(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of violence. Viewer discretion advised.)
These shows are bloody; they are controversial. Almost all of them have been criticised for glorifying murderers and perpetrators of sexual assault. But true crime shows have a way of drawing an audience.
Dahmer is known to have killed 17 people between 1978 and 1991, and his story has cemented its place as one of the most popular Netflix shows this year with over 300 million hours of viewing.
But the craze not only surrounds Dahmer; from Ted Bundy Files to the House Of Secrets: The Burari Deaths and Buzzfeed's Unsolved: True Crimes, the takers for these "too visual, too violent" shows have only been growing in number.
So, what keeps the audience hooked to true crime shows? How do the gory visuals impact the mental health of the viewers?
For Many, True Crime Shows Are a Coping Mechanism
Twenty-three-year-old Varsha Singh, a media professional, started watching true crime shows back in her school days. She describes them as a stress buster that made her forget the immense pressure during her examinations.
On the other hand, 24-year-old Rujuta Thete, a fact-checker, started watching true crime shows in 2018 when, after watching a documentary series called Truth and Lies: The Family Manson, Netflix's algorithm started recommending more and more such shows to her.
But her interest gradually developed after she realised that it helped her become more aware of "the dangers in the world." She was pulled into it by the intrigue of how cases were solved, but more importantly, these shows gave her a glimpse into the minds of criminals.
"The most interesting part for me is that when the criminals are confessing to their crimes, they have zero regrets. It makes you realise how differently wired their brains are."Rujuta Thete, Fact-Checker
Shireen Khan, who lives in Ghaziabad, feels that more than the interest in finding out how these cases unfold, watching true crime dramas helps her cope with her fear of the unknown.
She says, "What drives me to watch these shows is also the fact that I know about the incident. I'm curious to listen/watch people describe the horror in detail."
Even though she's disgusted by the actions of the criminals, she's also curious to know how the minds of serial killers work, just like Thete. She adds, "It reinforces my belief that you cannot trust anyone."
But What Attracts Them to Such Shows? Experts Weigh In
Dr Umang Kochhar, a consultant psychiatrist in Delhi, says that it isn't uncommon for people to be attracted to true crime dramas, since they appeal to our basic instincts – thrill, fear, horror, desire, and anything remotely sexual, and give us an adrenaline rush.
These shows titillate our senses with gore. He says, "The drama, the negativity is something that hooks people on. This is as close as you can get to the real thing without any apparent consequences, in a controlled environment."
But he agrees with Khan.
A lot of people watch these shows to prepare themselves for what might come. Additionally, there's also a sense of comfort that the case was solved and the criminal was brought to justice. There's a sense of reinforced belief in the system.
Dr Bhavna, a psychologist, agrees with Kochhar that the resolution at the end of an episode/series, and watching good triumph over bad can be comforting for people. But she adds that the sense of urgency and the element of mystery are what keep people hooked. Additionally, it is thrilling to try to understand who these people were and why they did whatever they did.
Manali Arora, a practising therapist in Delhi, adds that these shows might make you feel good about yourself "for enduring watching something so gruesome that most people can't even look at it."
Where To Draw the Line?
As much as Singh loves the genre, she can't dare to look at the screen when someone is being killed, be it a human or an animal, or when there's just too much blood.
It was especially disturbing for her to watch Delhi Crime when it first aired because the actual incident had happened close to where she lived.
She says, "After watching it, at 3 am, I was locking all the doors and windows, just to make myself feel safe, feel secure."
Thete, on the other hand, draws a different kind of boundary. She explains that most of the criminals portrayed in these shows have a traumatised past and are shown in such a way that it's almost like the directors want you to sympathise with them.
But as a viewer, you can't, she says, because not only are they criminals but also you'd be insulting the victims if you sympathise with them.
Over the years, Thete says she has become immune to watching violence or gore unfold on screen. "I am almost desensitised," she adds.
Dr Kochhar, however, says that your body and your mind are the best guides that will tell you when and where to draw a boundary. According to him, these are the physical and psychological signs that indicate that maybe you should take a step back:
If you start having palpitations, sweating in your palms, churning in your stomach, tremors, shortness of breath, or if your mouth becomes dry
If you start getting panic attacks or are feeling anxious
If you start distrusting people, becoming suspicious, or wary of people
Dr Bhavna adds that it's not just anxiety that can take over people, but paranoia too. She says, "Despite the resolution, there's a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that can set in."
Arora chimes in that if your very sense of security is shattered, forcing you to be hypervigilant all the time, maybe you should take a step back.
"People want to believe they are safe. This sense of security shakes when you watch these shows. They make you question education, knowledge, communities, and a lot of things that are supposed to liberate you. They disturb your core beliefs like how education is supposed to save you from everything bad out there."Manali Arora, Therapist
More Women Watch True Crime Dramas Than Men
A lot of studies say that more women watch true crime dramas than men. One of them, a study by the University of Derby, titled Why Are We So Obsessed With True Crime?, says that women being the victims in most cases is one of the reasons for this phenomenon. But the other reason might also be that they empathise with the victims more and feel compassion for them.
While Arora says that the 'justification' is usually that women want to keep themselves safe by watching these shows, it is mostly a "sweeping generalisation."
True Crime Shows Bringing Out Criminal Tendencies: A Rarity
Lest we forget, what we're consuming as an entertaining or thrilling show is the lived reality of someone. Family members of one of Dahmer's victims spoke up about how "entertainment media (kept) digging up their trauma," in an interview.
Singh believes that some true crime shows do glorify crime and criminals. She says, "Lots of people like Ted Bundy which is awful. Why are there so many shows about him? We already know enough."
But Khan feels that Ted Bundy was popular even before the true crime genre gained the kind of mass following it has now, with people flocking to the courts and sending him letters. But she agrees that just because some criminals have been glorified by people, it doesn't mean production houses do the same, without showing any kind of respect to the victims or their families.
Kochhar says that if you constantly binge-watch such shows, they might desensitise you or make you hypersensitive towards crime. But that's not all. He adds:
"If you already had anti-social personality traits, watching true crime shows can give you ideas, and aggravate your criminal tendencies. But that's a rarity. It's usually never the case."
True crime shows can normalise violence by constantly depicting it on screen for children and younger adults who might be watching. But saying that it pushes criminal tendencies forward might be going overboard with assumptions.
Arora says, "It'll be a stretch to say that watching these shows can bend your personality a certain way. It's not a simple cause and effect relationship." She adds, "A person may have psychopathic tendencies but may not be a psychopath, similar is the case with criminals."