true crime

This is what you're really saying when you say you "love true crime".

As humans, we’ve always had a fascination with the gory thrill of crime and murder.

Even more so if it’s real.

From public gatherings to watch hangings to the police pages of the newspapers in the Victorian era, we’ve lapped up every single detail – the more horrifying, the better.

It’s never been so accessible as it is now, with podcasts, books, documentaries and Netflix specials dedicated to retelling the ‘stories’ both older and recent for entertainment’s sake.

So why are we so hooked?

True crime writer Emily Webb on Australia’s most chilling murders. Post continues after audio.

According to New York associate professor of psychiatry Gail Saltz, this fascination partly stems from a small but subconscious inclination to hurt others and ourselves and be “a little sadomasochistic”.

“People want to go see car races not just because they love the racing of cars, but because a car might hit the wall and blow up. There is a fascination with seeing disasters, horrific things,” she told The Atlantic.

Fortunately most of us don’t put these “urges to do something terrible” into practise.

And the best kind of true crime to devour? The mysterious cases that remain unsolved, allowing us to put on our own detective hats and solve them from the comfort of our couch.


Some of the true crime series that have hooked us recently.

"It’s a form of escapism. There’s an inherent need to get close to the edge of the abyss and look in without falling in.," Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology and sociology at Drew University told The Atlantic.

But there's something we're forgetting as we sit down with friends and a big bowl of popcorn to get our true crime fix.

The victims. Their families. The very real people who this very real tragedy happened to, forced to relive and rewatch the experience that has likely haunted them since it happened.

The most recent proof that not everyone is happy to have their tragic event/murder/rape/abduction turned into TV fodder? The case of Shannon Matthews.

In 2008, nine year-old Matthews failed to return to her West Yorkshire home after school. The case quickly attracted a Madeline McCann-level of media coverage and police attention, with hundreds of officers, detectives and half of the UK's sniffer dogs involved to become the largest police search for a missing person in the area in 30 years.

Just under a month later, she was found in the home of 39-year-old Michael Donovan, the uncle of her mother Karen’s boyfriend Craig Meehan. It turned out the kidnapping had been premeditated by Karen and Michael in order to make money from publicity and the reward for "finding" the young girl.


The pair were sentenced to eight years prison for kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice but were released in 2012. After they were convicted, Shannon was put under police protection, cared for by the social service and given a new identity.

Almost 10 years later, aspects of the case are currently screening in a new BBC series The Moorside which focuses on how Karen's plot became unravelled.

Members of the Matthew family are outspoken at their ordeal being turned into TV viewing.

“What happened to her was a trauma, a tragedy. It is sick and disgusting that it is being turned into a TV show. It isn’t entertainment. It’s real life and it hasn’t even been 10 years since it happened," Shannon's grandparents June and Gordon Matthews told the Mail on Sunday this week.

"If she sees it, Shannon [now 18 years old] is old enough now to understand that it is about her. She will know it is about the terrible things that happened to her. How is that fair?

"It will upset her. They shouldn’t be dragging up the past and what happened. It should be left in the past."

Susan Howgate, a cousin of Shannon’s mother, Karen had similar sentiments.

"[The project] will bring everything back. Family members will get grief like they have done in the past, I don't think it should go ahead," she told Good Morning Britain.

"I’ve had a lot of trouble, and same with my auntie, she’s been having bother. People keep saying stuff to her still."


Closer to home, family members of victims murdered by Ivan Milat felt the same when the serial killer's case became the subject of a 2015 Channel Seven mini series Catching Milat, aired almost 20 years after he was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences without parole.

A family member of one of the victims launched a petition that attracted over 23,000 signatures.

"We do not want to relive this horrific time through a telemovie or give Milat any more of the notoriety he craves," the family member told at the time.

Image: Channel 7

Milat as depicted in the channel seven mini series. Image: Channel 7

“They caused unspeakable fear, horror, and heartache. These sickening events should not be the subject of a dramatised television show, broadcast into millions of living rooms.

"As a family member of one of the victims, all I can think of is my distraught grandparents, parents, and extended family having to relive the worst of experiences, week after week. Australia has so many incredible citizens and wonderful stories to be shared, why is this show even being considered?"

It's an ethical issue the creators of these true crime shows, documentaries and books have to grapple with.


"It's a difficult and uneasy line to draw, since entertainment requires you to make characters out of the players in your story, have these characters develop, create suspense by withholding information from the viewer or reader, and exploit the twists and turns inherent in many real-life crime tales," mused Nick Foster, true crime writer and author of The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise in a piece for The Telegraph earlier this week.

Listen: Should the Amanda Knox documentary ever have been made? Post continues after audio.

As Kathryn Schulz pointed out in an article published in the New Yorker in 2016, even if they decline to be interviewed in the documentaries or consult on the series, the victims and their families have no real way to opt out.

In 2007, Schulz interviewed Penny Beernsten, an important figure in the wider tale later made 'famous' in Netflix's popular documentary series Making a Murderer.

Beernsten was brutally attacked in 1985 and identified Stephen Avery [the main subject of the documentary] as her attacker. He was sentenced to thirty two years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA testing 18 years later. In 2005, he was involved in the murder of Teresa Halbach, the case that makes up the bulk of the documentary.

She declined to be part of the series, but featured anyway. The filmmakers had obtained a photograph of her battered face from the attack - without her knowledge or permission.

The confronting cover image of the hit show. (Source: Netflix).

"I don’t mind looking at it, but my children should not have to relive that. And everything we’re dealing with, the Halbachs are dealing with a thousandfold," she said.

Of course, sometimes these investigations into true crime cases can have some positive results, when they bring to light new evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice or the falsely accused to freedom.

As a result of evidence featured in the 2014 podcast series Serial that examined his 1999 trial over the murder of his ex girlfriend Hae Min Lee, Adnan Sayed's conviction was overturned last year and he was granted a new trial.

It was a win for journalistic investigation, Sayed, the podcast genre and provided a thrilling narrative for millions of listeners.

But for one man in particular, it was far from entertainment.

"Sorry, I won’t be answering any questions because to me it's real life," wrote the younger brother of Lee on Reddit in 2014.

"To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mum crying every night . . . and going to court almost every day for a year seeing your mum weeping, crying, and fainting.

You don’t know what we went through."