Why true crime?

Tonight I finished watching the Night Stalker docuseries on Netflix. it followed the case of Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, who committed a series of murders, assaults, attacks, and kidnappings in Southern California in 1985. The story was told by the detectives who worked the case, as well as members of the press, some families of victims, and some survivors. It also covered the court case for Ramirez and everything that followed. It was a really well done docuseries–informative, straight forward, and interesting.

I’ve always been interested in true crime stories. I was reading a lot of mysteries and murder mysteries at a young age and also enjoyed various procedurals and mystery shows. These were all fictional of course. But I was also very interested in history from a young age, and with that came real life mysteries, real life crimes, real life unsolved and solved cases, real life murders. I know I’m not the only one. There are so many docuseries and documentaries and YouTube channels and books about true crime because it captures the interest of so many people. What is it about true crime stories that interests some of us so much?

I think part of it for me is the mystery solving aspect of it. I like stories and I like puzzles. It’s fascinating to see pieces come together, to see exactly how detectives solve the case, or to see what stops them from solving the case (often: bureaucracy). I like seeing the historical context and how that might help or hinder the case. It’s all really fascinating.

But I can’t pretend there’s not some morbid part of me, as I think there is in many others, that is fascinated in a horrified kind of way at how many terrible acts some human beings are capable of committing. I’ve read and watched stories of people doing such awful, shocking things, ranging from the truly over the top (if you haven’t looked up Ed Gein…you know what maybe don’t, save yourself) to the simply vicious. These horrible things are committed by people, people who have jobs and go grocery shopping and have families and had childhoods. Sometimes the monsters are just…humans.

I think I consume these things in a pretty healthy way. It doesn’t impact my life, or my mental health, nor do I feel anything but horror and disgust for these people. But that doesn’t mean everyone is the same. Richard Ramirez was a genuinely evil human being–and he had groupies. He had women writing him love letters and sending him raunchy pictures, some even getting off on the fact he was “dangerous.” There are also people who are inspired by these stories–copycat killers, internet attention seekers, etc etc etc.

But does that mean we shouldn’t have any of these documentaries or television shows or long write ups in newspapers? I don’t know if anything would be accomplished by doing that. I think despite living in the age of internet fame and notoriety, the kind of person who would kill for attention would be doing something damaging no matter what. Maybe what’s important is making sure these stories aren’t romanticized, or sensationalized more than they need to be. Maybe if these stories are to be told, we should make sure that they are told with respect to the victims, with consent from families and survivors. Maybe it’s important to make it about facts and problems and not headlines. Maybe we need to be reminded when we learn about true crime and serial killers that these aren’t myths, these aren’t legends, these are people, not bigger than anyone else, but capable of real, human, horrors.