Real Life Horror Stories

Why do we watch true crime and serial killer themed TV shows so much?


Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Jannia Jimenez, Staff Writer

STOCKTON – Have you ever watched a horror film that felt so realistic that it left you with a deep gut feeling of despair and anguish? Well, these types of films and documentaries do exist. They are made from real life stories and the people that committed incredible crimes. Monsters are real and very much present in our lives. You never know who you could be sitting next to on the bus or who you are opening the door for at the coffee shop. That’s the scary part of it right? The fact that these monsters disguise themselves as normal people with normal lives when in reality they view you as their prey. It’s the fact that Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Aileen Wuornos, Dennis Rader, Joseph James DeAngelo, and so many others lived normal everyday lives. It’s cases like the unfortunate deaths of Gabriel Fernandez, Elisa Lam, Jon Benet, Patricia Ramsey, and the disturbing Chris Watts case. Did you recognize a few of these names? Why? What makes people gravitate towards these cases?

The Netflix Night Stalker documentary about the infamous serial killer and rapist, Richard Ramirez, received 73% on Rotten Tomatoes. The documentary called The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel about Elisa Lam’s disappearance received 52% on Rotten Tomatoes and as time passes, its approval rating just keeps going up. The documentary called The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez received 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and when that series was released it was the only show people were talking about. The film The Devil All the Time, which is packed with crime and death scenes, received 64% on Rotten Tomatoes and an overwhelming amount of positive reviews.

I conducted a poll last week with 83 respondents where I asked if people enjoy true crime and/or serial killer documentaries or podcasts. 68 responses were yes and 15 people voted that these themes were not for them. Then, I asked those people who responded ‘yes’ to elaborate. What makes them watch these films? After some research, I found that many of their responses corroborated the psychological reasons behind their enjoyment of these themes.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we continue to read about these stories? If they are so disturbing, why do we watch the documentaries, listen to the podcasts, or read the articles? It’s quite simple really. We crave entertainment. As terrible as it sounds, these stories draw us in because of how terrible they are. We are left in disbelief, “How can someone be so vile?” we ask ourselves. Humans are usually empathetic creatures. We see many times that people put themselves in the shoes of the victims in these stories. It’s that same feeling of uncertainty that the person you are walking alongside on the street with is the same person, who will put an end to your life or worse.

In an article from Psychology Today, Jack Pemment states, “Because of neuroscience, we now know that there are numerous ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that become active in an individual when they both watch a task and perform the same task. This suggests that witnessing the behavior of others causes activation in our own brains similar to if we were doing the behavior ourselves.” Basically, the ‘mirror’ neutrons get activated when we read or listen to these documentaries. Many times people also put themselves in the killer’s role. The actions of the killer seem so vile and horrific and it is something that people find fascinating. “How does this killer’s mind work” has been the ongoing question. In my poll, one response was “The gore and knowledge you get from both the murderer and detective is equally enticing.” Another response was that, “Maybe it’ll give me insight on how/why people do that?” Some people get a thrill, or adrenaline rush from watching these killer stories. It satisfies their curiosity on the demented lengths that human beings can take to commit a crime.

This leads me to my second point which is knowledge and understanding. In the article True Crime Stories Are More Popular Than Ever by Patti Greco, she explains how in the 2020 statistics it was shown that women are bigger fans of true crime than men. Then, she explained that “One theory for why that is: Even though men are statistically more likely to be the victims of violent crime than women (with the exception of rape and sexual assault), women may feel more vulnerable to attack—and therefore more inclined to gather intel about how to survive a true crime scenario if it was to occur.” This means that women feel more vulnerable in public spaces and they often times feel more unsafe.

Interestingly enough, after my poll I found that the most ‘yes’ responses came from mostly female students. 50 out of the 68 responses were women. In their responses for why they are interested in this topic, most respondents said that they would use these documentaries as learning tools. They would watch to see what they should avoid and what the red flags were.

Another perspective on the ‘knowledge’ that these documentaries bring us is survival mode. We subconsciously study these cases and think, what would we do differently? or how could I get out of this situation? We go into survival mode. It’s like when you’re watching a zombie movie, at one point you take in all of the survival methods shown in the show and you ask yourself “would I be able to survive in a zombie apocalypse?” There are many reasons as to why we enjoy these shows. After doing my research, I discovered that the main reasons for watching are entertainment and knowledge. Getting scared in the process, is just part of the learning curve.