The global true crime obsession is fuelled by the idea there is “evil lurking in most people if only circumstances were to bring it out,” according to a Trinity psychiatry expert.
Netflix’s new series on the life and times of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is just the latest production to focus on the actions of a killer, rather than his victims or those tasked with catching him.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning Trinity Psychiatry Professor Brendan Kelly said viewers remain fascinated by the “deepest and darkest” acts of evil.
“A couple of things draw us toward these TV programmes, podcasts, books and so on,” he said.
“There is an evolutionary need to learn about predators and to understand how danger works so, therefore, we recognise it better.
“But I think a more likely reason is we are obsessed with the darker side of humanity. The bad things other people can do and the extent to which, maybe, we could do these things too if we had different circumstances or maybe life had been different to us.
“So, I suppose it is partly about understanding risk and predators and how they work so we might recognise them but there is also this desire to know about the deepest and the darkest and this strange belief that there is evil lurking in most people if only the circumstances were to bring it out, as in these stories, podcasts and TV series.”
He said up to 5% of people could be classed as psychopaths – although most never harm or kill other people.
“It depends what part of the population you look at,” he said.
“It could be around 3% to 5% and these people tend to be very manipulative, very difficult and leave a trail of emotional destruction in their wake primarily.”
He said most people would be capable of great acts of evil given the right circumstances.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I mean we are shaped by our circumstances to an absolutely astonishing degree.
“I think we compare ourselves to these figures as we watch them. What do we have in common and how are we different?
“We can gasp at things they do but deep inside each of us, there is a worry that we might well do the same things if we were in a similar situation.
“That kind of gives us a strange feeling inside. It gives us a feeling of power and also a feeling of fear and anxiety but critically it does this in a completely safe environment. We are sitting in the living room looking at the TV which we can then switch off.”
Asked whether there is an issue with true crime stories glamourising killers, he said there are certain ways they should be presented – namely without presenting details on methods and emphasising the impact on the victims.
“Of course, there is another - admittedly quite periphery - argument in favour of these series, which is that they allow us to vicariously discharge or get rid of any impulse we have,” he said.
“So rather than committing an act of violence or doing something unreasonable or psychopathic; by somehow watching it on the TV, we get rid of that impulse and we vicariously live through what other people do and then we switch off the TV and live like perfect citizens.”
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