On True Crime and Crime Fiction


Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

A few days ago, a friend and I were talking over a messenger about crime, true crime media, and crime in fiction. We tended to focus on violent crime and I sort of accidentally sent an extremely long and rambly reply on some of my thoughts on the topic. But I ended up saving my reply to a document, so now it’s my blog post for this month.

The prompting question was something like “Is true crime worse than crime shows? And why are either considered okay? Is crime in fiction bad?” None of this is meant as an answer, just my personal views, and maybe a spark for a conversation.


I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with being aware of human nature, and what humans are capable of. Obviously some people can handle less of it than others, and that’s totally okay. But the world as it stands now does need people who can handle that kind of thing, and take care of it when it comes up. For people who don’t intend to get into that kind of work, the line gets a little more iffy. But as long as it’s not an obsession or anything, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having some kind of interest in crime. And honestly obsessions of any kind are unhealthy, it’s not just the nature of the material that makes it so.

That being said, there is a danger of becoming desensitized to it, which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing. Especially not for couch watchers. For people who do it for a living, it sucks that it happens, but it’s understandable. And it’s honestly probably healthier to some extent than absorbing all that violence and grief. Which, again, sucks, but we live in a fallen world, and violent crime is unfortunately a part of it.

In fiction it gets a little more tricky. On the one hand, shows like that can be just like true crime in garnering interest for the work of dealing with crime, although we all know TV lies about police and legal proceedings all the time. But it still can be helpful for getting people into those fields.

There’s also a level that both fiction and non fiction can be helpful in facing up to the problems we have as a society and race. (By race I mean just the human race in general, although ethnically specific things can come up and can be dealt with in crime programming as well.) We’re confronted with things like our own mortality, the beauty that is life, the uncertainty that we’ll even have another day. It’s healthy to face up to those things and admit to ourselves that we aren’t invincible or infallible. And fiction can be a useful tool and outlet for that, as it’s easier to stomach than non fiction, but it still raises and addresses those issues.

And honestly, as terrible as it sounds, it can also be a good outlet for people to experience their own violent tendencies, without becoming real life murderers themselves. Not just the writers, but also even those experiencing it on the other side. It’s one of the reasons I think horror might be so popular. (Not that I watch horror at all.) But it gives people a way to experience and watch gross and stomach turning violence, without anyone actually getting hurt. I’m also realizing now how dire a view of human nature I actually have.

One of the biggest problems with either fiction or non fiction comes in desensitization, which I mentioned earlier. For people in crime addressing fields, it’s unfortunately normal, and kind of natural. Most humans can only handle a certain level of violence, for a certain level of time, so someone exposed to it day in and day out is going to become more callous about it. And again, for people in those jobs, I think they do need it to keep themselves sane. For everyone else, not so much. We’re surrounded by violence in our culture, and as a result, can easily become more flippant and disregarding for human life. That’s not to say if something were to happen directly to someone, or to someone close to them, a person would be callous about it. But it makes it harder to care about crimes that happen cities or countries away, that have no real bearing on a person’s daily life. It feels to much like the fiction we’re exposed to at every turn.

There’s also a thoughtlessness with crime, victims, and life that tends to be more evident in fiction, not so much in true crime. Shows and other media can have a bad tendency to make light of what would, in real life, be a completely devastating situation or event. Which isn’t to say gallows humor is never appropriate. Personally, I really like it. But I think we probably have too much of it in our crime fiction, which makes it easier to ignore the issues being raised and what makes us uncomfortable. We can ignore questions of our own mortality, and even our own morality, because it’s easier to laugh at a guy making a fool of himself, or a quirky, middle aged mortician, or a hard nosed cop holding a basset hound puppy, and forget what brought them all there in the first place.

It also shows a lack of sanctity for human life, which we see play out in the news literally every day, in one form or the other. And as a people, we’re growing more and more accustomed to seeing it every day, which in turn is helping make the problem even worse, and causing it to play out more and more on grander scales.

I’m not saying that experiencing violent media is going to turn people violent, or that video games create school shooters. I do think there is a danger there, and it can be a gateway for at risk individuals, especially when they become desensitized. But I don’t think for the most part watching violent media with regulation is going to make people evil.

I guess for me this all boils down to, I think we need to be careful with our media, and what we expose ourselves to. Everyone is going to have a different threshold for what they can and can’t handle before they start having issues, but as mature people we should evaluate ourselves every so often, and decide how and to what extent we’re being effected by the media we take in. If we find that changes need to be made, hopefully we can be the big enough person to make those changes. And hopefully never become callous enough that we can treat the plight of real people without any concern.

What do you think? Are there any points I missed that you think are important? Do you disagree about anything? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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