"True crime was a way for me to process the world around me and to learn about the things I feared most. However, the more I absorb it, the more I understand what it means to consume it and that there are real-world implications that come with it."

Inspired by the exhibition POWER OF WHO! and its dialogue on the dynamics of power, Team MAMA member and editor Cassandra Langenskiöld reflects on her love of true crime and the ethical dilemma it presents: is the genre (and the consumption of it) morally justifiable? 

Confessions of a True Crime Junkie

It took me a while before I confided to my friends that I enjoyed true crime. More specifically, that true crime podcasts were all I listened to and that I had probably watched every single true crime documentary that existed. I categorised it as my guilty pleasure, something I knew might not be the healthiest or most ethical thing to consume, but something that genuinely entertained me. Most of their reactions were a bit puzzled (“why would anyone listen to that?”) and some were slightly appalled (“how could anyone listen to that?”), but I tried to reassure them that I didn’t enjoy all the gory details per se, it was much more nuanced than that. It was a way for me to process the world around me and to learn about the things I feared most. However, the more I absorb true crime, the more I understand what it means to consume it and that there are real-world implications that come with it.

But what is true crime? Simply put, true crime is a non-fiction genre where actual crimes are examined and discussed. The facts surrounding the crime – the time and place, those involved – are all real and have actually happened. True crime media comes in all shapes and sizes, most notably in the form of podcasts, tv-shows, and books. Most of them focus on a single event, such as a murder or kidnapping, while others cover a series of crimes. Many focus on the psychological and sociological aspects of the crime committed as well as the overarching implications for those involved and society at large. Essentially, there is an endless amount of true crime formats to be found: books written by former detectives, docu-series, online forums, YouTube channels… it’s all out there and, as we’ll see, not all of it may be harmless listening.

True crime is a booming industry. The podcast Serial has been downloaded more than 211 million times, and bingeable true crime documentaries like The Ted Bundy Tapes frequently grace Netflix’s Top 10 lists. However, the genre of true crime is nothing new. As the printing press gained popularity in the 16th century, details of violent crimes were published as a warning to readers, teaching them that straying too far from religious morals would result in a gruesome death. Later, Charles Dickens’ serial novels would allow Victorian readers to track and follow the crimes as they unfolded monthly. In the 19th century, so-called penny dreadfuls emerged as the new publishing phenomenon; covering lurid stories of detectives and criminals, these magazines were published weekly and cost only one penny. True crime became such an explosive and lucrative genre that, in 1897, newspaper baron William R. Hearst formed a group of reporters responsible for crime coverage that he christened “the Murder Squad” (Bolin, 2018). And while we may no longer be shamed for our morality or reading penny dreadfuls, they have been replaced with tabloids and Reddit threads, captivating armchair detectives with their sensational headlines and macabre details.

We all know that saying, “it’s like a car crash, you can’t look away”. This phenomenon is actually called rubbernecking, the act of fixating on something of interest, often physically turning your neck to get a better view. Rubbernecking might also be the best way of describing my interest in true crime; it’s a morbid fascination with topics that, while sometimes repulsive, have an air of mystery and intrigue that are irresistible to me.

Consuming true crime is a way of demystifying ‘the boogeyman’, the stranger in the van, the monster in the closet; learning about it makes it more real and therefore less scary.

The true crime obsession has also been compared to the thrill of watching horror movies. Danish scholar Mathias Clasen claims that watching scary movies triggers our fight-or-flight response in a safe and controlled environment, making us feel as if we are overcoming our fears (Johnson, 2020). In the same way, consuming true crime is a way of demystifying ‘the boogeyman’, the stranger in the van, the monster in the closet; learning about it makes it more real and therefore less scary. For many people, consuming true crime that has a middle, beginning, and (sometimes) end provides a structure to the violence we hear about and even experience ourselves.

Another explanation for my fascination is quite simple: it’s the curiosity about the psychological and sociological elements of true crime. If you are familiar with the concept of Jung’s Shadow, you know that we are often interested in that which we are not aware of, or what the conscious ego does not identify in itself (Othon, ‘Carl Jung’). I keep asking myself how it’s possible that individuals can commit such atrocious crimes because I can’t identify that capability in myself. There is an element of fascination about someone who simply ignores the rules that society has written for us, to all of a sudden snap. The possibility of identifying, say, the sociopathic tendencies in a serial killer’s childhood not only satisfies my interest in psychology, but also offers some sort of explanation why people do the things they do, and why I can’t or won’t.

