If you've ever spent an entire day marathoning a season (or two) of a true crime show, or listened to a few too many episodes of Serial before bed, you've probably found yourself lying awake at night, replaying those thought-provoking, and often terrifying scenes over and over in your mind. No matter how dark the subject matter may be, true crime has a devoted audience. But knowing how true crime shows affect your brain might just teach you a thing or two about why so many of us are endlessly fascinated by something so disturbing.
It seems pretty logical that watching hours and hours of graphic content about brutal murders and serial killings is bound to have an effect on a person, right? Freelance health and lifestyle writer, Paige Smith, explored this phenomenon in a recent article for Huffington Post, in which she wrote about how her own obsession with true crime shows has actually resulted in nightmares, and even bouts of anxiety. With that in mind, what good do we get out of these shows, if any? What's the real hook?
According to Christie Tcharkhoutian, LMFT, a counselor who works with patients who have experienced trauma, "the psychological reason that we are attracted to watching true crime shows is for the purpose of re-experiencing traumatic situations in safe environments."
By watching these terrifying events unfold in a fictional setting, while you're safe and sound in your cozy living room, it can be, in a weird way, sort of comforting, says Tcharkhoutian.
"Many of us have experienced — or have known people who have experienced — crimes similar to what is displayed on true crime shows, often without resolution," she tells Elite Daily. "Our brains have a need to experience closure and understanding in all situations."
For this reason, she explains, watching true crime shows — particularly those with plots that involve tragedy, and solutions to the tragedy, all within a limited amount of time — can help you reconcile and bring closure to situations, traumas, and crimes that you, or your friends or family, or even people you've simply heard about, have actually experienced. As most of us know, Tcharkhoutian adds, these experiences often don't receive the same kind of "tidy closure" in real life.
What's more, for anyone who has experienced trauma in real life, Tcharkhoutian explains, watching similar events unfold in a fictional, safe environment can "help to rewire our brains from having automatic traumatic responses," and may even provide some distance to fully understand these types of situations.
"That helps our brains view traumatic situations in a less triggering way," the trauma counselor tells Elite Daily. "It can lesson the fear and symptoms that are often associated with traumatic experiences or [the realities] of crime."
There's also the sheer element of our inherent attraction to epic storytelling, which is, of course, a staple in true crime shows.
"We are psychologically drawn to the universal story of good versus evil, right versus wrong," Tcharkhoutian explains, "and when watching true crime shows, we vicariously experience victory over 'the bad guys.'"
For those of us who tend toward problem-solving and “fixing” situations, the trauma therapist points out, true crime shows can offer a safe, and even comforting way to lean into those tendencies.
"It is definitely comforting to watch and follow the set-up for crime, and recognize warning signs that we believe we would have seen beforehand had we been in that situation," she tells Elite Daily.
I think we've all been there, right? You're watching a true crime show, you see someone slowly walking down a dark alleyway, and you know for sure that that is where the show's serial killer is lurking. You think to yourself, I would have totally done things differently, and I'd definitely make it out alive. Putting yourself into the character's shoes in this way, Tcharkhoutian explains, simply makes you feel good.
However, according to Ashley Stacy, a trauma therapist with the nonprofit organization, Peace Over Violence, these depictions can be too painful for some people to watch.
For example, “depictions of rape are painful for anyone who can identify with the victim, most especially survivors," Stacy tells Elite Daily, adding that these depictions can even serve to normalize aggressive, abusive behavior, which is definitely not a good thing.
Stacy also points out that true crime shows can sometimes create pretty unrealistic expectations about the criminal justice system in the real world. It's an unfortunate reality, but oftentimes, justice isn't served as quickly and efficiently as true crime shows would have you believe.
Bottom line: True crime shows are easy to get hooked on, but it may be in your best interest to limit those all-day marathons, at least a little bit, just to give your brain a break.
I mean, why not try a comedy for once?