Sarthak Jain (name changed), a Delhi-based MNC employee, said he recently watched Netflix’s ‘Indian Predator: The Diary of a Serial Killer‘ and liked it. “It was a compelling watch because there were no judgments passed by the makers of the show; the family of the serial killer, the killer himself, as well as the cops were interviewed in great depth.”
Currently, he is watching ‘Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story‘ on the streaming platform. Why does he watch such shows? “I try to understand the psychology of a serial killer; it interests me. How can something unfathomable to others be executed by a serial killer? Does it never cross his mind that he will get caught?”
Sarthak added that he watches crime shows to feel “more knowledgeable”. “I also watch it for pure entertainment — that is the point of watching anything, I guess… curiosity.”
The ‘true crime’ genre has, of late, become a hot commodity, with streaming platforms doling out content to suit the taste of the global audience.
For instance, Netflix’s ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Story‘ has garnered over 700 million hours of watch-time globally to become the second most-watched English-language series on the streaming platform, according to news reports.
A difficult watch, the Ryan Murphy-and-Ian Brennan series — which stars Evan Peters as the cannibalistic serial killer of Milwaukee — offers a peek into the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the ‘Milwaukee Cannibal’ or the ‘Milwaukee Monster’, who befriended men — mostly Black and Brown men — with the intention of ‘possessing’ them, leading to a string of murders.
Dahmer would often perform sexual acts on corpses, devouring internal organs, dunking the carcass in a vat of acid, and possessing their skeletons, among other such abominable things. His reign of terror lasted from the late 70s to the early 90s, a period that has been documented in the show.
But, the fact that something as grisly as this is finding global viewership begs the question of what makes people find an appetite for the morbid. What drives them towards the ‘true crime’ genre and does the viewing and/or listening (in the form of podcasts) impact their mental and emotional health?
Sudharshan Narayanan, a 30-year-old filmmaker from Kochi, Kerala, finds ‘true crime’ interesting since he likes “reading and thinking about the human mind, how it is wired and how people have different perspectives”. “Even a killer has a perspective and I like to think about how these perspectives are formed. A ‘good’ crime/true crime film always captures that correctly,” he said.
Sudharshan added that crime, in general, is a genre where there is “tension throughout”. “I like that in a film. I like the intensity. We usually suspend our disbelief very easily in a good crime fiction film. And when we know that a particular film is [based on] a true story, the tension and the fear only increases,” he told this outlet.
Dhruvank Vaidya, head of podcasts at Spotify India told indianexpress.com that as a genre, true crime has seen “significant success around the world”. “In India, crime-based podcasts have topped the Spotify charts on several occasions. Listeners consume these shows not just for its strong storytelling, but also because they play into our desire to solve mysteries. True crime content often takes the listeners’ minds off their daily routine and keeps them engaged in nail-biting stories.”
Vaidya added that the following Spotify ‘original and exclusives’ have been doing well on the platform: Death, Lies & Cyanide; The Dosa King; Khel Crime Ka series; Crime Kahaniyan; Crime Spot — Idhu Oru Rishipedia podcast (Tamil). “In India, even fictional crime-based podcasts do well,” he said.
The appetite for true crime
Ruchi Sharma, consultant, clinical psychologist at HCMCT Manipal Hospital, Dwarka told this outlet there may be many reasons behind the interest in the genre, but curiosity could be a primary one.
“…curiosity to know the workings of the mind of a serial killer/psychopath, the adrenaline rush due to the way the story gets unfolded, finding solace in the fact that ultimately the killer was caught — along with faith in the system — wanting to find comfort in the fact that it is ‘not happening to me’, and rationalising with self that this is a very peculiar case,” she said.
Concurring with her, Dr Aparna Ramakrishnan, consultant, psychiatry, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai said, “Most of us have a natural curiosity towards mysteries and puzzles, and an affinity to solve them. These shows play into that curiosity factor about why certain people — who seem like us, look like we do — do what they do. Through these shows, we get insight into our cultures, norms, values and perversions of these, and the resulting consequences. There is an inherent fascination towards the dynamics of the ‘good and evil’ and aberrant behaviour which these shows play upon.”
She added that something called a “spectacle phenomenon” provides an adrenaline rush. “They are like cautionary tales for adults; we can delve into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of our homes. We get insight into our anxieties and fears, too. We also get an insight about protecting our family and surviving danger. The attention focuses on how not to fall victim to them. Many feel a sense of comfort and redemption that in the end, evil is punished.”
Dr Ramakrishnan also said the constant presence of these shows in the media increases their viewing. And then it becomes a cycle, in which the audience watches a particular content leading to the creation and release of more such content.
Consumption of ‘gore’
Dr Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and the founder of MindTribe.in told indianexpress.com that consuming content that may have “blood and gore” has again got to do with an adrenaline rush. “We like to feel scared in a controlled way where the threat is exciting, but not real. Morbid shows involving extreme acts help us indulge ourselves in the dangerous world from the safety of our seats. Thrill-seeking behaviour can be seen in many ways: riding a rollercoaster might be it for a child, whereas watching true crime may be one for an adult. We may have grown up with stories about monsters; true crime stories serve as monsters for adults,” she explained.
