Last night, while I was walking from my car into my empty house, I had the strangest thought: I made it through my prime kidnapping years.
Kidnapping, of course, is something that happens to children, and I am 20 years old. Plus, people go missing all the time, regardless of age. The thought was nonsense. But I couldn’t shake a faint but palpable sense of relief for the rest of the night. I made it to 20 without getting kidnapped.
The threat of kidnapping looms large in the imagination of a child. We’re warned of stranger danger and the risks of adults offering us candy as soon as we have some sort of comprehension — and for good reason. If it helps keep kids safer, why not indoctrinate them with a healthy fear of abduction? However, there are so many other dangers to kids that are so much more likely to occur—car accidents, gun violence, drowning—and yet if you asked me as a child what the biggest things I had to afraid of were, kidnapping would be pretty high up on the list (right next to quicksand, for whatever reason).
For the same reason that people consistently overestimate their chances of being in a shark attack, kidnapping just sticks in our brains. I suspect part of it is the drama. Being kidnapped or killed by a shark, after all, is much more glamorous than being hit by a car. But I think part of it can be attributed to a larger fascination that we as a society have with true crime. Serial killers, cults, missing persons cases — you name it, we’re obsessed. I myself am currently hooked on the podcast Crime Junkies, which might explain my irrational thought on the way to my front door last night. My question is, why? Why the fascination with the morbid and unsolved?
According to psychologist Dr. Michael Mantell, such fascination is healthy—to a point. In this article for Mental Floss, he states that, “Our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.”
One such purpose is the assessment of good vs. evil, played out in real life, among people like us. The face of a serial killer is as close as we can get to seeing the face of evil, and the fact that murderers often disguise themselves as ordinary people adds to the innate draw. Of course it fascinates us. This battle has been underlined in the human consciousness for all of our history.
Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology, offers three more succinct explanations.
“People gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe,” she wrote in this article for Hopes and Fears. Think of the accident on the side of the highway that no one can look away from. She also added that true crime in TV shows and podcasts is often “offered as a puzzle that people want to solve,” and functions as a challenge for the brain. All three of these qualities can make true crime stories addictive.
Interestingly, it seems that a majority of such true crime addicts appear to be women. Social psychologist and professor Amanda Vicary did a study on this phenomenon, and found that women were more interested in the psychological content of such stories, as well as preventing and surviving similar crimes. She believes that this interest in crime might function as a subconscious survival instinct in women, which makes sense to me. Women are statistically more likely to be victims of crimes, and trust me, you won’t catch me walking around without pepper spray at night after listening to all these stories.
All things considered, true crime obsession seems to be within the realms of normal behavior, as well as fairly harmless. But it’s also important to remember that these are real stories with real victims and to always be respectful of that. It’s fine to have 15 different Netflix specials on Ted Bundy, as long as we remember at the end of the day that his victims are the ones who matter and that their stories need to be told as well.
And if those stories make us more vigilant and more grateful, then all the better. I’ll continue to feel grateful I made it to 20 without getting kidnapped.