Americans love true crime. But should we?

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Posted at 3:13 PM, Apr 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-09 07:34:24-04

DENVER — Americans love true crime.

It's the most popular genre of the top podcasts and one of, if not the, most popular types of TV shows on streaming. But why?

"Of course, people love to be in other people's business, right? And there's some fascination the more spicy it is, the more interesting it is," said Dr. Amber McDonald with the University of Colorado's Department of Psychiatry on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Dr. McDonald explains that there is a physical payoff to watching and listening to true crime, too.

"There's also a physiological component that occurs when you're watching these things. That's a chemical dump that makes your body feel good," said Dr. McDonald.

You get the dopamine, the titillation and the chance to safely dip a toe into some dark waters.

"You watch Dahmer and you get an idea of what it may smell like, what it may look like. Those types of things. So it's the best of both worlds there. It is an inexpensive, socially acceptable way, again to get this chemical dump, to get our adrenaline up. Get into the spicy space. And people love fantasy," explained Dr. McDonald.

Why is it so popular now? Part of it, of course, is that there are so many places to consume it now. But McDonald adds that it's also likely a reaction to these tense political and social times.

As with anything, McDonald warns that all this crime should be consumed in moderation. She says she's seen that too much of it can lead to paranoia, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

"Don't do it in your bed. I realize people like to watch shows before they go to sleep. But again that chemical component of adrenaline can really impact your ability to get a good, restful sleep," says McDonald.

True crime: Why do Americans love the podcasts and shows of this genre?

There are ethical considerations, too. In a powerful guest essay in the New York Times earlier this year, the sister of Polly Klaas — who was abducted from her California home in the 1990s — argues that a family's tragedy should not be your entertainment.

She writes: "The exploitation of victims’ stories often carries a steep cost for their families as their tragedies are commodified and their privacy repeatedly violated for mass consumption."

Dr. McDonald believes you can be a good person and get your true crime fix. Take a moment to do a bit of research on the show. Are family members involved in the production or have they given their approval? Are any of the profits going to a foundation or nonprofit?

It's never been easier to enjoy a crime documentary and to make sure you're doing it in a principled way. Which is good, because the appetite for death is alive and well.

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