The Psychological Impact of Consuming True Crime
While Coccio eventually left the subreddit, many others stayed. Dawn Cecil, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and author of Fear, Justice & Modern True Crime, says that many who engage with true crime forums have “good intentions of wanting to help solve a crime or find a missing person”; some also want to draw attention to miscarriages of justice and question the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
Still, Cecil warns that true crime forums can become echo chambers that feed fear or buttress preexisting beliefs. Consuming true crime, as she details in her book, can also skew people’s perception of crime and reinforce stereotypes.
It can also lead people to things they regret. Marcus is a 42-year-old from Seattle who joined Reddit purely so he could post on r/serialpodcast. At first he found it “fun,” but in his time there he has been verbally attacked as well as doxed—a stranger from the subreddit once called him at work. (He asked that WIRED not use his real name for privacy purposes.) He says he’s seen “some of the most gruesome things I’ve ever seen on the internet” thanks to his interest in the Serial case.
Meghan, a 30-year-old nurse from Washington who asked that WIRED not use her last name, has spent seven years on the sub out of “habit.” She enjoyed the early “exciting” days when people regularly posted new discoveries and says chatting with strangers over the years has been beneficial. “At this point some of the other long-term posters feel a bit like old friends, even the ones that I fight with the most,” she says. But personal attacks on the sub also heighten Meghan’s anxiety, and she has also come to reevaluate her attitude toward true crime.
“I am embarrassed and ashamed of how gleefully I came back to this sub to look at lividity documents, et cetera, without fully considering that the victim was a real person,” she says. “A teenager died; multiple other teenagers’ lives were completely upended … It’s just all sad. And I think that does affect my mental health.”
Two years ago, Marcus took a step back from r/serialpodcast. “It became really bad for my mental health, arguing the same arguments,” he says. When Syed was released from prison last month, Marcus returned to r/serialpodcast—but he imagines it won’t be for long. Meghan says she will stop consuming Serial commentary if Syed is not tried again. For others, true crime forums remain tantalizing spaces—where community has been forged and answers appear to be just around the corner.
As of this writing, Dahmer is the top English-language show on Netflix, which reports that some 56 million households have seen the series. The streaming service is set to premiere Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes on Friday.