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From podcasts like The Teacher’s Pet, Bowraville and Serial, to documentary films such as The Tinder Swindler and series like Inventing Anna and Melbourne’s own Underbelly, our thirst for true crime is as strong as ever.
What exactly is it about real-life stories of wrongdoing that have us listening and watching in record numbers? Is our interest driven by morbid curiosity, a desire to right past wrongs and see cold cases solved, or fascination with the inner workings of our justice system?
It’s a little of everything, explains Dr Tamsin Paige, a senior lecturer at Deakin Law School. ‘For as long as we’ve had recorded history, people have been using crime and understanding crime as a form of entertainment – it’s not a recent phenomenon,’ she says.
‘With the rise of the ease of content creation through podcasts and streaming platforms, we’re seeing more of it as the barriers to production have lowered.’
What happened to The Teacher’s Pet’s Lynette Dawson after she disappeared from her Sydney home in 1982? Was Adnan Syed of Serial fame wrongly convicted of murdering his girlfriend? How did aspiring social climber Anna Delvey defraud New York City’s elite? It’s these perplexing questions that draw us into true crime storytelling, explains Dr Paige.
‘The sorts of crimes discussed in true crime narratives are inherently shocking, and it’s hard for the ordinary, reasonable person to get their head around what’s happened and why,’ she says. ‘True crime narratives feed our desire to understand why tragedies and crimes happen, and the need to make sense of them.’
When true crime narratives themselves become part of the story, popularity can soar even further. The catalyst for the arrest and subsequent murder conviction of Lynette Dawson’s husband, Chris, is widely attributed to publicity brought about by The Teacher’s Pet podcast. Likewise, the enormous publicity generated by the Serial podcast helped free Adnan Syed, who spent more than two decades in jail, after new DNA evidence emerged.
Understanding the nature of crime also helps us feel more secure, Dr Paige says. ‘Crime makes us feel inherently unsafe, so understanding why it happened increases levels of social safety.’
True crime also appeals to our sense of justice. We want to see the man who murdered his wife 40 years ago finally face the consequences, and the wrongly convicted released from incarceration.
‘There’s a strong desire for justice that sits in most people, and a lot of people consuming true crime are looking for that justice,’ Dr Paige says.
Fans of non-fiction are especially drawn to true crime because ‘they often like to understand the world around them rather than disappearing into the world of fiction’, says Dr Paige.
She says there are two key components of a compelling true crime narrative: a serious crime that’s particularly tragic, grotesque or otherwise noteworthy, and a distinct lack of evidence or clues about what happened.
‘It’s almost always a situation where the crime hasn’t yet been solved or brought to trial by the police – investigative powers are stumped and they can’t work out what’s happened,’ Dr Paige says.
‘Then the narrative arc that follows is an investigation by the storyteller of the key compelling points, often with the goal of trying to demonstrate someone’s guilt. Sometimes the goal is to highlight the awful, unsolvable tragedy and injustice of the crime, but the focus is usually on trying to find a guilty party.’
As compelling as true crime narratives can be, there is one important caveat to their popularity and caution to the consumer, explains Dr Paige: ‘A true crime narrative is never an inherent truth claim.’
She says it’s best to think of true crime podcasts, films, series and books as ‘curated narratives’ that aim to keep us engaged in a story as well as serve the interests of the content producer, rather than undisputed fact.
‘It is really important that we note that true crime, as much it purports to be a factual truth claim, is still a form of storytelling and a curated narrative,’ Dr Paige says. ‘It’s never the whole truth as there’s always things that have been selectively left out to aid the angle that the content creator is trying to cover.
‘True crime is never without bias. It’s always the content creator’s interpretation of the facts to tell a story rather than a pure recounting of facts without motive.’
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