12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like there’s a new—and wildly successful—book, podcast, or show devoted to a crime. Investigation Discovery, a hit from when it debuted in 2008, continues to top the ratings (and even throws its own true crime convention, IDCon). From Serial and Dr. Death to In the Dark and Atlanta Monster, there’s no shortage of true crime podcasts. The genre is so huge that Netflix—whose offerings in this arena include The Keepers, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, and The Staircase—even created a parody true crime series (American Vandal). Which raises the question: Why are we so obsessed with true crime? Here’s what the experts have to say.

1. BECAUSE IT’S NORMAL (TO A POINT).

First things first: There’s nothing weird about being true crime obsessed. “It says that we're normal and we're healthy,” Dr. Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, told NPR in 2009. “I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.” Of course, there are limits: “If all you do is read about crime and ... all you do is talk about it and you have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I'd be concerned,” he said.

2. BECAUSE EVIL FASCINATES US.

The true crime genre gives people a glimpse into the minds of people who have committed what forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse”—murder. “In every case,” he writes, “there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.” This fascination with good versus evil, according to Mantell, has existed forever; Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told AHC Health News that our fascination begins when we're young. Even as kids, we're drawn to the tension between good and evil, and true crime embodies our fascination with that dynamic.

We want to figure out what drove these people to this extreme act, and what makes them tick, because we'd never actually commit murder. “We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves," Lost Girls author Caitlin Rother told Hopes & Fears, "but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take.”

3. BECAUSE OF THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE ...

Even if we’ve been fascinated by crime since the beginning of time, we likely have the media to thank for the uptick in the true crime fad. “Since the ‘50s, we have been bombarded … in the media with accounts of crime stories, and it probably came to real fruition in the ‘70s,” Mantell said. “Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime.” Later, he noted that “The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today [deals] with crime particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list.”

4. … AND BECAUSE WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY FROM A "TRAINWRECK."

“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters," Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, wrote at TIME. "The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”

In fact, the perpetrators of these crimes might serve an important societal role, as true crime writer Harold Schechter explained to Hopes & Fears. "That crime is inseparable from civilization—not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives—is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers," including Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, he said. "If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished—which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And that is precisely what true crime literature provides."

5. BECAUSE IT HELPS US FEEL PREPARED.

According to Megan Boorsma in Elon Law Review [PDF], studies of true crime have shown that people tend to focus on threats to their own wellbeing. Others have noted that women in particular seem to love true crime, and psychologists believe it’s because they’re getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

One study, published in 2010, found that women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker; that they were more likely to be interested in books that contained information about a killer’s motives than men were; and that they were more likely to select books that had female victims. “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men," the researchers concluded; "the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.” Amanda Vicary, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post that “by learning about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”

Watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes “could be like a dress rehearsal," Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told DECIDER.

According to crime novelist Megan Abbott, men are four times more likely than women to be victims of homicide—but women make up 70 percent of intimate partner homicide victims. “I’ve come to believe that what draws women to true crime tales is an instinctual understanding that this is the world they live in," Abbot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "And these books are where the concerns and challenges of their lives are taken deadly seriously.”

6. BECAUSE THERE MIGHT BE AN EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT.

Dr. Marissa Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, told Hopes & Fears that she believes people are interested in true crime because we've evolved to pay attention to things that could harm us so that we can better avoid them. “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli,” she said.

7. BECAUSE WE’RE GLAD WE’RE NOT THE VICTIM ...

Psychologists say one of the main reasons we’re obsessed with true crime is because it gives us an opportunity to feel relieved that we’re not the victim. Tamron Hall, host of ID's Deadline: Crime, identified that sense of reprieve at ID's IDCon last year. “I think all of you guys watch our shows and say, ‘But for the grace of God, this could happen to me' … This could happen to anyone we know,” she said.

Packer told DECIDER that a big factor in our true crime obsession is something sort of like schadenfreude—getting enjoyment from the trouble experienced by other people. “It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else,” she said. “There’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”

8. … OR THE PERPETRATOR.

On the other hand, watching true crime also provides an opportunity to feel empathy, Mantell said: “It allows us to feel our compassion, not only a compassion for the victim, but sometimes compassions for the perpetrator.”

"We all get angry at people, and many people say ‘I could kill them’ but almost no one does that, thankfully," Packer said. "But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ [There is] that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them; someone else did.”

9. BECAUSE IT GIVES US AN ADRENALINE RUSH ...

“People ... receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds,” Bonn writes. “If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

10. … AND BECAUSE WE’RE TRYING TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY.

Humans like puzzles, and true crime shows and podcasts get our brains going. “By following an investigation on TV,” Bonn writes, “people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”

“True crime invites obsession for three reasons," Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told Hopes & Fears. "People gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe; and most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve. This gives them a sense of closure. It is also a challenge that stimulates the brain.”

11. BECAUSE WE LIKE TO BE SCARED … IN A CONTROLLED WAY.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real,” Bonn writes. “For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.” Schechter told the BBC the same thing—that stories about serial killers are “fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”

Our interest in what motivates violent crimes boils down to being afraid, A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida told the Huffington Post; true crime allows viewers to “dive into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of the couch.”

12. BECAUSE THE STORYTELLING IS GOOD—AND COMFORTING.

Ask Investigation Discovery’s hosts why people love true crime, and most of them will mention one thing: storytelling. “For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, ‘Tell me a story,’” Lt. Joe Kenda, former detective and host of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss in 2017. “If you tell it well, they’ll ask you tell another one. If you can tell a story about real people involved in real things, that draws their interest more than something some Hollywood scriptwriter made up that always has the same components and the same ending.”

Tony Harris, host of Scene of the Crime and Hate in America, echoed Kenda’s sentiment about storytelling, noting that many true crime shows have a definitive ending: “In most of the shows, we button it up.”

Not only that, most true crime shows follow a similar format—which could also play into our obsession.

“In order to see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share,” Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Hopes & Fears. “In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works.”

And so, in a weird way, these true crime stories—as horrific as they are—end up being comforting. “While living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technological change,” Andrist said, “true crime comforts people by assuring them that their long-held ideas about how the world works are still useful.”

23 Weird Laws You Might Have Broken

Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you've ever played a game of bingo in North Carolina, you may have been a party to a crime without even knowing it. And if you've ever eavesdropped on a neighbor in Oklahoma and shared any of that juicy gossip, you might just want to go ahead and turn yourself into the police.

From coast to coast, America is full of bizarre laws that you've probably broken at one time or another. Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she digs into the history of 23 of the strangest of them—like why you can't eat fried chicken with a knife and fork in Gainesville, Georgia. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

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