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True Crime Documentaries

Janet has a guilty secret: she binge-watches crime documentaries.

She’s an intelligent and professional woman, mother and grandmother. She’s tried not to watch, but yet still does. She tells me it isn’t quite an addiction, but is instead more of a need, and this leads me to wonder why she regularly surrounds herself in human misery.

Her son, Zack, asks her ‘Why do you watch these things? You’re not mean’.

Of course he thinks that – she’s good mum. He’s right.

But I know what he means. It’s like assuming a child who plays computer games will automatically exhibit violent behaviour. I guess many children might, but who’s to know how much violence they would exhibit in the first place, without any computer game influence?

On YouTube, one documentary follows another for Janet. Her phone casts one programme to the television, and she switches each set off when finished in each room. But the next time she switches the television on, the casting has continued in the background. One programme leads to another, to another, to another, and to another. Sometimes, the cycle has gone full circle and the programme returned to is the same as the one Janet left the previous day.

Janet says her desire to watch these videos sometimes feels like OCD, but I believe it’s more like a simple need to feel protected. British crime programme ‘Crimewatch’ used to end with the statement ‘Don’t have nightmares’. Yes, viewing filmed evil behaviour has occasionally given her nightmares – and me. Psychological and gory horror films have occasionally given us both nightmares, and definitely real life nastiness and weirdness has. But, true crime documentaries seem to me more about the crimes or mysteries being solved than the actual crime. It’s the peace you get from knowing there is a crew of law enforcement and crime investigators there to protect you, should the need arise. Janet agrees.

Also, Janet writes and is considering the plot of a crime story. Will it be psychological, or horrific? Will it have a happy ending?

So, she can put watching crime documentaries down to writing research. But even before she began to write, Janet would watch them. I would too. We consider them to be life research. It’s good to be pre-warned and therefore pre-armed about the most challenging people in society.

Oddly enough, watching these programmes hasn’t made Janet lose her idealism – it actually makes her feel the idealism even more intensely. How can this be explained?

According to an article on the appeal of horror films (which I feel is equally relevant to crime documentaries): ‘they have the power to unite us and can boost our confidence’ ( Yes, much agreed. And also in the same article ‘being frightened in a controlled way is almost like an extreme sport or roller coaster ride’. Yes again.

But I think the most relevant part of this article for me, is: ‘When a person is afraid, the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain, triggers the “fight or flight” response, causing palms to sweat, pupils to dilate, and ensures that the body is pumped with dopamine and adrenaline.

Our bodies respond to both genuine and fabricated fear in this way, but feelings of pleasure rely on the individual and whether a person subconsciously knows they are safe’. It is all down to the pleasurable knowledge of being safe, more than the experience of being frightened.

After a while, the documentaries, no matter how horrible, seem to strengthen and affirm. It’s like lying warm and cosy in your bed, inside your secure bedroom, inside your secure home, and listening to the storm outside. You get to feel the pleasure of the storm, but with the knowledge of being very safe.

So, it’s partly about safety, partly about research, partly just down to simple human curiosity. How could a person do that? Why would they do that? What happens after they do that? And even - how would Janet cope in that situation, or how would I cope if that happened to my friend, my lover, or my child?

Most people can’t watch a documentary which includes the suffering of fellow humans, without experiencing empathy, so could it be that this really does help us to hone this empathy? For most of us, it isn’t unfeeling to watch such programmes – it is almost entirely the opposite.

I think Janet is comforted by such a knowledge. I think she’s reassured. And I don’t think any amount of judgement is going to stop her true crime interest.

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