Updated: Sep 24
Before I even remember Disney Channel being on my TV, I remember the Lifetime Movie Network playing non-stop. As the friendly female protagonist who had finally found love with the hot, rich doctor next door was being brutally murdered by that very same man, my mom would be folding laundry, and I would be sitting on the floor, playing with my Barbies, but deeply invested in the story that was unfolding before me (a bit too invested to be worrying much about whatever elaborate Barbie-and-Ken-are-getting-divorced plotline my eight-year-old mind had crafted). The movie would end, and my mom and I would discuss why he had pretended to like her if he was only planning on murdering her in the end.
As I got older, this obsession my mom and I shared with Lifetime movies grew into a fascination with murder, but especially true crime. I’d come home from my middle school, turn on the Investigation Discovery channel, and watch the stories of women being stalked, kidnapped, and murdered transpire, absolutely enthralled. I’d watch Ted Bundy documentaries, Jon Benet Ramsey TV specials, and extensively research unsolved cases, like the Black Dahlia, hoping I’d find answers.
But as I get older still, I’ve realized that this (admittedly, questionable) hobby is quite a universal one. Many of my friends growing up have sat down and watched these shows with me, and we laughed as we disregarded the “some viewers may find this content disturbing” warning, knowing that a little gore would not repulse us enough to stop watching. My mom and I, now joined by my little sister, traded Lifetime movies for a ten-part docu-series about America’s most dangerous killers. And as I reflect on the many people I’ve shared my passion for true crime with, one very interesting detail stands out to me: they’ve all been women.
But it’s not just my circle of crime-obsessed people that’s been all-female; research shows that the ratio of female vs male true crime fans across many platforms is heavily imbalanced. Brandwatch gathered data in 2018 that recorded the ratio of male to female followers of various true crime podcasts’ Twitter accounts. Out of the twelve podcast accounts analyzed, only one had more male than female followers, and the ratio was only 51% to 49%. Some of the accounts had female followers reach over two times the amount of male followers that account had.
All of this being said, this begs the question of “Why?” Why are women -- and women specifically -- so interested in true crime? Is there a psychological link between the two, or is this a Salem Witch Trial, mass hysteria phenomenon? Or is it something completely different?
Of course, blatant human curiosity could be the reasoning behind the intense fascination. Humans, by nature, are drawn to horrific sights and frightening imagery. Perhaps this could explain why humans choose to murder in the first place -- but not even all of my years as a true crime connoisseur have prepared me enough to get into that can of worms, and it probably never will. But, this idea could explain why the general public is so interested in the tales of tragedy that true crime presents. However, this does not satisfy the question of why women are so drawn to the subject. For that answer, I believe it is something intrinsically connected to being a woman in a world where they must always be on-watch for a serial killer, no matter what the situation is.
Many articles have suggested that women find true crime media helps “prepare” them for if they are ever in a situation that many actual victims have found themselves in. Women see it as learning from those victims’ mistakes, so they will be able to avoid dangerous situations, or do something other than what the victims did to fight back, something that could’ve made all the difference. So, for some, consuming many a true crime podcast is like studying for if they are ever in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Along with this, women’s natural empathetic qualities have been noted as to why they find murderers and their crimes so compelling. One of the best examples of this is demonstrated in Netflix’s You. The protagonist is a man named Joe who is a by-the-books stalker and eventual murderer, and his primary targets are women. Yet, so many female fans of the show have expressed an enormous amount of empathy toward Joe. The show being narrated by him gives viewers insight into his motivations and intentions behind each violating stalk and murder. Though the show’s writing makes it easy to feel for Joe, that does not diminish just how willing women have been to understand Joe, and even feel bad for him. Their innate empathetic instincts (that are statistically more prominent than men’s) make women extremely likely to see the killer’s side of the story, for better or for worse, and adds a new level of curiosity to true crime.
Finally, in a more disconcerting take, true crime has been thought of as a rare outlet for female rage. For centuries, women have been shamed for expressing negative emotions -- especially anger. In the last few decades, contact sports (the traditional, acceptable outlet for negative emotions) have become much more accessible for women, but they are still heavily dominated by men, and include inherent advantages for men that don’t apply to women. True crime, however, offers a way for women to see their suppressed anger be expressed in private. No appearances are dampened, no reputations ruined due to women becoming angry in public. Instead, women are allowed to feel this rage, whether it be at the murderer or in the form of the murderer. True crime gives them a reason to feel and to express the many emotions trapped inside their heads that society doesn’t allow them to show, lest they be seen as “weak.” In essence, it’s the most cathartic thing a woman could ask for.
My eight-year-old self was definitely not enjoying Lifetime movies because of these explicit reasons. All I knew was that they were juicy and kept me and my mom entertained for an hour and a half. However, my eighteen-year-old self finds that the more I consume true crime content, the more I find myself being able to connect each element of true crime that I enjoy to one or more of these reasons. And despite how uncomfortable and strange these theories are, I must admit that, in a way, I feel seen. I feel like I’m not corrupted or in the pre-meditating stages of murder by being intrigued by those who have been in those stages. Knowing that other women feel the way I do, and that there are legit reasons behind those feelings, helps me to continue to enjoy my sick, twisted passion -- and I hope the very same for all the other Salem witches out there.