In recent years, there has been a surge in the popularity of true-crime documentaries and series on streaming platforms, with Netflix leading the charge. From the chilling tales of serial killers to the mystifying accounts of unsolved cases, these stories seem to have captivated a wide range of audiences. But what is it about these true-crime narratives that we find so enthralling?
At the root of our attraction to true-crime stories is the human mind’s innate curiosity and need for stimulation. This fascination can be traced back to our evolutionary history, where being alert to potential threats in our environment was crucial for survival. In modern times, our attraction to true-crime stories may be fueled by the same desire to be prepared for potential dangers, even if the likelihood of encountering them is relatively low.
Research has identified four primary reasons for our fascination with true-crime stories: survival, empathy, justice, and entertainment. We are drawn to these stories because they provide us with valuable lessons on how to avoid or navigate dangerous situations, evoke empathic emotions that allow us to connect with the victims, offer a sense of justice and closure, and, ultimately, serve as a form of morbid entertainment.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most riveting true-crime series on Netflix that showcase these psychological aspects.
- Making a Murderer (2015). This gripping docuseries follows the case of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. After his exoneration, he finds himself back in the legal system when he is accused of another brutal crime. Making a Murderer explores the role of the justice system and raises questions about the potential for wrongful convictions, igniting viewers’ desire for justice and fairness. The series also prompts us to empathise with the victims and their families, as well as the accused, as we see their lives irreparably altered by these events.
- Mindhunter (2017–2019). Based on the true story of FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler, Mindhunter takes us on a chilling journey into the minds of serial killers. The series delves into the psychological profiling techniques used by the agents to understand and predict the behaviour of these notorious criminals. “Mindhunter” satiates our curiosity about the inner workings of the criminal mind and provides us with survival lessons by illustrating the patterns and motivations of violent offenders.
- The Keepers (2017). This seven-part docuseries investigates the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved Baltimore nun and teacher who disappeared in 1969. “The Keepers” unravels a web of corruption, abuse, and cover-ups within the Catholic Church and the local community. The series elicits strong empathic emotions for the victims and their families, and it fuels our desire for justice and closure, as we witness the brave individuals who come forward to share their stories.
- Wild Wild Country (2018). It recounts the bizarre and controversial story of the Rajneesh movement, a religious cult that established a utopian city in rural Oregon in the 1980s. The series documents the escalating conflict between the group and the local community, ultimately leading to shocking acts of violence and criminal activity. This docuseries highlights the psychological aspects of group dynamics, manipulation, and the power of charismatic leaders, providing a fascinating case study of how individuals can be drawn into extreme beliefs and behaviours.
- Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (2018). This four-part docuseries unravels the twisted tale of a bank robbery gone wrong, resulting in the death of a pizza delivery man who had a bomb strapped to his body. “Evil Genius” delves into the complex and manipulative mind of the alleged mastermind behind the heist, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. The series offers a gripping examination of the psychology of criminal masterminds and the lengths they will go to in order to execute their plans.
- The Staircase (2004, 2018). This critically acclaimed true-crime series follows the trial of Michael Peterson, a novelist accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen. Originally released in 2004, Netflix added three new episodes in 2018, providing an updated look at the case. The Staircase takes viewers on a rollercoaster of emotions as it explores the intricacies of the legal system and the concept of reasonable doubt. The series encourages us to question our own biases and preconceptions, while also highlighting the importance of empathy and understanding for both the accused and the victims.
- Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019). This chilling three-part docuseries tells the story of a group of internet sleuths who band together to track down a man posting disturbing videos of animal abuse online. Their pursuit eventually leads them to uncover a gruesome murder. Don’t F**k with Cats exemplifies the power of collective action and the human drive for justice, as well as the darker side of our fascination with true crime, showcasing how some individuals may be drawn to commit heinous acts for the attention and notoriety they receive.
These true-crime series on Netflix offer a compelling look into the darker aspects of human nature, the justice system, and the complexity of criminal psychology. While our fascination with these stories may stem from an innate curiosity and desire for stimulation, it is essential to remember the real-life implications and consequences for the individuals involved in these cases. By understanding the psychological reasons behind our attraction to true-crime stories, we can better appreciate the impact these narratives have on our emotions and perspectives, and perhaps even learn something about ourselves in the process.
David Radar, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.