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True Crime Media Glorifies Killers and Exploits Victims

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Growing up as a child in the digital age, I had minimal restraints on what I was allowed access to on the internet. Because of this, I was drawn into true crime content like “Criminal Minds” and “Cops” from a young age. Exposure to this genre for the majority of my life has desensitized me to the perils of their real-world counterparts, as reality blends in with everything I’ve seen on TV. 

In reality, the unethical, voyeuristic nature of true crime media exploits victims of heinous crimes. True crime media’s popularity has glorified and romanticized violence, desensitizing viewers and normalizing dangerous behavior.

The origin of true crime media dates back to informative crime pamphlets from to 16th-century Britain. It has since evolved into various new forms over time with the emergence of the internet. As of 2022, one in three Americans report consuming true crime content at least once a week, mostly through TV shows and films. 

In an interview with the New University, UCI professor of criminology, law and society Brandon Golob gave potential reasons for the true crime genre’s longevity.

“What draws folks in is that a huge attraction to this genre is that it’s a counter to boredom… It removes them from the boredom of day-to-day life, and we’re always seeking different activities to avoid [it],” Golob said.

Golob emphasized how the old journalism aphorism “if it bleeds it leads,” speaks towards the pursuit of media consumers to project themselves into a life that they would never live themselves. He claims that it stems from a deep-rooted fascination with the sensationalization of crime as something sexy, taboo, forbidden and deviant.

An evolutionary psychology point of view suggests that it’s human nature to try to be aware of true crime events to protect ourselves and our loved ones. It also appeases our instinctive desire to know the distinctive behaviors of criminals. Although being vigilant is a good trait, excessively consuming true crime for the sake of awareness is counterproductive to the original intent. 

The casting of well-known heartthrobs to play murderers results in consumers inappropriately redirecting their empathy and romantic and sexual desires toward the perpetrator of the crimes. This is exemplified by how viewers of Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” reacted to actor Evan Peters, who played the titular character. Many tweets call out content creators such as TikToker @the_manni who has posted content romanticizing Evan Peters playing the role. 

Professional news outlets have fallen victim to this tendency, too. Headlines such as Huffington Post’s “Zac Efron Will Use His Washboard Abs To Play Serial Killer Ted Bundy,” and Blasting News’ “Zac Efron is quirkier than you may think” contribute to the sexualization of true crime.

This unnerving obsession started before the internet. It is known as hybristophilia, the sexual attraction or arousal to extreme criminal offenders. Ted Bundy was responsible for killing more than 30 women, but he amassed a staunch fanbase known as “the Bundyphiles” who advocated for his innocence in spite of the strong evidence against him. Richard Ramirez and Charles Manson, both infamous serial killers and rapists, found their eventual wives while imprisoned.

Access to the internet not only enables hybristophilia to spread through different forms over time but also promotes trauma voyeurism.

Trauma voyeurism is a content-posting tactic that capitalizes on a victim’s vulnerability and pain for the sole purpose of virality with no regard for potential lasting repercussions on the victim. It has become increasingly prevalent in the digital age, as the means to post harmful content is more accessible than ever. 

True crime media’s relentless coverage of horrific crimes sustains this exploitative phenomenon. Survivors of these crimes and their loved ones are forced to continuously relive the worst moments of their lives for the entertainment and monetary gain of others. 

Many streaming platforms ignore the vehement protests of friends and families in producing content based on the tragedies of their loved ones. The family of 25-year-old Robert Mast, who was murdered in 2015, are victims of the greedy nature of these companies — more specifically, Netflix.

Mindy Pendleton, Mast’s stepmother, begged the multi-billion dollar corporation to not include her stepson’s story in the series “I Am a Killer.” Despite her and others’ pleas, the series paints the woman who killed Mast in a sympathetic light, further diminishing the severity of Mast’s death.

The Netflix series “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” received a lot of backlash for not including the families of Dahmer’s victims in the recording process. Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, recently published a statement attesting to the fact he reached out to 20 victims’ families but received no responses. 

The lack of a reply from any of the families should’ve been an answer in and of itself. They did not consent to the show, and they likely wanted no part in a system that thrives off the incessant exploitation of grief.

“They’re real humans, real people that are in these stories…their lives [are] being [reduced to] this,” Dr. Golob stated.

The constant exposure to true crime media desensitizes consumers. Or, as Golob refers to it, “compassion fatigue.” This is detrimental to being able to fully empathize with others and understand the weight of real-life occurrences and their repercussions. 

“A potential issue that we can argue from a moral human space [is] that so much overexposure to these topics in these cases creates compassion fatigue where folks aren’t actually feeling the human emotions attached,” Dr. Golob said. 

The need for reform in the way we consume true crime is exceedingly evident. If our culture continues to glorify and exploit criminal events, the cycle of unethical desensitization will persist. A future with a lack of regard for those affected by these atrocities is grim. 

In order to amend this issue, we must readjust the way we interact with true crime. While it is an entertaining genre to watch, we should understand that with any podcast, documentary or movie, comes a certain agenda they’re attempting to get across. It’s our responsibility as viewers to be able to discern between facts and potential narratives. 

“Every media artifact has value, as long [as] we’re a critical consumer,” Golob said. 

It’s also important to separate the actor from their role. If attractive actors are going to continue to be cast in the roles of serial killers, it’s vital to not romanticize them or their character’s actions. It has become an all too familiar occurrence where serial killers’ actions are diminished due to the actors that play them.

Watching true crime isn’t inherently bad, as long as we prioritize being cognizant of its adverse effects. We must take mindful, informed steps towards a less harmful future for true crime consumers and society at large.


Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at tlara@uci.edu.