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Lately I’ve found my reading time is being challenged by a darker obsession

For years I have commuted for my job, and I have enjoyed using my time on the train to read or write my blog. But recently, that precious reading time has been swallowed by a new obsession – true crime podcasts.

I started with the famous Serial, which investigates the murder of a college student Hae Min Lee in the US. Since then, I’ve jumped from one to the other, first hearing the horrifying details of Peter Falconio’s death and Joanne Lees’ extraordinary survival on the Casefile podcast, then shocked at the details of the Snowtown murders. I listened with sadness to the experience of Britt Lapthorne’s family, who still do not know how their daughter died in Dubrovnik, and have started listening to The Australian’s award-winning Teacher’s Pet.

When I first heard about true crime podcasts, I wondered who on earth would want to hear any more about brutal crimes which had happened. And even now, I wonder what on earth is attracting me to these stories.

I’m not alone – Serial had been downloaded more than a quarter of a billion times by 2017. Much of the interest in true crime comes from women, according to a survey conducted by the ABC last year. The annual Podcast Survey revealed that almost half (44 per cent) of podcast listeners listened to true crime, and while women preferred this genre, men were more likely to listen to humorous podcasts.

The fascination with gruesome crimes is nothing new. Growing up, I remember my mother reading true crime stories, and telling me about Ted Bundy, a handsome and charming serial killer who preyed on pretty girls in the US. Bundy’s case was in some ways a warning that it is impossible to judge just who might be a psychopath, as many of his victims willingly entered his car.

These true crime books and podcasts offer much more than a news snippet – they offer background, and with it, some kind of explanation.

It is not just the what, but the why that is crucial in these more drawn out investigations, and perhaps that is why we are drawn to them. I don’t really want to know exactly how someone died, but I do want to know what led them to the spot where it happened, and how the perpetrator came to commit such a crime.

The reason for the success of In Cold Blood is patently not due to its description of the crime in which a family was killed in their farmhouse, but in the descriptions of the killers and their motivations. In writing the classic novel, Truman Capote famously grew close to one of the killers, and so managed to peer deeply into the mind of a murderer.

In learning about why a crime happened, it gives readers a sense of how to avoid becoming the victim of this kind of crime, even if this ability to avoid these situations is just illusory. As we read articles about senseless and seemingly random murders in the newspaper so often, we are left with huge gaps, with access to the horrific outcome, but little explanation. In these books and podcasts, we can come closer to understanding what has happened.

The use of storytelling to warn humans of risk has a long history. Different cultures, including Indigenous Australian, have passed down stories to educate and warn future generations of the risks of the natural world, including animal behaviour and survival skills. According to Australian Storytelling, Brolga and First Platypus stories warn of stranger danger, while other stories warned of the wild forces of nature, such as violent electrical storms, floods and bushfire, and how best to avoid them.

In an article in LitHub, Amber Sparks wrote that she believes the scariness of fairytales served to warn girls of potential dangers in their future.

“I think emotional distress can be useful. I think it’s important. Because rape, abuse, harassment—these things DO blindside women. We can’t be empowered if we aren’t ready, if we aren’t prepared, if we don’t know why mothers and daughters disappear. Sometimes the wolf just shows up uninvited.”

In some ways, it is strange and perhaps even repellent that we should be interested in knowing more about true crime. But in other ways, it seems to be quite a reasonable aspect of human nature. I, at least, am curious about what has happened, however frightening, so that I understand what can happen. Better the devil you know, than the one hiding in the shadows.

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