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Why do we love true crime?

crime scene

By carl ballou | Shutterstock

Ben Safranski, Ph.D. - published on 11/12/22

When we unduly focus on earthly justice, on justice as retribution, we can develop a very un-Catholic desire for vengeance.

I am a huge fan of true crime stories, in podcasts, books, and TV shows. Since the first season of NPR’s podcast Serial launched the new true crime renaissance in 2014, I have listened to more stories of murder, corruption, and coverup than I care to mention, and I know the same is true of many Catholics and Christians out there. Given the subject matter of these shows, I wonder, why are we obsessed with true crime? Is this morally acceptable, or should Catholics in good conscience avoid these programs?

Pop culture

I suspect there are several reasons for the explosion in true crime programming and its popularity, some temporary to the cultural moment and some rooted in the more permanent aspects of human nature. For starters, humans love good stories, and the best true crime program is a good story, with a compelling narrative arc, relatable characters, and well-timed suspense. We can also assume that some of the interest owes to concupiscence, that people are drawn to violence and sin, even though concupiscence sometimes masquerades as curiosity.

I think, however, that there is more to it than that. Our pop culture is not known for clear depictions of objective right and wrong. Gone are the days of Disney movies with identifiable villains who are clearly evil and get their just desserts in the end. However, one thing that defines the true crime genre is that there are clear and understandable differences between right and wrong. 

We may not always know who the good guys and bad guys are — season one of Serial is a perfect example of this — but there is a bad guy out there who has done undeniably bad things. It is trendy to depict the misdeeds of law enforcement, but the premise of that trend is that these people are supposed to be good. Maybe in a culture that pushes tolerance of all behavior (except “intolerance”) the average person, who has an inborn sense of right and wrong, is looking for a moral reinforcement that the old media no longer provides.

Justice

The sense of right and wrong, I believe, brings many to true crime in a search for the most classical of virtues — justice. Justice is famously hard to define, but we could start with a definition from Justinian’s Institutes (6th century) and grounded in Plato’s Republic: Justice is giving each man what is due to him. 

Most people, I think, consume true crime in the hope that they will see each person involved receive what is due to them. Take season 1 of Serial as an example. The setting is the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, and as a listener, you realize instinctively that Hae Min did not deserve the death she suffered. As a result, you root for some kind of justice to be done — for her killer or killers to be punished, and for her family to have some kind of resolution. 

The podcast revolves around whether the convicted killer, her boyfriend Adnan Syed, is truly guilty. Whether you think he is guilty or not, you are rooting for justice for him! If you think he’s guilty, you want his appeals to fail and his conviction to stand. If you think he is innocent, you want him released from prison and compensated in some way for his unjust suffering!

Vice and virtue

That brings us to the pitfalls of true crime media. While I love true crime, there are several ways it can lead us to vice rather than virtue, and I have tempered my consumption of it, as I suspect many others have. The first and most obvious problem is that true crime media depicts things that can be occasions of sin or can lead to internal turmoil or distraction. After all, physical violence, sexual violence, kidnapping, and child abuse are just some of the things that true crime media tells us about. 

I would say that the best true crime does not dwell on these things but rather on the characters involved and the search for justice. However, some podcasts and shows are very salacious. This is especially the case with fictionalized depictions, when “artistic license” justifies efforts to drive up the almighty stream and download numbers. However, it can be the case in non-fictionalized accounts as well. 

Unless we are talking about certain objective standards (for example, the prohibition against pornography) it is up to each person to discern when “too much is too much” when it comes to this content. Some are extremely sensitive to descriptions of sexual content, or violence, and these may be near occasions of sin for us, which we must then avoid.

Viewing lens

I would like to mention two less obvious pitfalls that have shaped my approach to true crime recently. The first is the fact that consuming any kind of media to an excessive degree can lead you to look at the whole world through that lens. So, for example, I try mostly to avoid stories that involve harm to children because they tend to make me irrationally afraid for my children. 

I also try to limit my overall consumption of true crime content and keep it to a moderate ratio with other sorts of media, because the more crime I hear about, the harder it is to avoid despairing about the state of humanity and the world. If all you listen to are stories about corrupt cops or serial killers, you will start to feel like there are corrupt cops and serial killers around every corner. This can lead to irrational fear and also despair, which is a sin against the virtue of hope.

The last pitfall is the flipside of the search for justice that I mentioned earlier. When we unduly focus on earthly justice, on justice as retribution, and on justice that we are personally incapable of dealing out (since most of us are not the lawful authorities in the true crime cases we hear about), we can develop a very un-Catholic desire for vengeance. This is the greatest occasion of sin for me when I consume true crime media. 

As we discern what media we (and our children) should consume, we must be aware that we are fallen and limited humans whose conception of justice is always in formation, and whose clear vision can be overwhelmed by emotion, like trying to walk straight when your eyes are full of tears.

So I say, keep binging (some of) those true crime podcasts and shows, but be aware of how they affect your interior life, your passions, and your attitudes, and make sure that you don’t lose sight of the grace and goodness all around us in the world, which is much less profitable to podcast about.

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