Why are white women so obsessed with true crime?
Over the past several years the true crime genre has exploded, with popular podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Dirty John, and networks like Investigation Discovery and Oxygen programming a never-ending loop of shows focused on murder. The prime demographic for this content: White, American women. But why?
That question is explored in a new book by Rachel Monroe called Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession.
“Some people have very strong feelings of empathy,” Monroe said. “Some people are really fascinated with the dark sides of human psychology. A lot of people have their own experience of trauma, or somebody who was close to them was victimized in some way, and this is how they deal with it. I think that’s an under-recognized aspect of human nature. Sometimes when there is something that frightens us, we want to get closer to it. That allows us to feel like we have control or understanding or some mastery over it.”
She likens it to watching scary movies; you get to feel the thrill of fear from the safety of a movie theater chair.
Every year hordes of women (and men, but mostly women) gather for CrimeCon, a true crime convention put on by Oxygen.
“Thousands of women listening to panels, going to the Wine and Crime happy hour, shmoozing with podcasters,” she described. “You see people wearing T-shirts that said things like ‘DNA or it didn’t happen’ or ‘I’m just here to establish an alibi.’ Or there was the chalk outline of a body on the floor, you could pose and pretend you were a dead body. It was really this very strange mix of fun and lighthearted and really gruesome. The subject matter is all, essentially, murder.”
Monroe has her own theory about what brings these women together.
“In some ways I wonder if the true crime fascination, if the scene is in some ways a reaction against the yoga, wellness, meditation, peacefulness aesthetic that we see on Instagram,” she posited. “It’s just so sun-kissed and happy and positive and life is just not all beautiful sunbeams and salad bowls. Something about the darker side of humanity is really appealing to the people at these conventions and they’re just trying to find people they can share that with.”
As crime rates continue to drop in the United States, the interest in true crime media goes up. Monroe says the genre’s popularity is not exclusive to this country or this time period.
“I was reading about Weimar, Germany in the period between World War I and World War II and that was a similar culture. Crime rates were dropping, but people were obsessed with stories about crime. That was during the rise of the Nazi party, when people felt there was a lot of political instability. Something about that seems to be recurrent. When cultures are politically unstable, for some reason people want to read mystery stories.”
The only difference between then and now is how much the media seems to be capitalizing on the genre and turning big profits on the backs of real life murder cases.
Monroe said she noticed her own interest in true crime waning and waxing depending on how she was feeling about her life.
“That was a real revelation to me,” she noted. “When my own life felt chaotic was when these stories of human chaos and violence really spoke to me. Maybe for that reason they allowed me to forget myself and my own troubles in some larger drama that didn’t have to do with me.”