Sharma, however, pointed out that while some people take it up as a “personal challenge” and feel the adrenaline rush and tacit achievement in the fact that they are able to watch such shows that repel others, personality issues, history of mental illness and trauma could also lead one to watch such shows. “Let’s not forget that Jeffrey Dahmer was interested in ‘roadkills’, human organs, and blood as a child,” she said.
(Trigger warning) In one of the show’s many macabre scenes, Dahmer pulls out the internal organs of a fish and holds them in his fist; it is shown to give him a ‘sexual’ thrill. “Such content is attention-grabbing; it evokes strong emotions that are embedded in your memory,” said Dr Ramakrishnan, adding that there is often an anticipation of thrill and suspense, which can be thought-provoking. “It can elicit empathy with the victim, admiration for acts of courage in the face of unspeakable violence.”
Sense of calm and feeling of control
Speaking about how true crime makes him feel, Sudharshan shared that it is “based on each film and how it is supposed to make you feel”. “When I saw ‘Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer‘, I was slightly disturbed,” he said, adding that the weather also affects his mood.
“True crime does lead to a sense of calm, as it helps people feel more prepared if they are ever in a dangerous situation. A study actually showed women were more drawn to it than men, because they were more likely to get relevant information that could be used in a dangerous situation,” Dr Kohli said, adding that it may also lead to “a sense of relief, because we are glad we are not the victim or the perpetrator, allowing us to feel compassion for the people talked about”.
Sharma, however, suggested that the way the story is perceived by an individual depends on why they started watching the show initially. “Depending on one’s life circumstances, environment, personality factors, past experiences and mental wellness, such materials may lead to a better understanding of the killer’s mind, how to see the red flags and be cautious and keep themselves and others safe. Contrary to this, it may trigger anxiety, obsessive thoughts, traumatic feelings and fear among some people,” she warned.
The expert added that certain visuals and content may have “long lasting impact on the brain”, which may lead to “disturbed sleep, preoccupation with thinking about the content, fear, flashbacks”, along with cases of “increased panic symptoms in people with anxiety”.
As such, what is the healthy way to consume true crime?
Dr Ramakrishnan shared the following pointers:
– Find out which genre you like, how much of it you can tolerate, what triggers you.
– Beware of binging on such content. Take breaks often to watch something different.
– Set boundaries for yourself, especially when watching in a group.
– Check up on yourself, your thoughts, feelings, behaviour from time to time. If you find that the viewing is causing adverse effects, take a step back and indulge in other enjoyable activities.
– Watch with others instead of just by yourself; look at spoilers if excessively anxious/worried about how things are going to turn out.
She warned that exposure to such content can impact the mental health negatively, leading to “sleep disturbances, aggravation of anxiety and anxiety disorders, increased paranoid ideation, increased social anxiety, feeling unsafe, increased sense of hopelessness, negative thought rumination about self and the world, and addiction potential”.
On the other hand, she said that these shows provide an opportunity to confront one’s fears in a “safe/controlled environment”.
Dr Kohli pointed out that the impact of the true crime genre is “quite complex and nuanced”.
“Factual crime content offers comfort, providing consumers with a visual outlet for their darker inclinations. However, as often is the case, companies like Netflix glorify criminal minds and portray them as ‘larger than life’. These antagonists and Hollywood’s chutzpah often inspire the impressionable youth. There are countless tales of mass shootings and criminal activity inspired by the genre,” she told this outlet, adding that figuring out what motivates one to consume actual crime content is the first step in developing a healthy consciousness around the subject.
“Romanticising the criminal lifestyle and emulating the stories of antagonists could be major red flags. One might benefit from contemplating their motivations and stepping away from the genre, at least temporarily,” the expert advised.
Sharma agreed. “If anyone is experiencing any signs of increased restlessness, palpitations or any disturbances in physical or mental health, they should stop watching it immediately. If they are still interested in the story, they can hear it from someone who has watched it, without having to experience the visuals which may be disturbing,” she said.
Finally, does the weather or time of the day play a role when it comes to consumption of the genre? Sarthak, for instance, opined that winters are ideal for watching crime shows.
Dr Kohli said the night time has always been “associated with mischief and mayhem, providing a cloak of anonymity”, and that people often feel uncomfortable expressing their darker tendencies in front of family and friends. “Many prefer to watch crime shows at night when the rest of the house members are winding down for sleep.”
She added that the weather also has a significant impact, with rainy days as the most popular time to watch crime documentaries. “Perhaps the ambience puts one into the character’s shoes, giving it a real-life feel.”
Dr Ramakrishnan, however, concluded by saying that there is no concrete research available into weather affecting the choice of content. “It varies according to an individual’s mood and what they want to view or watch in that particular mood.”
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