How Should Christians Respond to America’s Fascination with ‘True Crime?’

Richard Lettieri, Ph.D., a forensic neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst, has tried to understand and explain America’s fascination with true crime. While “91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid fantasy of killing someone”, the average person has never committed such a heinous crime. Perhaps part of the allure is that, at some level, people know that “the difference between the savage and the civilized, the saint and the sinner, the ridiculous and the sublime, is deep yet dubious.” There is little separating the ordinary human being from the madness of murder, the chaos of kidnap, or the baseness of burglary. The question is – how does God view America’s fascination with true crime? How should Christians respond to the movies, books, and television shows that depict the painful stories of people who have been victimized in real life?

Forensic Files is a long-running TV show that focuses on the science of detection. It explains how technology and chemicals are employed (for example) to reveal and analyze blood samples, hair, and more. Wild Crime, another TV show, stretches the details of a single investigation across many episodes and explores the human side of crime and the forensic details.

While the examples above feature interviews with detectives, pathologists, and family members, certain true crime shows and movies are the cinematic equivalent of creative non-fiction. Writers organize facts to create a narrative with the same rhythm and dynamics as any other movie or TV show. Actors portray the main characters.

Writers of books about true crime organize facts similarly to the way authors of fiction organize them: with tension building, falling, and building again in waves until the climax. Only scenes of investigation and revelation are frequently interspersed with data, statistics, explanations, maps, photographs, and other details that remind readers that this really happened. When the true crime took place decades or centuries ago, those impacted might not be around to be retraumatized.

However, in more recent cases, victims and their families are not always consulted. Sometimes, they are surprised and distressed by a reporter’s phone call asking for their opinion about the book someone just wrote or the movie adaptation set for release. This was the case with Dahmer: a family member has criticized producers for not consulting them. On the other hand, survivors have been known to pen their accounts of what happened, as with Buried Memories: Katie Beers’ Story by Katie Beers and Carolyn Gusoff.

Why Are We So Drawn to Violence and Horror in Entertainment?

Scott Bonn believes that “serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters” because of people’s “fixation on violence and calamity. […] The actions of a serial killer may be too horrible to behold, but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.” Human beings have always been fascinated with tragedy and violence.

Consider the arenas of Ancient Rome and the “theatrical methods” of execution evident in that society. There have been public executions throughout the ages, mobs formed as political rebels were hanged, witches burned or deposed royalty were guillotined in front of noisy crowds. A socially acceptable version in modern times is an obsession with the news, especially bad news. It is little wonder that television, movies, and books about true crime are big business when there are any number of consumers willing to read, watch, and buy.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real,” explains Bonn. The threat is real for someone else; the terror and the anguish last a little while for the viewer, and they can leave these feelings behind when they turn off the screen or close the book. Not so for the real people whose lives do not go back to normal after the story is told. They continue to relive the horror and pain, to feel violated and re-traumatized.

There were spectators at Christ’s crucifixion, in which two criminals were killed beside him. The government of that day encouraged people to watch and remember what happened to criminals and to political or religious dissidents. The three gruesome deaths fascinated, horrified, or satisfied members of the audience. They were participants, some of them driving nails into flesh, others jeering and taunting, perhaps a number of them praying for the three, wondering if their wayward sons or husbands would ever wind up nailed to a cross.

How Can True Crime Stories Empower Victims and Open Important Conversations?

Yet, positive stories also emerge, where someone has lived through abuse, for example, or escaped from a murderer and achieved catharsis or inspired someone else who had endured something similar. Alex, one of the twins featured in Tell Me Who I Amreported that “people have come and told us and hugged us and said they’ve never told anyone about their abuse. […] What we didn’t see was the gift we would give to other people.” Viewers and readers hope to learn how to protect themselves and their loved ones.

When culprits have been the very people whose job was to protect their victims, like husbands, fathers, parents, siblings, and friends, these stories open up a conversation that society has tried to shut down. Every human being is broken. Society needs to give victims a chance to speak, even when what they say reveals uncomfortable truths about those held in high esteem. True crime can provide that opportunity while exploring the wrong turns that made seemingly ordinary men and women commit crimes.

