As a society, we are fascinated by death; police dramas dominate our TV screens, murder mysteries have a significant portion of book shops, and we always want more. I consider myself to be a fairly passive person, I’m non-confrontational and generally avoid arguments, but find myself excited about a new true crime podcast or unsolved murder TV show. Is there something wrong with me? Is my interest bordering on unhealthy and a sign of something dangerous lurking in my subconscious? I don’t think so, because I’m not the only one.
We’re not strange or disturbed; I think we’re a product of society. Daily newspapers began circulation in Britain at the turn of the 18th century. Life was very different, no phones, no internet, none of the modern, high-speed technology we’re used to. Information wasn’t as readily available and newspapers were a very important source of information about the wider world. Now think about Jack the Ripper, terrorising London in 1888, people were scared for their safety, not wanting to be the next victim. So newspapers became a way to follow the case, learn about any developments, and hopefully learn of an arrest (That in the case of Jack the Ripper never came). It’s certainly no coincidence, that the term ‘yellow journalism’ was coined around this time as “Crooked journalists would often fake evidence, create witness accounts and mislead the police to create racy and sensational stories.” (Thehistorypress.co.uk).
The more sensational the news, the more papers will be sold: “Part of the reason newspaper sales rocketed was because the press used the Whitechapel cases to stoke the public’s fear” (Historytoday.com). Newspapers aim to be the first with breaking news and are always trying to beat the previous story in a vicious cycle which means we’re a society desensitised but also intrigued and wanting more. I believe newspapers initially, and now the wider media, are the main reason we have this morbid fascination with death and murder.
But that’s not the only factor. How about the books we read as children? They had a clear good guy and bad guy; the bad guy was caught and good triumphed, happy ending. Police procedurals and true crime stories are no different, they’re merely the grown up version. It’s a natural progression from one to the other.
There’s also some comfort in it, knowing the justice will be done, the killer will be caught – admittedly not always in real crime – and handed a lengthy prison sentence. It reassures us that the police are efficient, there to protect us, and that society is reacting how we think it should. Similarly, we watch horror films or shows ultimately knowing we’re safe, whilst still feeling that rush of adrenaline.
Leading on from this, we like emotional distance from the killers, the media portrays them as monsters which implies not human/other which has been in play since the Whitechapel murders: “the press were forced to label the killer with haunting titles such as ‘monster’ and ‘fiend’, adding an almost supernatural element to the killer’s reputation.” (Thehistorypress.com). It gives a clear us and them. Reassures us that we’re human and normal, unlike them. There’s also the comfort that it’s not happening to us, which sounds callous but is a natural reaction.
Finally, if we watch and read about these cases – real or not – we feel like we understand the killers a little more and so are better prepared to not become victims ourselves. What did they do, that we can avoid? Our primal instinct of self-preservation comes into play.
What do you think is the reason we’re so fascinated by death?