That being said, in no way do I thrive off other people’s trauma or suffering and, funnily enough, I am a very empathetic person by most accounts. Personally, I am mostly interested in historical crimes rather than contemporary ones; one of my favourite podcasts at the moment, Tenfold More Wicked by author and professor Kate Winkler Dawson, covers a single crime across multiple episodes (like a season of a tv-show). She researches a historical crime and dives into archival research, often interviewing experts or descendants of those involved. I tend to stay away from contemporary crime because it feels like that really could be me, and that’s cutting it too close. Stories of women going missing on their daily walk home or people who fall victim to random acts of violence scare me in a way that historical crimes don’t; at least crimes from a century ago were committed a time where investigators didn’t have the means to find people like they do now, circumstances that put me at a much greater advantage today.

So, I plug my earphones in and press play, and tell myself that listening to one more episode won’t cause too much harm.

However, gaining a sense of security or entertainment from someone’s acute suffering in the here and now also makes me feel somewhat guilty. Perhaps that’s a twisted way of avoiding responsibility, but historical true crime feels less exploitative from my side, whether justified or not. So, I plug my earphones in and press play, and tell myself that listening to one more episode won’t cause too much harm.

Because of the boom in true crime media, it is unavoidable that you find people and producers who exploit the suffering of victims and the wrongly accused. If you think about it, the victims and their families have no way of opting out of media coverage, much less of giving consent to having their tragedies analysed and aired in front of millions of people worldwide. In a cynical take, true crime documentaries and podcasts are as much part of the billion-dollar broadcasting industry as any other movie or TV show; it’s all about getting people hooked, eliciting emotional highs, and producing a binge-worthy show (Horeck, 2019). It’s also full of traditional archetypes like the hero and the villain – think girl-next-door-with-a-bright-future-ahead-of-her or the detective with nothing to lose. This is also likely the reason so many of us were so engrossed in the Depp v.s. Heard case; although Depp clearly won in the court of social media, the trial and its allegations were undoubtedly much more complex than deciding who’s the villain and who’s the hero.

Perhaps the most pressing problem is the polluted idea of what constitutes a crime and who can be a victim. A disproportionate amount of true crime tends to focus on a very particular victim: that of a single, white, middle-class woman. You might have heard the term, “missing white woman syndrome”, coined by American news anchor Gwen Ifill in 2004. It’s defined as the phenomenon whereby a white woman occupies a privileged role as a violent crime victim in news reporting and essentially represents a type of racial hierarchy in media coverage, one where young, white, upper middle class women receive more attention compared to those of different races, of lower social classes, or of other genders (Rosner, 2021). The statistics, however, paint a different picture: white women are, in fact, not the only victims of violent crime, even though the media makes it seem that way. Transrespect vs Transphobia Worldwide reports that 2021 marked a record number of fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people, although this number is likely higher as many of these stories go unreported or misreported (TVT, 2021). The majority of these victims were Black and migrant transgender women of colour. What’s more, Cambridge University found that Black homicide victimisation was up to 800% higher than that of the white population in the UK between 2000-2019 (Kumar, Sherman & Strang, 2020). These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps the most pressing problem is the polluted idea of what constitutes a crime and who can be a victim.

Here’s where my guilt sets in: although I genuinely enjoy true crime, I am also aware that by consuming it, I am in fact enforcing its existence and all the baggage that comes with it, and this internal struggle plays heavily on my mind. As much as I fear for myself, I also feel a sense of shame because I know there are those who are more vulnerable than me that face challenges that I could never imagine and will never have to experience. And, if I am being completely honest with myself, I could be that white woman that Gwen Ifill is talking about; I am part of the group that takes priority over others in true crime media, whether I like it or not.

