Serial, Making a Murderer and the true-crime trend

Stephen Woodworth

Truman Capote first published his book InCold Blood as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, beginning in September of 1965. The groundbreaking work outlined the grisly murder of four family members in rural Kansas and became one of the most popular true-crime books of all time. In Cold Blood elevated the genre of nonfiction crime stories and took readers on an intimate journey into the minds of killers. In the five decades since, it appears that our appetite for more forays into the darkness of the human condition has still not been satisfied. 

Consider the Serial podcast, whose first season about a 1999 murder in Baltimore won a Peabody Award, while its creator, Sarah Koenig, was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. HBO’s The Jinx, which centered on accused murderer Robert Durst, won two Emmys. More recently, the Netflix series Making a Murderer has made Steven Avery — who was exonerated of one crime and then accused of another — a household name. Why so much renewed interest in these based-on-fact stories?

Scott Bonn, an author and professor of criminology, suggests, “The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us — fear. As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.”

Here is an echo of the Biblical portrayal of the paradox of man, wherein humanity is simultaneously sinner and saint.

I would suggest that something deeper still lurks behind our fascination. It is related to an observation Blaise Pascal made in his seminal work,Pensées: “What a figment of the imagination human beings are! What a novelty, what monsters!” Here is an echo of the Biblical portrayal of the paradox of man, wherein humanity is simultaneously sinner and saint, capable of creating works of staggering beauty and horrific evil. It is a paradox each of us is well acquainted with, its familiarity made clear by daily newsfeeds punctuated with random acts of kindness and even more random acts of violence.

We are endlessly intrigued by stories that highlight this dichotomy. True-crime art and entertainment brings to the surface the hidden parts of the human experience. It forces us to consider the paradox of man, which in turn reminds us of our need for a savior. As Pascal also wrote in Pensées, “Man’s greatness lies in his ability to recognize his wretchedness.”

Towards this end, many of us find ourselves drawn to true-crime stories for far more important reasons than mere excitement. It is in these narratives that we see humanity at its fullest. And in the process we see ourselves, recognize the blood on our hands and long to see justice in a world that cries out for it. While listening to Serial or watching Making a Murderer, our conscience is eased when we see that someone has finally paid the price for their sins. True crime becomes our scapegoat.

Walter Mosley, a well-known spinner of fictional crime tales, knew this too. “We need forgiveness and someone to blame,” he once observed. “So the story of crime fills our TVs, theaters, cinemas, computer files and bookshelves. We are fascinated with stories of crime, real or imagined, because we need them to cleanse the modern world from our souls.”

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment