instructions from the judge that they do not play detective by using technology to find things that were not presented to them properly at trial. Also, news coverage attracts a lot of social media comments. Too many such comments may force the police to waste time and resources chasing down worthless leads, but the police feel they have to follow-up on all of these. It can easily become a problem.
UKNow: We call it an obsession, which makes our fascination with true crime sound unhealthy. But are there benefits to more attention being paid to these types of cases?
Underwood: Psychologists believe there may be benefits for the individual readers of true crime (sources below). Furthermore, one assumes that more public interest can be beneficial. If the public becomes more knowledgeable, there may be less victim-blaming, and more resources may be provided to victims of crime.
UKNow: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Underwood: I’ll leave you with some sources for further reading. I have another crime book coming out in 2022, and another (I hope) in 2023. You can follow my efforts at Shadelandhouse Modern Press — a small Lexington press run by my wife and daughter. They have published a number of award-winning books. They publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
- “12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts”
- “Bad People: Why are we so fascinated by true crime?”
- “From Docuseries to Blockbuster Films — Experts Discuss Why Our Culture Is Obsessed With True Crime”
- “Why Do We Find True Crime Fascinating? ‘Savage Appetites’ Looks For An Answer”
- “Why do we love true crime — and is it healthy for us?”
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