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Evolution and Our Obsession with True Crime
Sociological theories try to explain why true crime has such a grip on modern culture. But the best explanation may be hidden in the evolutionary history of our species and how we learned to survive.
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Last week, I listened to a riveting true crime podcast—a novel take on the standard genre script, perfected by “Serial” back in 2014. It’s called “I Am Not Nicholas,” and it’s about an American man named Nicholas Rossi, who was said to have died several years ago around the same time that he was wanted for a rape charge in Utah.
The question the podcast asks is this: did Nicholas fake his own death? And if so, is Nicholas Rossi actually a man living in Scotland who claims to be named Arthur Knight? (Don’t worry: no spoilers here)!
As with many binge-able true crime podcasts, I couldn’t stop listening. It was as though the audio was engineered to hook my brain. And that got me wondering a simple, but intriguing question:
Why are we obsessed with true crime?
The History of True Crime
Some cultural trends are a flash in the pan. “Why are we obsessed with fads like Tamagotchis or The Cheese Tax™ song?” is a different kind of question, because they have a fleeting hold on us. But true crime, it turns out, isn’t remotely new. It seems to be a defining feature of human curiosity.
In 1617, an early incarnation of the true crime genre was released in China, authored by Zhang Yingyu. The book is known as The Book of Swindles, but it’s worth mentioning its full title: A New Book for Foiling Swindlers, Based on Worldly Experience. Very little is known about the author, but he was trying to teach merchants moral lessons while also giving them practical tips for avoiding con men. The stories could be podcast titles: there’s “The Bag Drop”; “Fake Silver”; and “Monks and Priests.”
Thousands of miles away, in Britain, true crime drama was simultaneously exploding in popularity. Between 1550 and 1700, hundreds of “crime pamphlets” were printed in England, detailing horrific murders, dripping with the macabre facts of each case. If that wasn’t enough, ballads were composed to chronicle the dastardly deeds of “England’s Most Notorious.”
As Pamela Burger, describing the scholarly work of Joy Wiltenburg, writes:
The types of crimes depicted in these publications will sound familiar to contemporary true crime enthusiasts: domestic or sex-related murders, women’s criminal activities, and particularly bloody assaults. As an added appeal, these publications contained woodcuts illustrating the more unsavory acts, i.e., dismemberment, torture, and, of course, witchcraft.
In 1807, true crime broke out in America with an autobiography by a criminal named Henry Tufts. In the past, books had excellent titles, so this one was called: “Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine. In Substance as Compiled from his own Mouth.” He was, in the contemporary words of Neal Keating, “a horse thief, bigamist, burglar, adulterer, con man, scoundrel, counterfeiter, (military) deserter and common criminal.” No doubt, if he were alive today, his life would be a Netflix docuseries.
But modern true crime was arguably born in 1811, with the Ratcliff Highway murders. These gruesome and seemingly random killings, which resulted in the deaths of seven people in two London families, captivated Britain. In 1827, Thomas De Quincey used the murders as a vehicle for both fascination and social critique, when he wrote an influential essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” But around the same time, the Metropolitan Police was established, one of the earliest modern police departments. And with it, came the rise of detective stories.
The rest is familiar: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood were all important precursors of the modern incarnation of true crime. And when you consider the genre, most stories tend to have two key elements:
Trying to understand the psychological motivations and behavior of a dangerous person who preyed on others and;
A tale of how the forces for good end up using their superior minds to catch and punish the criminal.
No matter the story, whether it’s a serial killer, a con man, or a fugitive like Nicholas Rossi who faked his own death, virtually every story incorporates these two features. That stubborn commonality across a diverse range of narratives might just offer us a clue as to why these stories captivate us.
A Theory of Vicariousness
One of the main theories about our obsession with criminality is that we love the idea of living vicariously through people who, unlike us, don’t live by the rules of modern society. As one clinical psychologist put it, “A person who is a serial killer doesn’t care about consequences, doesn’t care about victims—he only cares about what he wants…There’s a part of us that’s fascinated by that, because we don’t live that way. We have to think about the consequences. There’s that part of us that’s like, Wow, what would that be like?”
In this view, true crime is a bit like an outlet for the devil on our shoulders: it gives us the chance to imagine ourselves doing things we wouldn’t do in reality. All the thrill, none of the consequences.
I must admit: I don’t find this theory very convincing. Sure, it probably explains some of it, but this isn’t what my mind is doing when I’m watching true crime documentaries or listening to true crime podcasts. I don’t know about you, but I’m not thinking “Hell yeah, I’d love to be Jeffrey Dahmer! Thank goodness I’m getting my fix!”
