In 2001, Kathleen Peterson died in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a staircase in her North Carolina home. Images of her lifeless body were captured in a series photographs taken by police, only to be later immortalized in the 2018 Netflix true-crime series, The Staircase, where they were used compellingly in the first 10 minutes to draw viewers into the mystery surrounding her death. As you can imagine, the images are absolutely horrifying. Hell, the whole show is.
Still, I can’t look away. In fact, I can’t look away so much that I’ve canceled my plans for the evening to stay home and binge-watch the entire series. Though I’m hesitant to admit it, doing this is one of my guiltiest pleasures — truly, all I want to do after a long, stressful week is forsake my obligations to my friends and family, fire up Netflix and play armchair detective from the comfort of my bed. No parties or meetings. I just want one night where it’s me, myself and my murders. I guess you’d say it’s how I unwind.
For myself and the millions of other true-crime bingers out there, there’s something profoundly calming about doing so. Murder shows and true-crime series like The Staircase, Evil Genius or Wormwood seem to offer a certain catharsis that’s hard to glean from other genres like comedy or drama, and their addictive, streamable nature means you can spend hours with your face glued to the screen ruminating over people’s problems that are far worse than your own. Bizarrely, the net result is often relaxation, though not the kind you might get from a bubble bath or having a small woman walk on your back at a Korean spa. Rather, it’s a deeper form of deliverance: the intoxicating opportunity to explore your darkness without succumbing to it.
However, while I love murder shows, the irony of how odd this is isn’t lost on me. Why would a show about murder — the world’s most horrifying crime — be relaxing to anyone who’s not a psychopath? Why, after a long day, would the only thing me and millions of other people want to do is go home, eat leftovers in bed and immerse ourselves in disturbing TV chaos that forces us to confront the one thing we fear most?
NPR’s TV critic Eric Deggans has a few ideas. For one, he says, we do it because we’ve always done it — people have been unwinding and chilling out to murder and mayhem for as long as storytelling as been around. In fact, true crime actually has a long history that goes back at least to 1889 when lawyer William Roughead began retelling murder trials for journals and later compiled the accounts into books. Then came TV and early crime shows like Dragnet, which introduced the public to the gritty life of police officers investigating crimes like homicide all the way back in 1951. “We’ve always been fascinated with what would drive someone to murder someone else and with the work of people whose job it is to catch those murderers,” says Deggans. “The obsession itself is nothing new, it’s just that the media products we’re using to tell them have changed.”
Thanks to bingeable streaming services and podcasts that are available on every device within a one-foot radius, it’s now possible to not only watch, but fully submerge yourself in the same captivating stories of death and destruction that have always titillated humankind. At the same time, these formats and the depth of reporting that tends to accompany them allow us to have more contact with the characters therein than ever before — it’s like you actually know them, which keeps you invested enough to do what I do sometimes: cancel your life just to see what happens next. It’s because of this that shows like Netflix’s Making a Murder, HBO’s The Jinx and the true-crime podcast Serial have been able to not only take off, but incite a new wave of murder-based true-crime mania.
However, Deggans brings up an important point about these shows that might explain why they make good diversions from daily life in spite of their grisly nature: None of them — at least not the good ones — spend a lot of time focusing on the torture, gore or death that spawned their stories in the first place. Rather, he says, they draw viewers in by spinning narratives around the murder that do more than just entertain — they teach us something about ourselves or society.
Making a Murderer might be the most salient example — the show, which drew in nearly 20 million views in its first season alone, wasn’t so much about the death of Teresa Halbach as it was about about working-class white people in the Wisconsin who felt they’d been railroaded by the criminal justice system. Likewise, The Jinx was less about murder and more about a wealthy, seemingly dangerous eccentric who was able to use his money and smarts to evade prosecution for crimes he obviously committed. Serial, which was released in 2014 amid the roiling backdrop of Ferguson, told the story of a person of color convicted of a crime he and his family maintain he didn’t commit.
As Deggans suggests, meta-narratives like these may explain what enables us to connect with such disturbing stories in the first place. Save for the errant Ted Bundy among us, it’s not necessarily the crime we tune in for; it’s the characters, themes and lessons that surround it. Together, these factors make shows about murder feel relatable and relevant, bringing the viewer past the crime-scene tape and into a cultural moment people can participate in together (though the ethics of doing so are a totally different story). Given that people tend to be less anxious and depressed when they feel they’re part of a community or a movement, it’s not far-fetched to imagine how participating in the zeitgeist of murder shows might lead to some mild appeasement.
