Why is true crime so popular?

Why is true crime so popular?
Reel Unlimited

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5 min read
Why is true crime so popular?

Why is True Crime so popular? A brief history of the genre

We've all been there: getting stuck into a true crime novel, a documentary on organized crime, or two hours into a YouTube series uncovering grizzly crimes. It's these elements that have kept us hooked for years. 

Our fascination with human behavior and the motives behind such actions keep us coming back for more. In this blog post, we'll be taking a deep dive into the history and evolution of the genre and looking at what keeps true crime a favorite genre in our lives.

The origins of True Crime stories

True crime as a literary genre isn't just a modern phenomenon; its roots extend centuries back.  For instance, Zhang Yingyu's  "The Book of Swindles" from the late Ming dynasty is one of the earliest known examples of true crime literature. In "The Book of Swindles," Zhang Yingyu meticulously chronicled various forms of fraud that were prevalent during his time.

In Britain, pamphlets detailing murders and crimes boomed in popularity between 1550 and 1700. These pamphlets often sensationalized the gruesome details of criminal acts, captivated readers with scandalous narratives, and became a form of entertainment in their own right. While some of these pamphlets might have strayed into sensationalism, they significantly shaped the early foundations of true crime storytelling. 

The 19th and 20th centuries marked the golden age for the true crime genre. Authors such as Henry Tufts and Thomas De Quincey started looking into the psychological aspects of crime. William Roughead, widely renowned for his works, wrote extensively about British murder trials. The lives of criminals fascinated readers, and knowing that each tale was based on a true story served to stoke the fires of interest further.

The modern True Crime novel

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote marked a significant turning point in the evolution of modern true crime literature. Published in 1966, In Cold Blood is often considered a groundbreaking work that redefined the genre and set a new standard for storytelling within it.

Its meticulous approach to recounting real-life criminal events set "In Cold Blood" apart from earlier true crime narratives. Capote delved deeply into the details of the Clutter family murders and the subsequent investigation and trial. He combined extensive research with narrative storytelling techniques, blurring the boundaries between traditional journalism and literature. 

Moreover, "In Cold Blood" offered readers a glimpse into the lives of the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, painting a complex and empathetic portrait of their backgrounds, motivations, and the psychological factors that drove them to commit such heinous acts. 

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The Era of True Crime magazines

In the early 20th century, true crime magazines like "True Detective" established a strong foothold among readers. These publications focused on stories that featured a killer, an investigation, victims, and a suspect. In other words, it is the perfect combination for a successful true crime story. As time moved on and habits changed, this form of true crime story would eventually fade out to make way for new and ever-more addictive media, i.e., films.

When True Crime met film and television

In the last few decades, true crime documentaries have seen an incredible surge. One such trailblazer was "The Thin Blue Line," which received critical acclaim among audiences. However, the true crime genre wasn't just popular in the USA, but the whole world. Hong Kong experienced a similar surge in popularity during the 1990s, and with the invention of Netflix and online streaming, fans of the genre can't get enough.

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True Crime Podcasts

Special mention should be given here to crime podcasts, which have undergone somewhat of a revolution in recent years. One such podcast, "Serial," achieved a jaw-dropping 5 million downloads on iTunes. Ashley Flowers hosts one of the top podcasts, "Crime Junkie," which takes listeners on an immersive journey as she goes from one chilling story to the next. Similar series like "Cults" and "My Favorite Murder" featuring Georgia Hardstark are examples of hit shows from Apple podcasts.

The Best True Crime podcast offers listeners a peek behind the veil at how the justice system works, how family members are affected (or in some cases involved!), and how many small-town crimes take place right in their own backyard. 

You can even discover how some law enforcement agencies replaced the faces of traditional playing card decks with images of missing and murdered people. They would distribute those cards in prisons, hoping inmates would come forward with information. This would then allow them to open the case and give the victims' families some much-needed answers.

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Sensational crimes that inspired true crime books

Moving on from true crime podcasts, we thought it would be worth sharing some of the most famous murders and cold cases that inspired true crime books. 

Golden State Killer

From 1974 to 1986, the Golden State Killer ran amok in California, leaving a trail of devastation and broken lives behind him. Starting with minor burglaries and moving on to home intrusions, the killer demonstrated some chilling traits.

This included stealing petty items and scattering women's underwear, all of which revealed disturbed psychological traits. As the crimes continued, the killer soon started taking things to another chilling level. In total, the serial killer committed 13 murders, 51 rapes, and 120+ burglaries. The shocking truth came when he was revealed to be a police officer.

Black Dahlia Murder

Elizabeth Short, widely known posthumously as the Black Dahlia, came to a tragic and brutal end when she was found dead in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in 1947. Her murder, infamous for the horrifying mutilation of her bisected corpse, sent shockwaves across the whole country. Even today, Short's unsolved murder remains a mystery and has since captivated the public with plenty of theories and speculations.

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Charles Manson

This story represents a very dark chapter and involves shocking murders at numerous locations. Charles Manson was an infamous criminal and cult leader during the 1960s in California. Manson was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder and was responsible for ordering seven murders, many of them women. Manson was able to captivate and brainwash his followers, turning his involvement in Scientology into a doomsday cult.

Christopher Duntsch, aka Dr. Death

Christopher Daniel Duntsch, infamously known as Dr. Death, a former neurosurgeon and one of the most horrific serial killers, earned his nickname for a very good reason. During his career, Duntsch caused severe damage to several patients' spines, killing two. This seems to be straight out of true crime books. In total, 33 patients suffered injuries before Duntsch's license was revoked.

Following his conviction in 2017, many questions arose from patients and people involved at how Duntsch even received his medical license, especially as new evidence of his crimes came to light.

Elizabeth Holmes documentary

While the story of Holmes may not be in the same category as some of the disturbing and deranged stories we've mentioned above, it still managed to grab the attention of many due to real-life events and the publicity of the scandal. 

The documentary "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" shows how the investigation went all-in and exposed the dodgy dealings and outright fraud that lay behind Holmes' incredible rise to fame. The documentary offers viewers a fascinating look at the tangled web of lies, claims, and deception that Holmes and her colleagues spun to get money from investors and keep the lie alive.

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Hae Min Lee

This is the tragic tale of a Korean-American high school student who disappeared on January 13, 1999. Four weeks later, her body was discovered in Leakin Park, Baltimore County. She had been strangled to death. Her ex-boyfriend was accused of being the murderer and was subsequently arrested and convicted of first-degree murder, receiving a life sentence plus 30 years on top. 

In an interesting turn of events, the Serial podcast was able to shed light on the case, which led to its reopening. What followed was a series of acquittals of charges in 2022, a reinstated conviction by the lead prosecutor, and a 60-day stay pending further appeal, which is still ongoing.

The positive side to being a crime junkie

As seen in the case above, true crime works can influence both the cases they cover and their audience, shedding light on key parts of cases that many may have missed. For example, the documentary "The Jinx" led to the arrest of New York real estate heir Robert Durst after a confession. The hit series is an excellent example of the positive side of consuming true crime series and can assist the criminal justice system.

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Cultural impact of learning about serial killers

True crime has evolved from ancient tales to a modern and incredibly popular cultural phenomenon. Gripping narratives and the human fascination with the darker aspects of society make this genre a must for any Halloween party or even simple Saturday night viewing. The genre continues to captivate and engage audiences worldwide through books, films, podcasts, or television.

True crime stories have even been recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, cementing the genre's importance and one that will continue to intrigue fans for generations to come. 

Get yourself some fantastic True Crime merch, and if you liked this blog, make sure you check out more of our content!

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