The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.
Last week, our Managing Editor Emily Williams wrote a piece on the unsolved murder of Miami graduate Elizabeth Andes. The case, which was opened in Oxford back in 1978, was never officially closed and recently piqued the interest of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who has taken the liberty of creating a Serial-esque podcast to see if they can solve the decades-old mystery.
The emergence of this new podcast is yet another example of the decidedly-American obsession with murder and violence in the media. From series like Making a Murderer and Serial to Forensic Files and 48 Hour Mystery, the true crime genre has taken Netflix and podcasts by storm and, by the looks of it, is here to stay.
This is not new. The natural pull of such programs has a history. Horror film fans and Stephen King fans alike have been obsessing over the thrills of murder mysteries for decades, and TV stations run month-long marathons for programs that have been around for over 15 years, like Law & Order: SVU. And it's not for nothing: people watch them. Whether the draw stems from the excitement of unveiling the murderer at the show's conclusion or from the steadily paced shocks throughout, fans continue to flock to their TV screens for violence. The question is: is it okay to enjoy, even crave, violence?
For some, the argument is that it is just a side effect of our natural animal instincts and desires.
"New research on mice shows the brain processes aggressive behavior as it does other rewards," Livescience.com reported in 2008. "Mice sought violence, in fact, picking fights for no apparent reason other than the rewarding feeling."
Is our tendency towards murderous shows a visceral one, an instinct that we allow to direct our interests? Is it something pre-moral? Or can we even use that as an excuse, seeing as we are so far from our pre-civilization selves?
Mychal Denzel Smith, the author of the book Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education, is quoted on a similar matter -- watching videos depicting police shootings -- in The New York Times.
"I was exercising a level of privilege others don't have access to," he says. "...This is a lived reality for people, and how dare I separate myself from it as if this doesn't affect me as well, as if it couldn't one day be me on that video?"
But do the 5 million subscribers to the Serial podcast have the same inner conflict? Do they deliberate with themselves, asking if they should take a moral stand and stop feeding into the addiction?
The surplus spinoffs and copycat podcasts would suggest otherwise.
The cycle perpetuates. At the cost of (and with disregard for) the real lives these shows document, viewers and listeners engage in vicarious entertainment. They experience the murder story, but they don't languish amid true horrors. To make matters worse, studies show that consumers of the genre can transplant the horror into their own lives, assuming that such violence is prone to arise in their backyard, This creates an environment of false paranoia and diminishes the real experiences and work that goes into solving these cases, grieving as families, and trying to make sense of the world after losing someone.
At best, the true crime genre can inform us of the possibility of such heinous crimes, perhaps teach us how to prevent such happenings and, when applicable, how to protect ourselves. But the appeal of true crime has little to do with learning how to approach a serial killer. Rather, it entertains through the distanced lens of the actual murder, thus numbing the audience to the emotional reality of it all.