November 6, 2022

A Walk on the Dark Side: Our Fascination with True Crime

Every time I turn on streaming television, I’m floored by the multitude of true-crime series. There are networks entirely devoted to the genre. But looking more closely, we find that the most fascinating shows, the ones that are viewed the most, are the ones about murder. People commit all kinds of crimes, but who wants to watch a show about burglary? No, it’s murder that rivets us to the screen. On the darkest side, though, the most fascinating murderers of all are serial killers. We, the viewing public, cannot get enough of Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Dennis Rader, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and others.

What is so fascinating about the most heinous of all murderers? In a word, danger. We slow down on the highway to ogle accidents, we get on roller-coaster rides that give us the experience of impending death, and we watch shows about serial killers. When we expose ourselves to dangerous incidents and topics, we activate the parts of our brain that ping us with excitement. Never mind the excitement is scary. We like excitement, period.

But I think the real fascination with serial killers is that they are an extreme aberration of nature, representing the complete abandonment of humanity – love, compassion, care, goodwill to others, and empathy – the most fundamental characteristics of human beings. Lacking empathy, and infused with violent tendencies, serial killers are dangerous predators. We are hard-wired to be mindful of dangerous predators. Historically, going back thousands of years, dangerous predators were mostly from the animal kingdom. But we could see those creatures approaching and defend ourselves.

What could be more dangerous than a predator successfully blending into society? Serial killers form the appearance of real relationships. They hold down jobs, place themselves into our workforce, sit near us at the office. They pass us on the street, intersecting our lives, daily. They live in our neighborhoods – next door or down the street. They even attend our churches and synagogues.

We can’t see them, and therefore can’t defend ourselves. That is scary! Perhaps by watching these shows, we delude ourselves into thinking we know what they are, who they are, and that we can see them coming. But, nope.

Okay, now that I’ve freaked myself out writing this, I’ll sign off for today. I aim to have enough scare in my books to excite you, but I’ll try to not totally freak you out.