It is enough to take a superficial look at the Netflix catalog to notice its magnitude. Over the last few years, the series, movies and documentaries belonging to the subgenre known as true crime -stories based on real crimes- have achieved considerable prominence within the streaming platform.
And it’s not just a supply issue. The success of these types of stories is such that it is not strange to find more than one of these titles disputing the first ten places in the world top. The most recent test came from the hand of two products inspired by the same case: the series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and the documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapesboth based on the harsh story of the American criminal known as “the butcher of Milwaukee”, for his habit of dismembering, dissecting and even eating the organs of his victims.
Examples abound. The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), Sons of Sam: A Descent into Hell (2021)Sophie: A Murder in Cork (2021)The snake (2021), I just killed my father (2022), Vigilant (2022) and national production 42 days in the dark (2022) –inspired by the case of the kidnapping and murder of Vivian Heager– These are some of the products based on real events that are available on the platform, which, in turn, make up just a small brushstroke of the total offer.
Beyond what the figures communicate, There are several elements that can help clarify the question of why true crime stories are so fascinating to us.. Carolina Valenzuela, forensic psychologist and director of the Master in Legal and Forensic Psychology at Diego Portales University, points to a sensation produced at an unconscious level.
“These stories generate interest mainly because of the curiosity that implies knowing details that, otherwise, are difficult to access. As human beings, at an unconscious level, the suffering of others generates a certain calm and tranquility in us: that “the bad” is outside and happens to others reaffirms the feeling of security and also reinforces the rational idea that, in the face of circumstances that I am seeing, I would have acted differently, so it is difficult for that to happen to me (for example, telling yourself ‘I wouldn’t open the door to a stranger’ or ‘I wouldn’t be so trusting’)”, says Valenzuela.
However, the psychologist clarifies that it is a rationality that makes no sense “because it is difficult to judge the behavior of others in a situation of danger or vulnerability. These extreme situations are beyond the control and cognitive schemes that we have about how we should react, therefore, it is complex to predict our behavior, although the analysis that we can make of it when we see, read or listen to these stories gives us peace of mind”.
The psychologist, Doctor of Health Sciences and coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Forensic Mental Health at the National University of La Plata, Elizabeth León Mayer, agrees with Valenzuela on the relevance of morbidity within the equation, something that is repeated in the same way with other genres such as war films. Under her vision, the consumption of this type of stories has to do with the constant need of human beings to experience strong emotions.
“We don’t just watch crime movies. Also of fear, of love. That is the need to feel emotions. And watching crime movies makes you feel strong emotions. It moves you, it gives you adrenaline and it’s fun. This produces emotions in me and then I can forget it. The trauma component is not there,” explains León.
The Doctor adds that, in addition, it is an exercise that is free from social judgment. “It allows you to release emotions without there being a punitive component behind it. On the contrary, you can yell, you can say ‘how horrible’, you can scribble when you’re watching it… You can say all of that and there’s no punitive component.”
Although much of its current success is reflected within audiovisual productions, the boom of the subgenre has been developing for years and on platforms other than streaming. For Christian Ramírez, critic and founder of the Civilcinema site, the fascination with true crime goes back a couple of centuries.
“The crime genre is interesting for the potential reader or consumer of these stories for a long time. The emergence of crime narratives can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century, so it’s not very new. In some way, the current rise of these narratives has become a kind of continuation of that same tremendous impulse that made so many writers popular during the 19th century, and even more so during the 20th”, says Ramírez.
The critic points out that the difference with the current phenomenon lies in the fact that, now, “the emphasis is placed on true crime, that is, on what Truman Capote and Cold-blooded captured so well more than 50 years ago: the idea of a criminal narrative that refers to real events or is made up of real characters, real victims and real clues”.
Rodrigo Munizaga, series critic for Cult, puts the emphasis on the last decade, looking especially at what happened in the United States. “There’s been a true crime boom in the last 10 years, and it was especially all the rage with crime podcasts. That made American streaming and TV channels start commissioning crime series for fiction or docuseries. It seems to me that the phenomenon is focused there, because in the cinema the crime genre is something of always”, he points out.