Likewise, Deggans says we’re also able to stomach fictionalized or narrative murders and the stories that surround them to de-stress because they tend to follow a formulaic story arc that makes it feel safe. Much like romantic comedies or action movies, viewers can expect a certain choreography of scenes and themes over the course of a show — an interesting or unusual crime is committed and/or investigated by memorable characters who face suspenseful twists and turns in a cat-and-mouse game that culminates in the catching of a killer. The individual storylines of murder shows vary enough to keep us interested, but as Deggans explains, this formula can lend an “air of comforting predictability to an otherwise gruesome and difficult genre.”
For some people, that predictability is exactly where the relaxation aspect kicks in. According to Hanover College psychology professor and Psychology at the Movies author Skip Dine Young, knowing what to expect from a murder show can give viewers a soothing sense of control over the things they fear the most, which, for many people, is premature death. Though homicide is a relatively unlikely path to that end, murder shows allow us to insert ourselves into the narratives and think through how we’d respond if we were in a similar situation. “When we do that, it gives us the illusion of control because we can imagine whatever outcome of the action we want,” Young explains. “By putting ourselves in control, we can lessen our anxiety over the things that scare us.” When we’re less afraid, he continues, we feel more empowered, something that can be calming to anyone who feels like they might not be holding the reins in a given situation.
This effect appears to be particularly true for women, who dramatically outnumber men as consumers of true crime. According to a 2010 study by Social Psychological and Personality Science, women may be especially drawn to this type of genre as a subconscious way of regaining control over the real-life threats they face. By visualizing how they might react or get away in a similar situation to the one that’s happening on-screen, murder shows may provide them with a worst-case scenario dress rehearsal of sorts; one that helps prepare them for the unthinkable.
However, as Young points out, murder is something very few people will experience in their lives, so the theory that we watch shows about it to subconsciously practice not getting murdered is really only part of the story. A more likely explanation for why some people consider these shows a release, he says, is that they allow us to vicariously process our own stresses and anxieties along with the characters on the screen.
This takes us back to the importance of formula — throughout the course of a murder show, the characters usually suffer a number of major conflicts, especially as the storyline moves from the crime to larger themes. There’s loss, grief, anger, betrayal, discrimination and so on; relatable problems many of us face, just in less harrowing circumstances. Eventually, however, these problems, like our own, have to get addressed. Through methodical investigations and deliberate, step-by-step resolutions, the killer — i.e., the problem — is revealed, caught or exonerated. When you’re absorbed in a murder show or a true-crime story, getting to that point often feels like getting to the bottom of one’s own trauma — it’s slow, hard and frequently confusing, but worth it in the end.
According to Young, becoming absorbed in other people’s real or fictional problems and traumas and having to process them along with the characters can help viewers work through, reconcile or bring closure to events in their own life that might have caused them pain. “Conclusions that offer solutions to problems can be really cathartic because they give viewers the sense that could happen in their own life,” he says. “They can bring down people’s anxieties along with the falling action in the show.”
Chris, a friend of mine who watches more murder shows than I could ever dream of, tells me he’s experienced this effect several times, most recently while listening to Casefile’s five-part series about the East Area Rapist/ Golden State Killer. “When a person is found to be innocent or if they’re finally caught by police and some sort of justice is served, it’s actually really relaxing,” he explains. “It says so much about public safety and retribution. It makes you feel like there’s a bearable end every story, even when that story is horrifying.”
Still, though, all of this really only works if murder shows are your thing. If they’re not, there’s little relaxation to be found in say, a 13-part series that investigates whether it was a guy or an owl who pushed a woman down the stairs (see: The Staircase). “Murder shows can be upsetting and quasi-traumatic for some people,” says Young. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to everyone.”
If they are your thing, however, Young says their palliative effect may go much further than other, less bloody forms of relaxation. For example, you could meditate in your flower garden to unwind, but it might not force you to confront your fears or walk your anxieties through a full resolution cycle in the same way watching a murder show does. Sometimes, the latter, more brutal option is what’s needed to go from tense to chill.
That said, all that processing and subconscious preparation takes serious work and brain power. Wouldn’t it be easier — and a tad more rational — to relax with something a little less, I don’t know, dead? I mean, why not throw on a 10-hour yacht rock soundtrack and Google stock images of “nice sunsets” until you fall into a peaceful slumber if relaxation is actually what you’re after?
“Different things are relaxing to different people,” says Deggans. “Some people unwind through stimulation or occupying their minds. It’s the same reason some people ride roller coasters or go bungee-jumping to blow off steam — we get a thrill from things that seem extreme on the surface, but that you know are actually safe. That’s just entertainment.”
That, and you know what? It just feels good to be titillated and scandalized — the drama and atrocity helps us escape from the mundanity of our daily lives and makes them a little spicier by causing us to question what darkness may be lurking inside the people and places we know. And after a rough week or a boring life, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little thrill out of that.