Based on a True Story – The Schadenfreude of True Crime

Scary Stories Session 9: Based on a True Story looks at the reasons why, as a society, we have become addicted to “true crime”. After the successes of podcasts and documentaries such as Serial and Making a Murderer, one can barely turn around without tripping over ‘our next true crime obsession’.

This episode of Scary Stories touches on some of the key reasons why we seek out real life horrors, from the attempts to understand evil, to more altruistic motivations of solving crimes. But one reason not touched on is the desire to indulge in Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is the pleasure found in the misfortune of others, like the amusement found at the dropping of an ice cream, and it is difficult to discuss the modern fascination with real crimes without talking about this natural human inclination. As callous as such a motivation might seem, humans seem to find a comfort in separating themselves from the victims of, for example, serial killers. And perhaps this is why we obsess over every aspect of the crime. We want to know how the victims were chosen, how they were captured, whether they could have escaped. We want to know that we could never be such a victim. And so we find some reassurance that it happened to someone else.

But our schadenfreude also extends to the murderer. Because, perhaps, we are aware that we all have the capability of violence. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, we know that if we had been given a worse start in life, or we were suddenly affected by a terrible tragedy or simply we one day decided to give into our worst impulses that any one of us could become the monster that we see on screen. Worse than that; any one of us could become the monster that chained and lock up. And so we also secretly celebrate our own restraint and while looking at those behind bars with comfort that it is not us.

Verity ClaytonComment