Instead, there’s a better explanation for what I’m experiencing—and it leads us to a more convincing theory of what’s going on with our true crime obsession.
The Mind, Fine-Tuned for Survival
When most people hear about evolution, they think of the phrase “survival of the fittest.” It conjures up images of a gazelle racing away from a lion, with the weak gazelle succumbing to evolutionary ruthlessness. But there’s a crucial insight to evolutionary theory that we rarely think about: the way that it shaped our minds.
Each of us is the result of an unbroken chain of ancestors, back and back, to non-human relatives. Around six million years ago, our primate ancestors split from chimps. But our story—the story of Homo sapiens—began just 300,000 years ago.
As the evolutionary biologist Zachary Blount once remarked to me: when you meet someone, the only thing you can know about them with certainty is that none of their direct ancestors died before reproducing. The survivors made us.
What that means is that everything about us, including our modern minds are the result of a 300,000+ year-long winnowing process, in which our brains have been fine-tuned by one main goal: to survive long enough to reproduce. There are random changes and contingent accidents along the way. But our perceptions of reality, and the window with which we experience the world, have changed over time, shaped by selection pressures operating on random mutations, with better survival strategies becoming more likely, on average, to be passed on to offspring.
This is important to understand, because it’s the basis of a field of research known as evolutionary psychology, or a related field, sociobiology. Both fields try to use evolutionary dynamics to explain the origins of human cognition and behavior. There are some unresolvable problems with these fields, because we don’t have a time machine, and the only remnants of the distant past that we can easily study are physical, not mental. Thoughts don’t leave fossils. But both fields can be useful at helping us make sense of the modern world—and some of the research is rather convincing.
One of the core insights of evolutionary psychology is the fact that our minds were fine-tuned to navigate a world that is rather unlike the one we now inhabit. Humans lived rather differently for the last 300,000 years compared to how we live today. But our minds evolved to live in that world of human society and culture, not this one.
And in that world, there was a premium on paying attention to dangerous, threatening situations, because they could kill us. The risk of getting eaten helps to focus the mind. Those who didn’t pay attention to potential danger were more likely to die.
Now we can connect the dots: why has the evolution of our minds made us so obsessed with true crime? The answer may lie with a concept known as morbid curiosity and the benefits of mental simulations.
The Evolutionary Edge of Simulating Danger and Deception
The behavioral psychologist Coltan Scrivner argues that our cultural obsession with horror and true crime are tied to the same phenomenon: morbid curiosity. To understand it, you need to recognize that in the distant past, humans could become prey.
Other prey in the animal kingdom tend to do something interesting with their predators: they inspect them. When the predators aren’t in hunting mode, their prey try to observe them to figure out how they operate. This makes sense, as it gives them an understanding of danger, but in a safer way than learning while being chased by an animal with bloody fangs.
Humans, unlike other animals, have unique mental capacities for imagination. That gives us the power to benefit from simulated worlds as well as real ones. The neuroscientist Erik Hoel has proposed that dreams provide a useful way for us to simulate imaginary situations, which later helps us to navigate real ones. (His theory is called the “Overfitted Brain Hypothesis”).
Something similar may explain why we want to understand serial killers, conmen, their victims, and those who catch them. The idea is remarkably simple, but persuasive: these stories give us an opportunity to imagine a threatening situation, to grapple with the mind of a dangerous or deceptive person, and to run a mental simulation without actually experiencing the danger or the deception. That yields a remarkable re-framing of true crime:
It’s a test-run for our minds.
In other words, when you’re listening to a podcast about a human monster, or are watching a Netflix documentary about a swindler, you’re simulating a danger that your mind is designed to detect and avoid. After all, any of our ancestors who had minds that were poorly adapted to detecting and avoiding murderous predators (human or otherwise) were less likely to survive and reproduce.
Of course, there are limitations and the theory remains speculative. It’s difficult to test, though Scrivner has began measuring morbid curiosity and putting some intellectually rigorous meat on the bones of the theory. We can’t be sure it’s right.
Nonetheless, I find this theory convincing. It also helps explain the convergence in the storylines of the genre, which could be remarkably diverse, but actually tend to be rather similar even when the individual cases and killers are totally different. The narrative arc works not just because it makes a good story, but because it’s the kind of story that our minds are honed to pay attention to and chew on. We want to learn from the tragedies of others, so we can avoid them ourselves.
Perhaps, then, the reason why we can’t stop listening or watching was partly written by our ancestors, who were more likely to pass their genes on if they, like us, were fascinated by the deceivers and the deadly.
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