James 1:19 exhorts, ” Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” True crime provides a platform for victims to share their whole stories in a way that is impossible to interrupt.

Can Faith Inspire Victims to Overcome Their Trauma?

Biblical stories of true crime are meant to be read and re-read, such as Genesis 34, where Dinah is raped and her brothers go on a murder spree in retaliation. Samson’s story recounted in Judges, is one of debauchery, torture, violence, and anger. Her half-brother raped Tamar, and counselors use this true crime story to help rape victims understand that God sees their pain, walks with sufferers, and ensures that justice is done. They do not have to lock themselves away and stop living life. Jesus, though he experienced every kind of suffering we endure, did not allow the true crimes against him to destroy him. “Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads” (Matthew 27:39), and the “chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him.” (v.41). Christ did not condemn them, and he also had faith that the Father would resurrect him.

Today, believers read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering often throughout their lives to remember, give thanks, be humbled, and exalt Jesus as Savior and Lord. But sufferers can also relate Christ’s resurrection to their own devastating experiences of victimization. Victims of rape, survivors of murder attempts, and the families of victims can also demonstrate to criminals and to a watching world that Christ is in control. Pain will not bury them. They can emerge from their emotional tombs and show their tormentors that God is on the throne: they will have to answer to HIM. And when survivors and sufferers emerge, they now have the chance to help others do the same, even if only by telling their stories in true crime TV shows, movies, and books.  

How Should Christians Emotionally Respond to True Crime Stories?

Do stories of abuse, murder, and fraud elicit outrage, empathy, or vigilance? Are you fascinated by how cases are solved? Or do they provoke anxiety or excitement? Enjoying someone’s real-life horror as though it is nothing more than a fictional story should raise red flags in the reader’s or viewer’s heart and mind.

The Bible frequently exhorts us not to be fearful or anxious. 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us that God gave us “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” His writing neatly relates fear with temptation—sometimes, we can and should exercise self-control to avoid thinking about those topics that get us wound up. On the other hand, when fearful situations beset us, we can be confident in Christ that he will be near as they unfold.  

As for excitement, Christ asked the Father to forgive those hearts greedy for bloodshed at his own horrific death. (Luke 23:34) God also told Lot and his family not to look back as they fled Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 19:26) Perhaps a small part of the Lord’s reasoning was that he knew the temptation in a person’s heart to distance himself or herself from others’ pain and to feel a self-righteous thrill as that wicked community was destroyed. There is no place for glee when we witness death, even when bad people get what they deserve. Every person deserves the punishment Christ received on our behalf.

Does true crime cause you to ask questions about God’s sovereignty? This can be a good time to consider what other people are wondering about God in the wake of tragedy. If God is good, why was my mother/brother/child brutally murdered? Find the answer, and be ready to share it as needed. But if true crime merely depresses you and draws you away from God, now is the time to switch it off.

God is angry about what happened to victims of crime and the pain their loved ones also suffer.   Consequently, it is reasonable to get angry at those who cannot get earthly justice for their loved ones or taste the bittersweet victory of realizing that sometimes people pay for their crimes. But justice belongs to God. (Psalm 37:28) “Anger can be a protective energy. This is how God’s anger is expressed in the Bible. God is not a volatile, angry being who loses his cool now and then. Rather, God’s anger is a measured and reasonable response to injustice and evil.”

How True Crime Stories Teach Us About the Complexities of Human Behavior

We erroneously believe that crime happens to other people and that criminals are easy to spot; they look like psychopaths. Jesus cautioned: 

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” – John 7:24

One positive result of watching true crime is that we learn how things like abuse, isolation, crisis, and godlessness contribute to the derailment of a normal human being over time; someone who was okay until bankruptcy, divorce, brutal attack, or illness that changed his or her perspective on life. We have no idea how many people in our midst would have perpetrated crimes if not for the love of community, someone to listen, the engagement of people who cared, and the influence of gospel-focused mentors, parents, teachers, and friends.


Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/fergregory

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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