From true crime podcasts to controversial Netflix docuseries, the mass-marketing of true crime is all around us. While this phenomena may seem disturbing, it’s not as uncommon as you may think.
The term “serial killer” was popularized in the early 1980s, with the crimes of Ted Bundy. Now, serial killers have become entrenched in popular culture, through fictionalized movies like Silence of the Lambs and biographical crime series like Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. While there are a variety of reasons someone may be interested in true crime, it typically involves the concept of deviance.
“People are interested in serial killers and [true crime] because it's an extreme form of deviance people don't have experience with,” says Dale Ballucci, a criminology professor at Western University. “There's not a lot of serial killers out there. People are so interested in living outside of the normal boundaries of life expectation and I think that's why they're obsessed with deviance.”
Ballucci notes there’s a certain “normal” lifestyle people live which she defines as “a series of boundaries in society people stay within.” Serial killers are an extreme case of deviants, as they live a lifestyle so outside of these conventional boundaries.
Victoria Hammill is a third-year criminology student who explains her childhood interest in mysteries and nonfiction books snowballed into her interest in true crime.
“[The interest] kind of shaped what I want to do as a career and how I could use that interest to find a career in something I really loved and was passionate for,” says Hammill.
Although many people are fascinated by serial killers, there’s a sense of caution people should take, Ballucci explains. While the curiosity of deviance is one reason people enjoy watching true crime, there are others that may watch these shows to protect themselves from being a potential victim.
“People think if they watch enough television shows and know how serial killers operate, they'll be able to protect themselves. If I learn more, I can be less afraid of things because I know what the risk factors are,” says Ballucci.
As practical as some of these reasons may seem to be, the fascination or glamorization of serial killers can lead to ethical issues. Unlike other forms of entertainment, true crime often involves traumatic moments in real people’s lives.
“All of it fits in a very ethically gray area. If you're taking it to posting online, whether that be reaching out to people who are actually involved, or posting theories online and accusing different people of potentially committing crimes or being involved, I think that’s where it can definitely become unethical and dangerous,” says Hammill.
Fourth-year environmental science student Allison Pert runs a podcast titled “Crimeopedia,” with each episode focused on different true crime cases.
“I take a lot of issue with people who romanticize [serial killers] and lean into their morbid curiosity, without considering the other factors that play into something like this,” says Pert.
In her podcast, Pert says she tries to ensure she’s looking at these crimes from an ethical standpoint by working with victims' families. She aims to help people be more aware of these stories, as they have important lessons she wishes to draw attention to.
“[The victims]’ stories are not just for you to sit around the campfire with your girlies having s'mores and like talking all night long, like gossiping, it's not like that,” says Pert.