I jump at shadows and tiny noises at night. I’ve never watched a horror movie in my life, and I derive no pleasure from gory descriptions of intestines being ripped out of girls’ abdomens. I think I’ve only ever listened to one true crime podcast, and that was more for background about the Gabby Petito investigation than to service any latent desire to trick my brain into thinking I’m about to be murdered.
While true crime fans are naturally obsessed, that just isn’t the spot that Jim Can’t Swim (JCS) videos hit for me. It’s something else, and I’m trying to figure out just what makes JCS videos on YouTube so addictive to millions of people like me worldwide. At the time of writing, the channel has uploaded only 19 videos. This limited offering has already clocked up a cumulative 283.2 million views. The channel has 4.43 million followers, and even counts actor Bill Hader as a publicly acknowledged fan.
JCS Criminal Psychology videos are psychological deep-dives into the criminal interrogation process. JCS takes publicly available footage of criminal interrogations and adds their own sober, incisive, sometimes dryly funny or mildly sarcastic explanations of why both the suspects and trained interrogators behaved in certain ways during the interrogation. They speed up the videos and pause at the good parts, which is also what makes their usually hour-long videos so completely different from the hours-long raw unedited clips you can otherwise access. The result is an endlessly fascinating look into how people who have recently committed terrible crimes behave at possibly the most high-stakes moment of their lives, and the many subtle and overt ways police are trained to elicit confessions, figure out if a suspect is lying, or obtain enough conflicting information to help strengthen a prosecutor’s case in court.
JCS began their channel in 2017, then dropped off YouTube to appear exclusively on Patreon, and then returned to YouTube about two years ago. There’s no clarity on exactly who they are, but rumours on the interwebs seem to indicate that it’s a group of a few people. The videos are narrated by Kizzume whose soothing but compelling, almost Werner Herzog-esque voice adds a distinct flavour to JCS videos.Their videos seem to have really taken off at the beginning of the global coronavirus shutdowns back in March 2020, which could be a function of YouTube’s algorithm registering the world’s collective appetite for true crime during the pandemic. “Young minds seek thrills from stories and games,” clinical psychologist Manoj Kumar told VICE. “Similarly, adults also look for thrills, adventure and varied sensations, particularly at a time as monotonous as the global lockdown.”
Conversely, a March episode of LitHub’s Literary Disco podcast that dealt with the surge of the genre during the lockdowns discussed how true crime content can be “soothing in a way,” which resonates more closely with my experience of watching JCS. The podcast discussed how its clear moral universe (in which a bad person does bad things), familiar content and an uncomplicated narrative arc bring “order to chaos.”While JCS’ popularity may be relatively new, they’ve already single-handedly created a whole new genre within the true crime universe. Over the last year, several accounts have popped up posting “JCS-style” or “JCS-inspired” interrogation analysis videos, and JCS addicts have been flocking to these copycats while waiting for another hit of the OG stuff to be uploaded. It’s even spawned a spate of reaction videos, where YouTube users film themselves reacting in real time to the happenings in the videos.
You may have in fact already seen traces of JCS’ latest video: What pretending to be crazy looks like. Back in June, that video explored the interrogation of the 19-year-old Stoneman Douglas school shooter, focusing specifically on his alleged attempts at faking a variety of mental health issues in order to receive a lighter sentence.This video received 30 million views in just a week, which some experts said was partly thanks to YouTube’s algorithm boosting high-quality, long-form content that most viewers watched till the very end. The seemingly inexplicable popularity of the video even spawned a popular meme, after social media users wondered why they were being recommended this video.
But my personal obsession with JCS began several months ago, with a video titled Jennifer’s Solution, examining the confession of a 24-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian woman who hired mercenaries to stage a robbery and murder her strict parents in 2010.
From the second I heard Kizzume point out the exact moment the investigator became suspicious of Jennifer’s story and why, I was hooked. In time, he explained how Jennifer’s manner of speech differed from how an innocent person would react, why she was seated in a way that the door was obstructed by the investigator, what her gestures revealed about her mental state, why the investigator leaned forward at a specific moment… just a wealth of information I’d never encountered in my life. I think I binge-watched every JCS video on YouTube in about two days, and subscribed to their Patreon for more content as soon as I’d run out of the free stuff.
