Why are we so fascinated by violent crime?
15th December 2020
It was a dark night, rain coming down on the wind shield of the car as you sit in the warm. When suddenly a hooded figure walks towards you. Your heart starts to race, you do not know what to do. Where to go. Do you run? What to do.
Does this sound familiar? It sounds like every opening to a cult classic horror film with a serial killer or violent criminal front and centre. A popular topic for thrillers and horror films and a favourite among film fanatics.
Streaming services and producers have quite clearly caught onto how fascinated society has become with things that are so out of the ordinary. Whether they are true or not.
Over the last decade, true crime has gained momentum in popularity. Documentaries, tv series, YouTube series and podcasts are just some of the media we can consume that share the details of some of the most gruesome crimes imaginable.
From serial killers such as the mysterious Jack the Ripper to the infamous Ted Bundy. We are intrigued to know more. Know why these people chose to do what they did. Was it an abusive childhood? Was it something inside them that made them snap? Or was it just a curiosity?
We are fascinated by crime stories, and while a good fictional crime series can be captivating, nothing compares to real life events.
What drives our obsession with knowing the darker side to society? Dr Sharon Cox, a psychology lecturer at University College London, suggested that:
“People are fascinated by things that are out of the ordinary. Violent crimes are so opposed to how we ought to behave that they are intriguing.”
When speaking with other crime enthusiasts they expressed feelings of curiosity and wanting to know more. However, many expressed that they would definitely fear meeting such people face to face due to worry of being hunted down or just through being scared.
One crime enthusiast I spoke to, 22-year-old, Chloe Griffiths said:
“I find true crime the most appealing as the documentaries are closer to our reality. The thrill of finding out answers to big cases seen in the news makes them appealing.
“I don’t think I would like to come face to face with a violent criminal. A lot of them are very clever and I worry that I would become entangled in a situation created by them that I would struggle to leave.”
Another, Holly Fagg, commented that they think fascination for crime is just a normal curiosity:
“The human mind’s curiosity of all things macabre, we wish to know more. Especially learn the ways of the ones who commit the crimes because it seems so impossible for someone to do something so awful at times”
“People are fascinated by things that are out of the ordinary. Violent crimes are so opposed to how we ought to behave that they are intriguing.”— Dr Sharon Cox
There are some that choose to delve deeper into the world of true crime and immerse themselves in it. Sometimes they go a little further than most of would dare.
While we sit in front of our screens and consume all types of media, some choose to spark up relationships with criminals. This can range from writing letters to marrying them. With many examples grabbing the attention of the media.
Statistics suggest that 60 per cent of people would never consider writing a letter to a violent criminal. Compared to 20% who said they would consider it and 20% said they would happily write letters.
I wanted to learn more about the types of people who send letters to violent criminals and serial killers.
Is there something specific that makes them do this? Is it just a fascination or do they want more? Do they really want to do it or was it just fun game to begin with and now they’re hooked? I wanted to know the answer.
This led me to Jade.
“It is a great thrill and definitely gets your heart pumping."— Jade
Jade, who asked to remain anonymous, has been writing letters to violent criminals for just under four years and believes it to be the most interesting hobby a person could have.
“It is a great thrill and definitely gets your heart pumping. Some never reply but you can never be disheartened because they could be receiving handfuls of letters. The ones who do reply don’t seem as monstrous as you’d expect.”
The 25-year-old has had many family and friends voice their concerns about her hobby. As one would expect. However, this has not stopped Jade from continuing to send letters to criminals.
“I don’t care for negative opinions when it comes to something I enjoy, there is not harm in it. They only know my first name at the end of the day. I’m kind and just want to learn more about them as people and not what is all across the news.
“I want to write to further afield. More in the US and to high profile criminals. Yes, I understand that there are concerns and I am aware that the higher the profile the more risk I take with my own wellbeing if they ever leave prison.”
Other crime enthusiasts I spoke with do not agree that it a harmless hobby. Many voiced their concerns over what will happen when they are finally released. Will she stay in touch? Is she scared they will come looking for her?
Griffiths definitely shared their concerns but also acknowledged the thrill of something so dangerous.
“The thrill of writing a letter to someone so dangerous could be the start of a relationship. I feel a lot of big-time criminals are often quite charming and calculated, which is how these people are lured in to spark romantic relationships.”
When asked these questions, Jade was not surprised by other people’s responses and told me she had heard it all before. She went on to say:
“I’m not scared at all. At the end of the day, it’s just like talking long distance with someone. My frequent prison pen pals I see as friends.
