“Am I capable of doing this?” is the question that occupies the mind of true crime fan Shamvabee Chakraborty, while she watches a docu-series from her favoured genre. It’s likely the same question that has managed to keep the steadily increasing global audience of true crime enthusiasts on the edge of their seats for a long time.
The 28-year-old Kolkata-based school teacher says that it was during the pandemic that she found herself turning to true crime series as a way to cope with feelings of uncertainty and fear. “The anxiety of it somehow calmed me. I had this sense of surrender and acceptance that there can be a lot of things that happen around us that don’t make sense, but that happen nonetheless.”
While the genre has long dominated major streaming platforms, it is the 2014 investigative journalism podcast Serial, downloaded 250 million times, that’s credited with causing its popularity in recent times.
Our obsession with the darkness of the human mind, however, goes way back. Some of the earliest origins of true crime can be traced to sixteenth-century Britain, when a lot of material documenting capital crimes, or crimes for which the punishment is death, was produced. Rising literacy rates combined with emerging print technologies led to the publication of several hundred crime pamphlets during the time. Reportage, judicial proceedings, and even ballads – a form of verse around a specific incident – were a few examples of what readers might expect. Types of crimes depicted in these publications included domestic or sex-related murders and “women’s criminal activities.”
These booklets included woodcuts (a printing technique in which images and/or words are carved onto the surface of wood blocks) to illustrate the more sensational crimes, including dismemberment, torture, and witchcraft. Over time, our appetite for the macabre seems to have only grown.
“The obsession taps into a primal human impulse. It’s almost [as if] viewers derive a perverse pleasure from seeing what the human mind is capable of at its extreme,” explained screenwriter Ankur Pathak. He added that this impulse is one that we, as viewers, would otherwise be unable to access, at least not without facing the consequences of our actions. “It is the grey areas and the duplicity of the characters in true crime films and series that make for the most captivating watch. A lot of the time psychopaths or sociopaths are regular, ‘normal’, functioning individuals. What is terrifying is to humanise a psychopath and realise that it takes very little for someone to snap.”
It is this fine line that directors of true crime films and series have to continually walk – to provide just enough detail to keep the audience hooked, but not so much that they tune out. “As people who view and produce content, you can tell when you’re taking something too far. Even if it is true to the story, you have to push back,” said Samira Kanwar, head of VICE Studios APAC that produced the newly-released Netflix true crime docu-series Indian Predator. “We always have to stay vigilant to ensure that we are giving the audience that thrill without making them indifferent to violence. The intention is to make you feel.”
Ashwin Shetty, who has directed an upcoming season of Indian Predator, agreed that the challenge lies in staying objective about the story as well as in being sensitive to the audience that, in countries like India, is still warming up to the genre. “We want to leave the audience with questions, thoughts, and feelings. To deliver that successfully to a wider audience, it is important to strike a balance between what’s too gory and sensational, and [to ask] if something is more important than the questions you want to leave the audience with.”
Director Ayesha Sood shared that she was acutely aware of the audience’s sensibilities when directing the first season of Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi that documents the hunt for a serial killer with a grudge against the system. “True crime gives you a lens to examine multiple things on a human level: relationships, socio-economic contexts, the country you come from, along with the psychological and sociological aspects, and I think that is always going to be fascinating to the audience. But you definitely have to keep people’s sensibilities in mind, [especially] when it comes to a case that manifested so brutally.”
A self-confessed binge-watcher of true crime series and films, Aishika Chatterjee said that while she can sit through retellings of American criminals without flinching at the gory details, the Indian ones “hit close to home.” “I become very disturbed. I also [start to] overthink about the people around me, especially my male friends,” said the 23-year-old student, who is pursuing an MA in English Literature.
Chatterjee’s response is one that’s likely common amongst women viewers, who account for the lion’s share of global true crime film viewership. “Watching true crime content is a way for us to understand and keep our guard up when it comes to any kind of violence against women or how criminal minds think,” noted Kanwar.
This might also be because women accounted for 51.4% of victims in the United States, according to a 2016 report by Radford University’s Serial Killer Information Center that created a database with information on 4,743 serial killers and 13,105 victims from mostly the US and Canada. The report also listed enjoyment (thrill, lust, power) as the top motivation (almost 37 percent) for serial killings around the world.
Apart from questioning if we ourselves have traits or behaviours that protagonists of true crime shows or movies do, watching these videos could be a form of vicarious learning too, according to forensic psychologist Aditya Sundaray. “Such videos help people identify risks, and show the signs that help recognise these kinds of issues in society,” he told VICE for another story on true crime. “Maybe it helps viewers identify [the kinds of] people who can commit such crimes, or even to just spot liars in their own lives.”
While caution is a positive takeaway from documentaries of this genre, neuropsychologist Jasdeep Mago Jethani said that overexposure to horrific crimes and obsession with the “why” and “how” is known to cause paranoia, anxiety, startled responses, and an overactive nervous system. “It puts you in fight or flight mode and our mental and physical health in a state of stress, even though it might not be real for us in the present situation,” she said. She added that if you’re feeling jittery and anxious or easily startled by sounds, that might be a sign for you to hit ‘“stop.”