A question we've been asked more than a dozen times is ‘Why is true crime so popular?’ As myself and my husband, Ben, create a true crime podcast They Walk Among Us, I guess it's a natural question to ask, though it’s something we've struggled to answer. Yet, the question has obviously nestled its way into my brain, waking me up in inopportune moments, often when I'm trying to go to sleep.
My first reaction was a typically blunt, ‘Well, I don't know’... and I don't know.
I do know that my interest in true crime isn't a fad or a phase that was woken with the birth of Serial or Making a Murderer. I'm a child of the 80s, I remember crime magazines and the weekly episodes of Forensic Files and BBC's Crime Watch. I also recall the panic of going upstairs on my own after watching it, worried that one of the perpetrators had decided that under my bed was the best place to hide while on the run.
The fascination with true crime isn't anything new, it goes way back long before television and glossy magazines. In 1873 Mary Ann Cotton was hanged in Durham prison for murdering her stepson; the poisoner was suspected of killing four of her husbands and other family members including 13 of her children. The press had a field day, and crowds of people gathered for her execution. Only 15 years later Jack the Ripper was butchering women at Whitechapel. A case that still inspires books, theorists, documentaries and tours to this day.
I'm not sure if the interest in true crime has reached a peak right now, or if the way people digest media has evolved: streaming, podcasts, audiobooks, subscriptions and YouTube have presented new ways to consume any topic that interests you, all right at your fingertips.
True crime isn't the only genre to be reaching more readers, listeners and viewers. Fantasy is as popular as ever with Game of Thrones filling millions of peoples’ Monday nights, and Facebook feeds. True crime podcasts have seen a massive boom with well over two hundred active pods dedicated to the topic. BUT, all podcasts have seen that spike including programmes in religion and self-help categories, it's a relatively new medium which is possible to produce from home.
Everyone is interested in an intriguing story, whether its fact or fiction; our episodes that cover biographical stories like lottery winner Michael Carroll or The Silent Twins (Jennifer and June Gibbons) have received as much social media interaction as the more traditional true crime episodes like The Krays and Robert Maudsley.
True crime tells you about an extreme that's only comfortable to view from a distance.
Personally, I'm just as likely to watch a touching episode of Queer Eye or Animal Rescue clips online as I am to watch The Jinx or The Ted Bundy Tapes. The common thread is 'the best of people, the worst of people.' The human race is interesting and confusing with dark, light, and grey areas. True crime tells you about an extreme that's only comfortable to view from a distance. It’s dipping your toe in the darkness without going for a swim.
The question of the perceived true crime boom still weighted on my mind so in passing conversation I asked my mother, ‘Do you think true crime is a resurgence?’
‘Yes’, she replied.
‘How so?’, I queried.
‘Well… there were DIY shows in the 90s, cookery shows in the '00s, now there's true crime.’
I also decided to ask our They Walk Among Us Facebook group for a perspective.
A typical response was people are fascinated by psychology and enjoyed when the ‘bad guy’ is caught. Many echoed my thoughts that true crime has always been popular. There some perspectives I didn't expect, as one person said, ‘I think it makes people feel better about their own lives, truly.’
And another stated, ‘for me, it's the 'what if' thoughts. Trying to put me in their shoes without actually being in their shoes.’ So it turns out, the reasons why true crime is popular are as varied as the people that are interested in it.
They Walk Among Us is an award-winning weekly UK true crime podcast delving into the crimes that are close to home, the criminal that sleeps beside you, lives next door, or delivers your newspaper. Listen to the latest episodes on Apple Podcasts.