For a surprising number of people, a typical evening in might involve gruesome killings, violent kidnappings, extreme cults and cold-blooded acts of embezzlement… That’s right, true crime is all the rage. The genre represents an expansive section of mainstream nightly viewing: it is prominent on streaming channels such as Netflix, and ubiquitous on YouTube. But evidence of the dark side of human nature was not invented for cyberspace: legacy media, books and podcasts have been crawling with macabre stories of crime, deceit and doom for a while now, inherited from an era when stories based on real horrible events were told in the form of oral ballads.
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It was, in fact, the parallel development of both the criminal justice system and the printing press in the 16th century that acted as a catalyst for the birth of true crime and its popularisation. In its early days, the literature of the genre interpreted violence through a narrow religious code, aiming to use real-life stories of murder and sin as cautionary tales. The moral shortcomings of the culprits were presented as direct causes of their crimes and punishments.
A very specific form of the early true crime genre was execution sermons. Particularly popular amongst Puritans, 16th- and 17th-century zealots who wished to purge the Protestant church of anything not strictly found in the Bible, these cautionary speeches were delivered to the audience before executions so that they would learn every detail of the circumstances which led to the condemned person’s fate. The Salem Witch Trials, a series of prosecutions of alleged witches in late-17th century Massachusetts, are an infamous example of this practice.
Throughout the 1800s, the genre was nurtured by a boom in detective stories and the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’: cheap mass-produced serial literature that sensationalised stories of actual crimes. They found an audience among the increasingly literate working classes who could afford the penny they cost.
So, why are we still attracted to true stories of horrible crimes today? There are many theories, some based on psychology and some on morality. From lawyers and criminology experts to true-crime authors and amateur internet detectives, the genre brings together those caught up in a survivalist adrenaline rush, but also those searching for order and justice in a chaotic world.
true crime hits
The non-fiction book most widely recognised for shaping today’s true crime genre is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Ever since the release of the book in 1966, there have been numerous examples of the genre which have enjoyed widespread popularity, including Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line (1995-1996), which examined the murder of a Texas police officer, as well as podcast Serial, a blueprint for the sophisticated true crime podcasting scene which actually helped repair a wrongful conviction . International documentary film-makers have long been interested in true crime stories: successful productions include French docuseries The Staircase (2004), American series Making a Murderer (2015-2016), and The People v. O. J. Simpson (2016), based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book.
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Este artículo pertenece al número de Mayo 2023 de la revista Speak Up.