“They show no desire to meet me outside and see me as just someone to express feelings and ideas to. That’s all.
“In return, I learn more about them, their history, what they want to do when their sentence is up. I have never seen them as a threat.”
The avid writer started small with local prisons but soon become confident enough to send them to high-security prisoners and even US prisoners.
“I started small. Local. But this made me more scared than the thought of sending them to big-name prisoners. Local, they could find me if they really wanted to. So, I stopped doing this after six months and moved to further afield and bigger names.
“It’s harder to get your letters through to these people of course but it’s quite an adrenaline rush when you finally get a letter back from someone who made headline news months or years ago.
“I would never encourage anyone to do it but if you want to, it definitely gives you an adrenaline rush. It can be scary at first but it a lot of fun as long as you pick the right people.”
"It definitely gives you an adrenaline rush"—Jade
Writing letters to violent criminals has become more common over the last few decades. Especially with the release of the latest serial killer films such as “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” from last year.
Whether there is a direct link to the access of true crime media, it is unclear. But it definitely has had an impact for some people. Stories in national papers involving violent criminals is a regular occurrence with the increase of violence in society.
Newspapers and other forms of news definitely have a preference for writing articles about crime as it does so well from a view standpoint.
Journalist Jacob Ranson commented:
“With so many crime stories in the news it’s no wonder people are intrigued by it all. They do well when it comes to views.
“Big stories that can be followed from the first report, to arrests, to the trial and even to sentencing, are the big sellers. This is probably one of the main reasons why crime is always front page. Not only is it happening now. Its ongoing and interesting for readers.
“So, it’s not surprising we see more people getting involved in activities such as writing letters.”
Dr Cox did not agree and said that it is just a case of “supply and demand” however it could lead to “them engaging in [true crime] more.”
Ranson continued to say:
“Crime is one of those things that no matter how gruesome or how vile, people want to know what happened.
“Their curiosity gets the better of them. That’s why crime shows normally centre around the detective and his feeling of accomplishment once a criminal has been put away.
“But in real life this isn’t always the case. Many, many crimes go unsolved every year whether that be kidnappings or murders. There isn’t always justice in real life.
“This alone can be intriguing for people. There isn’t an end. Which can be confusing and also quite exciting in the sense that the story could resurface. They could help with investigation if they know anything and this is exciting for crime fanatics.”
Jade admitted she was a fan of such unsolved series and reading about serial killers and other criminals in newspapers since she was a teenager.
“The media such as papers, radio and tv have a huge impact on what sort of news people see and when it centres around crime so frequently, this has to have been a cause for such curiosity in the world of crime.”
It was her curiosity sparked by the media attention of violent criminals and want to know more about the person than the case that led her down the road of writing to such people. Jade said:
“Ultimately, I just wanted to know more about these people but learn from them and not someone else.
“I would have loved to have spoken with some of the most famous serial killers in history such as Bundy but a part of me is glad I never had the chance.”
So why is it that people become so attached to violent criminals? Is there something that draws us in? Is it their charm? Or is it something darker?
There are many examples of people falling in love with violent criminals and marrying them. Some of which have life sentences so will never experience normality again. These stories tend to lend themselves nicely to gossip magazines or interview sections of newspapers. People's own life experiences marrying a killer is sure to bring in readers.
What would cause someone to become involved in such relationships especially when they are more often than not unhealthy?
Dr. Cox explained that people who participate in this sort of behaviour are doing so for “love and for companionship, or at least the perception of.”
“Familiarity is one key reason, feelings of self-worth, limited options, limited understanding, or past experience of love and self-care. I do not think it is that people want to be with someone who is violent, so much as this has become an acceptable model of love.
“And even in the example above, if you are married to a serial killer, presumably they are in prison so the risk to yourself is actually minimal.
“It is unlikely to lead to a fulfilled relationship.”
"...the adrenaline can be addictive especially when its risking your own life."— Jade
Jade agreed that a relationship with someone in that situation would not be fulfilling and there would be a lot of tension and strain.
“I wouldn’t want that. I don’t do it for a romantic relationship. I just want to get to know them. I understand that they can be charming, and this does lead to feelings being involved.
“I see how someone can be so involved as the adrenaline can be addictive especially when its risking your own life. I would compare it to the thrill of jumping out a plane. Hearts pumping the whole time.
“I assume this is how these types of people feel all the time. From first meeting the person to their wedding day etc.
“But you’d think the adrenaline would die down when you realise especially in the US where life sentences mean life, you’d never have a ‘normal’ life with them. It’s a bizarre thing to comprehend.