While it’s interesting enough to see how guilty people respond under conditions of such immense mental pressure, it’s the psychological onslaught the detectives carry out that’s most compelling to me. It feels like learning a mentalist’s tricks when you see how specific actions from trained detectives can trigger certain automatic reactions – like how easily a suspect can be lulled into complacency by a seemingly-friendly detective; how a calculated pause can spur a suspect on to provide more details; or how the interrogator providing an alternate, more palatable explanation for a grisly crime can inspire a suspect to confess.Of course, the suspects’ behaviour is fascinating, too.
Some are captivating for their strangeness and commitment to lying. Like Jodi Arias, who spent some part of her first interrogation rooting through garbage, singing and standing on her head while denying that she had been at the victim’s house on the day in question.
The more “normal” suspects, like Lee Rodarte or Chris Watts are fascinating to watch, too. They tend to trigger a sort of armchair critique: While it’s hard for me to relate to a child-killer or girlfriend-stabber, it’s slightly easier to sit back and point out things the suspect shouldn’t have said, or how and why their cover stories contradict themselves. “During interrogations, people are intimidated in a particular way,” forensic psychologist Aditya Sundaray told VICE. “There’s a kind of manipulation that happens, but that manipulation is done by law enforcement, who are taken to be ‘the good guys.’ So it could be that viewers want to learn how to ‘ethically’ manipulate people [by watching such content], or want to use these tactics to justify their own manipulation.”Aside from an evolutionary attraction to the thrill of crime, Kumar said that watching these videos could be a form of vicarious learning. “Such videos help people identify risks, and show the signs that help recognise these kinds of issues in society,” he said. “Maybe it helps viewers identify [the kinds of] people who can commit such crimes, or even to just spot liars in their own lives.”
Artist and JCS-lover Anu Sankaran has a slightly darker take on why she finds these videos so satisfying. “I think we’re primed to seek satisfaction in retribution, but we rarely get to see that in front of our eyes,” she said. “There’s something very satisfying about actually watching someone who deserves to be punished squirm at the moment they realise they’ve been caught. I like the successful interrogations, where the suspect finally confesses, the best. It gives me the same feeling I get when I watch a pimple-popping video.”She has a point. There is something viscerally voyeuristic and satisfying about watching a murderer get caught in the tangle of their own lies. Perhaps it helps that interrogation videos show the criminal in an uncomfortable situation without forcing us to, say, confront our opinions on the morality of prison sentences or capital punishment. Data scientist and JCS-aficionado Mayukh Samanta added, “These videos feel like a new branch of documentary filmmaking altogether. Detective shows and interrogation scenes have always been fascinating, but this is real. It’s like a game of chess, but with murder. There’s a theatrical aspect to it too: The situation may be unscripted, but everyone’s still performing.”
He said the videos feel a bit nostalgic, or like a “more grown up, sophisticated version of the cop-chase shows that were popular when we were kids.” The videos are also replete with ASMR. Police interrogations tend to use cameras that aren’t visible to the suspects, so unlike most of the audio we’re used to hearing now, the suspects aren’t speaking directly into microphones. This adds just the right amount of static-y ambient noise, with periodic taps, swooshes and clicks from setting down pens or shuffling through papers, and the background chatter of other policemen. These have a strangely soporific effect when I play them at night. They’re also exactly the right length to lull me to sleep. The Reddit jury is still out on whether JCS’ analyses are grounded in scientific research. As one commentator pointed out, there’s no information available on the identity of JCS or their educational qualifications, meaning we have no real sense of what expertise they actually have. Another points out that they believe many of JCS’ inferences are not backed by literature, and that “lots of his claims rely on body language [...]. Lying and truthfulness have been found to be impossible to tell through body language.”Speaking about the viral Stoneman Douglas school shooter video to AV Club, Christo Wilson, a professor whose work focuses on “algorithm audition” said, “Teaching pop psychology to people [so] that they can dismiss someone who appears to be in mental health crisis because they’re ‘faking it’ [is] not a particularly great message.”
Still, there’s no denying that JCS videos are painstakingly-edited and full of interesting insights to mull over, if not accept as gospel truth. But while you may want to take some of their insights with a grain of healthy skepticism, there’s certainly one lesson that watching JCS teaches you for life: Never be interrogated without your lawyer present. VICE reached out to JCS on Patreon and Instagram, and received Legend of Jeff-level refusal to speak to us, meaning no response at all.Follow Sharanya Gopinathan on Twitter.