Why our true crime obsession is bad for society

Is our cultural fixation on mass murderers making us insensitive jerks?

Why are we obsessed with serial killers?
(Image credit: M. Timothy O'Keefe / Alamy Stock Photo)

Once upon a time, I worked in a department store. Every day, during lunch hour, two of my co-workers commandeered the small TV in our break room. And every day, they watched breathless coverage dissecting the grisly crimes of Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Killer, an otherwise benign-looking white guy who, over the course of decades, stalked, bound, tortured, and killed 10 people (including an 11-year-old girl). My co-workers — a woman in her 20s and another in her 40s — were rapt: "He strangled that older woman with her pantyhose," one woman marveled. She spoke about this strangulation, the throat and fragile neck-bones of a 62-year-old collapsing in a nylon vise, as if describing some incredible deals in the swimsuit section. The other woman nodded sagely, taking a long gulp of soda, before waxing on about how there was supposed to be another victim, "but she stayed out too long, and BTK got tired of waiting at her house." She sounded disappointed.

Those two co-workers are the target audience for true crime fare like the popular Netflix series Mindhunter; the vast oeuvre of Charles Manson-related works; films like Dahmer and My Friend Dahmer (in case you wanted a kooky vision of the cannibal sadist as a young man); murder-oriented podcasts like season one of Serial, Sword and Scale, and All Killa No Filla (among so many others); and, of course, the Investigative Discovery network, which is devoted to true crime, all the time. But I worry that our current pop cultural fixation with serial killers (and, to a certain extent, with true crime as a whole) is turning us, collectively, into versions of those women, easily titillated by life-annihilating violence; able to oh-so-casually forget, or even acknowledge, the humanity of victims — many of whom are women, children, poor people, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ communities, people who already struggled to be seen as fully human, fully worthy, long before they trusted the wrong smile, got in the wrong car, or heard the window glass breaking.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up
To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us
Laura Bogart

Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon and a regular contributor to DAME magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, The Guardian, SPIN, Complex, IndieWire, GOOD, and Refinery29, among other publications. Her first novel, Don't You Know That I Love You?, is forthcoming from Dzanc.