True crime stories are often depicted as a form of entertainment rather than purely news stories. Netflix shows like Making a Murderer and I Am a Killer, or the plethora of true crime podcasts, all point to the allure criminal stories have. Although it seems as if there is an increase in the interest in these stories, it may be instead that the accessibility of media regarding these topics has increased, and that the social stigma on an interest in true crime is reducing.
“I think people have always been interested in true crime stories, or crime stories, (going) back to Edgar Allan Poe, and the 1800s, I think there’s always been an interest. But that is the question, why? Why are people so intrigued with crime?” says Michael Gulayets, an assistant professor of sociology at MacEwan University.
Understanding why so many people enjoy true crime stories is not an easy task. According to Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley’s article “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?”, published in 2010 by Social Psychological and Personality Science, it is likely that human beings have always had an inclination for, and an interest in, murder.
Uzma Williams, a faculty member in the Police and Investigations program at MacEwan, says that a large amount of our interest is due to fascination with the extent of human depravity and the sensationalization of the high degree of violence, cruelty, and manipulation.
“There has been a (long-standing) fascination with the human mind, especially when the person is delinquent because often these persons are so different from the ‘norm’ and provide a level of thrill (and) stimulation,” she says.
Gulayets says that two reasons behind people’s fascination with true crime that he finds most probable have to do with the physiological and sociological. The physiological aspect of true crime is about the adrenaline rush people receive when learning about or seeing a horrendous act. Experiencing the adrenaline rush from the safety of one’s home is one way that draws people into learning more and more about true crime — the thrill of the horror without the risk creates an added excitement.
The sociological aspect behind interest in true crime, Gulayets says, is what he prefers, and that’s the human interest in uncertainty. True crime stories that are featured as a form of entertainment are either gruesome, horrific, or baffling. Stories that depict someone stealing because they’re hungry don’t interest us because we can understand why they committed a crime, whether or not we condone it, he says.
“These sensational crimes, the serial killers and the horrific crimes, we don’t get that, we can’t understand why these people commit these kind of crimes … Uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable, human beings like certainty, we like to know what’s going to happen. But in these kind of situations, they produce uncertainty, and I think that’s intriguing to us,” Gulayets says.
Many true crime media outlets focus on this uncertainty and attempt to understand why these types of crimes are committed. There are a number of podcasts (such as Serial Killers by Parcast) that delve into the psychology behind murders and other abominable crimes, and they also attempt to understand the factors that lead to someone becoming a criminal — nurture over nature in regards to murderous tendencies.
“I think not discussing (past crimes) causes more crime and sexual assault. Persons need to be equipped to identify red flags and to watch out for themselves.”
— Uzma Williams
Some of the things discussed are a history of abuse and neglect as a child, head injuries, bedwetting into late adolescence, or abusing animals. All these things are linked to delinquency later in life, but one aspect that can influence individuals’ aptitude for crime is their experiences with the criminal justice system.
“I think movements that show possible discrimination in the criminal justice system have brought attention to maybe some biases or discrimination in the criminal justice system … So I think that’s an added twist (from) these true crime stories, is a look into the workings of the criminal justice system,” Gulayets says.
True crime stories draw people in not just for the tales of horrific human deeds, but for a look into what happens to people who commit these crimes — as well as provides a medium to discuss if a someone’s conviction is too lax or that the person may have been convicted unfairly.
These stories show what the criminal justice system did to prevent these crimes, or what their failings were. For example, Paul Bernardo was investigated by the police because a young woman described him exactly, yet he was let go because he was considered too well-mannered to be a serial rapist. Knowing about these failings can help similar mistakes from being made in the future, and are also of interest to civilians.
Two points of contention over interest in true crime stories are that telling these stories can be disrespectful to victims, or that these stories influence people to commit more crimes.
Regarding these concerns, if the crimes are spoken about with a focus on the victims and they are not degraded (saying things like “she worked in the sex trade” or “they should have been smarter”), and the person who committed the crime is not glorified in any way, then there shouldn’t be any harm to the victims or their families, says Williams.
The idea that discussing true crime stories causes people to be more likely to commit crimes is also considered false. Blaming the media one watches as a reason for committing heinous crimes is just a form of scapegoating, say Gulayets.
“I think not discussing (past crimes) causes more crime and sexual assault. Persons need to be equipped to identify red flags and to watch out for themselves,” Williams says.
“I think if simply seeing a crime on TV meant that you were going to go out and commit a crime, everybody would be committing crimes … The same argument has been made decades ago about heavy metal music … I think if a kid is commiting crime because they’re listening to heavy metal, they’re probably going to commit crime anyway,” he says.
True crime stories are not for everyone, and the reasons people take an interest differ, but criminality is something that many people are fascinated with. So long as the victims are treated with respect, and criminal activity is not exalted, there shouldn’t be an issue with curiosity for true crime.
JOHN ALTINGER AND THE DEXTER KILLER
One of Edmonton’s most notorious murderers, Mark Twitchell, created a fake PlentyofFish account to lure John Brian Altinger to his home 10 years ago on Oct. 10, 2008. Altinger’s friends received strange emails from him with language and phrases Altinger had never been known to use, claiming he was going on a long trip with the wealthy and beautiful woman he’d met online.
The friends could sense something was wrong, and they broke into Altinger’s apartment to find his passport, suitcase, and dirty dishes in the sink. Their fears confirmed, Altinger was reported as missing and a homicide investigation was conducted by Edmonton Police Service. Twitchell was convicted after recovered files from his computer detailed his first attempted murder, and the successful killing and dismemberment of Altinger’s body. Mark Twitchell was reportedly influenced by the television show Dexter, and became known as Edmonton’s own Dexter Morgan.
MARYANN PLETT’S COLD CASE
In 1971, MaryAnn Plett, one of Edmonton’s first female real estate agents, was trying to sell an acreage southeast of Edmonton. She started receiving calls from a potential buyer named James Cooper who never left a phone number, and always requested to meet last-minute and at odd times. He requested Plett pick him up from Bonnie Doon Mall, and she was never heard from again.
Two days later, her vehicle was found close to her office with evidence indicating it had been driven off-road. Her blood and wig were found in the car, and her purse and the contents of the glove-box were missing. Her remains were found seven months later, and the cause of death, and the killer, remain unknown. To add to the mystery, after Plett’s disappearance, another female realtor in Edmonton started receiving equally suspicious phone calls, but she was too busy to take on the new client.
SANGEETA KHANNA’S COLD CASE
Sangeeta Khanna disappeared from Mill Woods Town Centre April 17, 2006, and her body has never been found. What makes this case interesting is the surrounding investigation and lack of judicial action taken. Khanna had been in a relationship with a married man, never identified to the press, who had no alibi for the night of Khanna’s disappearance.
There is security footage of a white Dodge Caravan driving beside Khanna’s vehicle and Khanna locking her car and getting in the van — a van the same model as her married ex-boyfriend’s. When his van was searched, it had been meticulously cleaned, but Khanna’s blood was still found. The man claimed they used to have sex in the van, and because there was no body, no charges were laid. The unidentified man moved from Edmonton and has since passed away, and Khanna’s case is still unsolved.
Photography by Derrick Ferry. Graphics by Milo Knauer.