“I don’t think I personally would let myself fall in love and be so involved with someone like that. There is always that reminder than they have done something terrible to be in prison and that must certainly put a weight on your shoulders. That alone would put me off.”
Vulnerability can also play a huge factor in scenarios such as these. Women who have been abused in any way, physically, mentally or emotionally, may seek out a partner who causes an adrenaline rush. This can include criminals.
As Dr Cox mentioned, “feelings of self-worth” and “past experience[s] of love” play a huge factor in relationships in general. But when these are limited, people become vulnerable and more manipulable. This is normally when psychopaths or abusers would pray on them.
Speaking with crime enthusiast, Griffiths, they suggested:
“It could be vulnerable women who put themselves in these situations. So, they are more at risk of manipulation from the criminals, and they could also prefer the idea of being in a relationship with someone without having to completely commit themselves physically.”
Jade agreed that the people who take it further must have a reason and many could be vulnerable. She spoke of how her career has led her to meeting such people. However, she did not want this is be disclosed.
“Some may just want to take any affection they can get. Even if it’s from someone so violent. I can understand this.
“In my own profession I have experiences with people who lack self-worth and are in vulnerable states. So, I see how this could lead them to seeking out relationships such as the ones we see in movies and sometimes in real life.
“But the majority of people I know who write letters and even go on to have relationships with violent people are as stable as you and I. Yes, it’s a weird way of life but nothing is wrong as long as they know what they’re getting themselves into.”
"I know the types of things people have done when they’ve become too obsessed."— Jade
Could being so obsessed with true crime material lead to people being violent themselves? Is there a possibility that the more we embrace true crime and the more media accessible the more we are likely to see copycats of famous criminals?
There is evidence to believe that the more violent media one delves into the more likely they are to normalise this behaviour. Especially if no one is telling them otherwise.
Is an obsession with true crime dangerous? Dr Cox explained:
“It is likely that those who engage in this material also have a desire to engage in this material, as above, they seek it out and are already thinking about or engaging in violent crime. We would call this a shared association. Probably most people who engage with this information it will have little to no effect and will not lead to anything else.”
However, there is a possibility that someone could be influenced by the media they consume including those who actively engage with criminals.
Jade was not surprised to hear that this could be an outcome of someone’s obsession and suggested that she has seen many stories in the media that have linked obsession of crime to further violence.
“I know the types of things people have done when they’ve become too obsessed. We see it with people who are fascinated by celebrities all the time. Going too far and breaking morals.
“I don’t think true crime is any different. There are definitely people out there who would go too far and commit crimes themselves. Probably hoping to be with their lover. However, this is never the case. Normally they never see the person again.
“I have my morals and understand how important it is to stick by them. But I am not in this hobby for the violence. I don’t want to know the details of their crimes or anything like that.
“I just want to know what made them do it and how they felt. If they have remorse. If they don’t I know not to speak with them again as that is dangerous territory in my opinion.
“It would be interesting to speak with someone who has gone too far and committed their own crime to see what they were thinking at the time.”
When I asked Jade my original question of what she thought was the main reason we are fascinated by violent crimes. Her response definitely shocked me but summed every aspect of my investigation up.
“We are all a little bit sick and want to know gruesome details of murders or want to know what happened to the kidnapped person. Sometimes we find them out and realise just how sick humanity is. How far someone would go to feel something.”
Jade continued to emphasise that she would not recommend her hobby to anyone who is just a classic fan or is just a little curious.
“You have to have a harder heart than most. Especially with some of the replies I have received over my nearly four years doing this. Just remember it is fine to just be exposed through a TV screen or computer. You don’t need to go any deeper.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started but I would be leading a very different life if I didn’t.
“This interview has definitely opened my eyes about how dangerous it could be if you are susceptible to charm and manipulation. I have definitely learnt something today and more about myself in the process.
“Anyone who is thinking of doing this. Take care of yourself first. Make sure you’re stable mentally before you start to contact those who might not be.”
"Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started."— Jade
With so many factors to take into consideration we cannot be sure whether this obsession stems from the new age technological era and the accessibility of crime content. Or whether it has something we have always been fascinated with and we just are more open about sharing our intrigue.
What is certain however is that tv shows, films and other content whether it is fiction or real, can definitely influence us. We enjoy the thrill and adrenaline it gives us to learn about these horrific real-life events.
Those who are curious enough may start writing letters for harmless fun and to fill curiosity, but some go down a darker path of violence and obsession.