So, how do I reconcile my fascination with true crime with the feelings of guilt and shame that come with it? I think the key is being aware of the duality of true crime and knowing that, sometimes, it isn’t morally justifiable. I try to keep myself accountable for what I consume and educate myself the best I can on the pitfalls of the genre, including how victims are portrayed and the levels of biases involved – those of creators and those of my own. Ultimately, I will always have an interest in true crime; its pain points don’t negate my interest in historical crimes or why people do the things they do, and I am still fascinated by the nature of people who commit crimes and how it affects society. In the end, it’s a chance for me to learn and understand the world through real stories of real people. 

Now, while I have presented a somewhat cynical view of the true crime universe, I will say that there are many podcasts, docu-series, and literature that address many of the issues I have raised here. Many creators are also aware of their shortcomings, either due to their race or gender, and more producers are creating shows that provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream media. Podcaster Celisia Stanton, creator of the show Truer Crime, focuses on those most victimised by legal systems and takes a critical stance on true crime coverage. Her podcast aims to make the true crime space less toxic and more focused on marginalised communities, and marks a turning point in true crime podcasting that illuminates the societal and structural issues influencing crime and its coverage. Influential crime writer Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (and subsequent TV adaptation), a quest to identify the infamous Golden State Killer, is another study in victim-centric crime reporting. Her approach to the string of crimes focuses on the common experience of the survivors and how they were let down by the justice system, and the docu-series illuminates how McNamara herself developed depression from her prolonged exposure to the case. Here, contrary to many true crime stories, the victims and their stories are placed centre stage, all while taking a very real look at the business of true crime.

On that note, I’ve compiled a short guide of how to be a more ethical consumer of true crime based on all the research I did when coming to terms with my own ethical dilemma. Hopefully, it can serve as a starting point for more conscious consumption, for true crime junkies and newbies alike.

Essential questions to ask yourself for more ethical true crime consumption
  • Who is the creator of this product? 
    • What is their background and stated purpose for creating this product?
  • What is the level of research involved in this product?
    • Is the creator an amateur or professional researcher/academic?
    • Think of basic news literacy: is the information presented based on journalistic and corroborated facts or speculation and unverified sources? 
  • How does it treat the victims?
    • Are the victims, their family members, and their situations treated with respect, compassion, and empathy?
    • How are they represented and framed?
  • What is the type of crime covered?
    • Who are the victims and the perpetrators?
    • Is there a nuanced approach to the investigation and the parties involved?
  • Be an active, not passive, consumer
    • What are the implications of my consumption of this product?
    • Is this product or my consumption of it causing harm to any kind of party?

Illustration by Cherie Li

Bolin, A. (2018). ‘The ethical dilemma of highbrow true crime’, Vulture, 1 August. Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2018/08/true-crime-ethics.html (Accessed 2 July 2022).

Horeck, T. (2019). ‘True crime: It’s time to start questioning the ethics of tuning in’, The Conversation , 16 October. Available at: https://theconversation.com/true-crime-its-time-to-start-questioning-the-ethics-of-tuning-in-125324 (Accessed 2 July 2022).

Johnson, N. (2020). ‘How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma’, National Geographic, 30 October. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-horror-movies-can-help-overcome-trauma-and-relieve-stress (Accessed 2 July 2022).

Kumar, S., Sherman, L.W., and Strang, H. (2020) Racial disparities in homicide victimisation rates: How to improve transparency by the Office of National Statistics in England and Wales. Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, [online] 4, 178-186. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41887-020-00055-y?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&CJEVENT=e666145308c511ed81d9a3ee0a180511&utm_campaign=CONR_BOOKS_ECOM_GL_PHSS_ALWYS_DEEPLINK&utm_content=textlink&utm_term=PID100088817&?utm_medium=affiliate (Accessed 21 July 2022).

Othon, J.E. ‘Carl Jung and the shadow: The ultimate guide to the human dark side’, High Existence. Available at: https://highexistence.com/carl-jung-shadow-guide-unconscious/ (Accessed 2 July 2022).

Rosner, H. (2021). ‘The long American history of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’’, 8 October. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-long-american-history-of-missing-white-woman-syndrome (Accessed 2 July 2022).

TVT. (2021). ‘TVT TMM Update: Trans Day of Remembrance 2021’, Transrespect versus Transphobia, 11 November. Available at: https://transrespect.org/en/tmm-update-tdor-2021/ (Accessed 7 July 2022).


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