“This fascination of the United States for true crime has made it reach Latin America, a fascination that in Chile we can equate with Mea culpa: What did that program have in the 90s that swept the ratings and still does today? Well, the morbidity, the fascination with fear, thinking that what you’re seeing ‘could happen to me or someone I love’, wanting to understand why a criminal does what he does. And, by the way, compassion for the victims”, adds the critic.
That’s the way it is, It is not surprising that Netflix, a company that this year has faced a flight of subscribers, bets on the production of this type of content. “In a way, the subgenre has become more visited to the extent that there is more archive, more access to this kind of research, but also to the extent that it is cheaper than making a movie and, ultimately, because That is more interesting than making a fiction film”, says Ramírez.
“Netflix is the most willing streaming to produce ‘on demand’ or based on metrics. True crime is what is seen the most in the United States and that is why so many series and documentaries are produced. It must be the country where there are more crimes and murderers turned into celebrities. And that makes them have a huge number of possible cases to bring to the screen.”, adds Munizaga.
Both critics agree that the North American country sets the standard when it comes to producing certain types of content. “There is an absolute relationship, but It is also a matter of convenience on the part of this platform that is taking the pulse of all these trends and fashions that are going around. But the connection that the Anglo consumer, and by extension the world consumer, has with the true crime genre is profound.”, concludes Ramirez.
When hearing about a police case, it is quite common for the impulse to know all the details behind the fact to arise. However, there is also a huge interest in knowing the most intimate profile of criminals.
On a psychological level, Valenzuela explains that this is caused by a need to find a logical explanation for events that often seem to lack rationality.. “People need to understand violent behavior, find the reasons why that person committed the most heinous crimes and make sure that there is no one in our environment who looks like him. Looking at his intimate side, we look for explanations of his actions, in his past, in his upbringing, in some trauma, in some pathology, etc. Something has to trigger that behavior and as long as we know what we can attribute the cause of their behavior to, we feel that we have control, in the sense of making potential exposure to these dangerous individuals predictable and avoidable, as if violent behavior were the effect of a cause”, explains the academic.
In recent times, the trend of true crime productions has been to focus the stories on the development of the criminal as the central character of the story. “There is the classic and oft-repeated, but grulled statement by Hitchcock that, for the best villain, the best film or narrative, and I think that in a way that is true.”, Ramírez points out, although he adds that the greater or lesser success of the recipe is in the hands of whoever acts as a narrator.
“A kind of cleavage has emerged, of deviation and variation from the victim to the victimizer. That’s also half old. It must be remembered that in Cold-blooded the murderers were characters as important or more important than the victims themselves, or than the reconstruction of the path that the victim followed until the moment of his death”, affirms the critic. “Indeed, we are walking a path in that direction. Now, the interesting thing is what will be the end of that road. It could directly be an adaptation of a criminal’s memoir.”
For its part, Munizaga adds that the formula works well as long as “some humanity is given to the villain,” which is very controversial if it is a real fact and more likely to air if it is a fictional villain.. One case is the series the fall, where an abuser and murderer of women was a charming guy, a good father and husband, but who led a double life. The more kinks the villain has, the better hook he has with the audience.”
At this point, León Mayer explains that this attempt to understand the behavior of criminals through fiction does not always have a good result. He exemplifies with the case of Dahmer: “Any explanation that is given regarding what the murderer thinks, people accept it as such. They don’t have to know if that explanation is good or bad. I saw Dahmer and I didn’t like it. He bored me to death. They try to get into his brain, but they succeed. It is a strange mixture of mental disorders, of psychopathy with psychosis, trying to explain the inexplicable. There is no deep investigation of Dahmer’s history either, as long as they want to show him as an abused child, which he was not. If they ask me my opinion, I would not give it to my students to analyze it”.
Valenzuela agrees with the critics’ perspective. “In general, both the series, as well as the movies and books, always explicitly or implicitly slide the factors that made that subject a ‘monster’, who ceased to be a person.” However, he adds that “the problem with this is that sometimes there are no causes, even if we look for it or, on the contrary, it can be multi-causal, in which case the weight of each of the variables that can intervene is not understood, which makes it difficult to understand what is happening with these subjects from a single glance”.
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In love with a monster: Why are we so attracted to true crime? – Third