Exploring: History- True Crime

There is no denying that True Crime is in a renaissance right now. Some of the most popular podcasts are True Crime. Books and other media related to True Crime are being made more frequently. And a lot of people are feeling more comfortable coming out and expressing their love for this divisive genre. But while this has been happening, the negative response to it is also on the rise, and largely focused on what is wrong with society that we’ve become so obsessed with True Crime. The premise of that argument baffles me because I can’t believe that anybody is unaware of the fact that we’ve pretty much have always been this way. Still, I thought I would take a moment and examine how not new this obsession is, both from a historical perspective of it and my own personal history with it.

I actually came to love True Crime during one of it’s more recent booms, although, at the time, I did not realize that, that is what it was. I was in grade school when JonBenet Ramsey was murdered, and I remember for a period of time (although I can’t remember the exact dates) that that case was everywhere. Every time we went to the grocery store, there were magazines about her. I would occasionally catch snip-its of the coverage of it when my parents were watching the news. I even started forming opinions on the situation even though I did not understand what was happening at all.

As I got older, I reflected on these memories and began to wonder if it was something that I had misremembered? Something that I had exaggerated in my head as we often do with childhood memories? I began to do my own research to discover that yes, I had, in fact, remembered it incorrectly, although not because I remembered it as bigger than it was, but smaller. The JonBenet Ramsey case, something I recalled being everywhere for at least some period of time in my childhood, was so much larger than I had even noticed.

This realization and the fact that I was starting to get into books and movies about killers and the like, made me start to think and came to the conclusion that I was raised to be a True Crime fan. Not intentionally, no, but like many people my age, it was everywhere.

I watched Unsolved Mysteries frequently, even with the nightmares it gave me. My mother was a regular viewer of Lifetime Original Movies, some of them based on true stories some of them not, and I watched so many with her. I remember the OJ Simpson case and trial being on the news, and details being covered that I had never heard of before. I remember the coverage of Columbine and the wall to wall discussion of how this could happen, and who both the perpetrators and the victims were.

I remember far more of my childhood being connected, at least in some way, to True Crime and True Crime related things than I realized at the time.

Now you can argue that with many of the things I mentioned, they were major historical events, so of course, they were going to be everywhere, but I think it’s a blend. It was not just that OJ was a big deal because of the social implications and everything surrounding the case, but because we as humans are fascinated by the dark disturbing things in society and thus the case. Horrified, but fascinated.

And the truth is the numbers support this. During the 80s and 90s, there were a large number of movies, shows, books, etc. all focused on crimes and all of them doing insanely well. JonBenet was everywhere because anything and everything related to the case would sell. Dateline, which was almost exclusively about True Crime premiered and became wildly popular. People were demanding that more and more courtrooms be televised, and we became obsessive viewers of trial proceedings. Lifetime started increasing the number of made for TV movies, and they saw higher and higher ratings.

I don’t just remember that True Crime was part of my childhood because it was something that was around me. I remember it because it was in a boom in the 90s, and my experience was the shared experience of many people.

The truth is we have always been True Crime junkies. There might be a boom that is happening now, but one happened in the 90s as well, the one I first experienced without realizing I was experiencing it. So, True Crime has been a part of us for a long time.

Much like my Chupacabra exploring post, there might be some questions still lingering at the end of this one. While there is great research on True Crime throughout the years, there are gaps in our knowledge of what people were consuming as entertainment throughout all of history.

We have decent accounting that traces True Crime writing as far back as the Elizabethan era, but that is hardly its first appearance. There was a boom in crime based literature towards the end of the 17th century and into the 18th. Public executions were popular at the time, and some of the earliest mainstream True Crime writing would be detailed accounts of prisoners that had either been executed recently or were scheduled to be.

There was a dip in True Crime literature only for it to come back in vogue with works like The Newgate Calendar in the mid-18th century. The Newgate Calendar had several editions and was focused on biographies and details of criminals and their crimes. It was considered one of the go-to reads for the time. Although we now know it was highly editorialized, with the writers often drifting from facts to give opinions and theories on what could drive these crimes. Still, it was incredibly popular, and even had a penny dreadful version of it in the 19th century.

Also during the 19th century was, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, an essay written by Thomas De Quincey. It was fiction but was one of the first works to really dive into the idea of True Crime from a perspective of getting into the mind of a killer. It was well received and even had sequels. It also helped pave the way for crime fiction.

Crime fiction was considered to be closer to low brow reading when it first started to gain steam, but it was something that entertained people of all types, and books of that nature were released steadily throughout history. Many of these earlier books, while completely fiction, do overlap and took inspiration from real-life killers and people’s fascination with violent crimes.

Both actual True Crime works and crime fiction have had a steady flow of ups and downs throughout the years, with them gaining popularity only to be later shunned by “polite society,” once again to come back. It is far from a recent phenomenon, and while I am no expert on society, I think it is a fair hypothesis that the reason this more recent boom has been so long-lasting is people are less inclined to care what “polite society” thinks about True Crime.

Aside from True Crime writing itself, we know that fascination with crime is hardly a new thing. Attending courthouses was common practice, executions were public for many years, and a lot of early literature, such as the bible, are incredibly violent works. This is often excused as there were not a lot of ways to entertain oneself, so if everyone went to watch a trial, of course, you would go. The problem with that theory is, it makes the assumption that if there were other options, no one would be fascinated with knowing about crimes and watching the drama unfold. If that were the case and people felt forced, then why is it that as the types of available entertainment grew that public executions and trials still remained popular?

We also know that a lot of our oral stories and even early printings were often tied to violent and grotesque parts of society. Stories of rulers who would not only defeat their enemies but then brutalize them have a rich history, and have even inspired some of our modern horror. As a society, people would take a story of a crime or criminal and then add to the myths until it reached a point that killers were somehow separated from normal people with larger than life stories about their crimes and motivations.

This has all been part of our history and our society for longer than we can really track.

There is a lot more at work with the idea of True Crime not being new than just our general history of writing and reading about crimes and criminals. We know that at various points dating all the way back to again Elizabethan times, that writing and reading about the subject was popular at various points. Also, something that was consumed by people of all class types. But there is also a lot to say about the psychology behind people’s fascination with the most grotesque and brutal parts of history.

I can understand people’s hesitation when they see that so many people are so fascinated by serial killers and crime in general. But I think it is safe to say that it is hardly a new thing or something that has happened recently. In my lifetime alone, there have been two major booms in the popularity of True Crime. Throughout history, our response to crime and murder has always been an odd mix of fear, disgust, but also interest and fascination.

This newest renaissance in the genre seems like it will be long-lived, but also seems keen on making sure we have the facts and evidence of each of the cases with less sensationalism. Which I consider a good thing, and something that has not always been the case. It is hard to look through history and think there was a time when people were truly opposed to real-life violence seeping into our entertainment in some form. Whether it’s creating violent, larger than life stories out of minor incidents, going to the courthouse, watching a public execution, or just reading about the criminals themselves, it has always been a part of us. And while you might object to it, “new” simply cannot be applied.

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