WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Part one of our true crime and women series established the fact women love stories about murder, rape and serial killers.
We also learned that some of the most successful cold case detectives in the country have no idea why that is.
In part two, we ask a different set of experts to help answer that question.
Understanding the fascination
According to Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., the reason women are so drawn to true crime stories has a lot to do with the behavioral theory of loss aversion.
“If I were to say, 'Flip a coin. If it's heads, I'll give you $20. If it's tails, you give me $15,' mathematically that's a great deal. Surprisingly, most people would refuse that wager because the pain of losing $15 is greater than the gain of winning $20,” he explained.
Loss aversion theory is the idea that psychologically, the fear of loss is about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. While it may seem irrelevant, Lieberman says this simple mathematical concept is at the crux of women’s obsession with true crime.
“Women are most often the ones feeling threatened in our society. And it seems almost paradoxical that they would expose themselves to this kind of material,” he said. “When you're pulled into the story, all of a sudden it's very personal to you, and not only that, it feels very possible.
"And that's why you say, 'I gotta watch this. It could happen to me, and by seeing what happens, I can learn how to avoid it.' Even though rationally, you know that's probably not true.”
True crime as self-preservation
When I talked to my friends about why they love true crime, they admitted that while it is disturbing to hear stories about murder and rape, it also gives them a sense of power over becoming a victim. The idea is that women have more to gain by hearing and watching these stories, because it helps them avoid finding themselves in a similar situation.
Deniz Kofteci: "After hearing so many stories about women murdered by a significant other, do you feel like you're more prepared to spot the signs of a potential killer in real life?"
Michelle Ruggerio: "I feel like you always want to think that, yeah, I would know. But no, I wouldn't know. I would have no idea, then after he brutally murdered you, I would be like, 'No, I definitely got a creepy vibe from that guy,' when I didn't."
Ashley Krauss: "Yeah, but then there's people that would stick by (him). You bring up Scott Peterson, and they stuck by him until everything unraveled. There are still those people that are so sick that they can fool a lot of people."
Melanie Seeger: "I can tell. There are triggers, the red flags, you would see them coming because you see them all the time, and I'll be like, 'I consume so much of this sh** that I feel like at this point, there's a red flag that would go up.' That's the weird thing about being in all of these Facebook groups, because then you see every now and then there are posts like in the Murderinos one, where it's someone like a Murderino was murdered. So, it happens, you know? Even those of us that are super fans. No one is safe."
"True crime isn't anything new. Even an interest in crime isn't anything new. About 100 years ago, we were still going to public executions. And that was a nice Sunday afternoon."
Ruggerio: "Making jokes about hiding bodies and serial killers gives you a false sense of power over men. Which we don't have in real life, really. Like, physically, we don't have that."
Krauss: "Obviously I know that, physically, most of the time we can't easily fight back. We're not born with the ability to weasel out of a really strong man's grip. You know? Most of the time at least."
Seeger: "All of us watched 'Snapped.' There's a reason 'Snapped' is one of our favorite shows ever."
Lieberman says it's normal and even healthy for people to try and trick themselves into believing they have power over things and situations over which they realistically have no control.
“We feel like if we can see something, we can monitor it. We have more control over it," he said.
"Of course, that's nonsense. Watching a TV show doesn't really give us control over things. But the brain gets tricked. As long as we feel like we're in control, we're going to feel an urge to keep viewing this material.”
Yes, men like true crime, too
At the True Crime Festival in Washington last month, we talked to Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski, two of the hosts of "Last Podcast on the Left," a show that — unlike the majority of true crime podcasts — appears to have an almost equal male and female audience.
Marcus Parks: "I think one of the things that surprised us about the audience is that it's everybody. That was the most surprising thing because when we first started doing live shows outside of New York City, we went to Baltimore …"
Henry Zebrowski: "Yeah, it was a crazy house. There was like 75 people, and we went apesh**. It was like this very, very hardcore audience. And it was like moms, too."
Parks: "Yeah, every time we do a show, we'll go out and meet someone and she's like, 'Hi, I'm a 40-year-old housewife. This is my one night out this month. I love listening to you guys. I listen to you every single week!'"
Zebrowski: "She's wearing a shirt with Ted Bundy on it with heart eyes and sh**, this is insane. True crime has been a thing, people have been interested in it forever. It was just a dirty secret for a while, but now it's just kind of out there. It's like, 'Nah, everybody's into this.'"
Parks: "True crime isn't anything new. Even an interest in crime isn't anything new. About 100 years ago, we were still going to public executions. And that was a nice Sunday afternoon."
Not just a guilty pleasure
True crime fandom has been a thing forever. What's different now, though, is that it’s more accessible and acceptable for women to talk about it.
I asked my friends if they ever felt ashamed enjoying stories that go into the most intimate details of someone's murder.
Seeger: "When I discovered the podcast 'Sword and Scale,' I went back and listened to the complete backlog and at the end of that, I had to take a break from true crime for a while."
Seeger: "Because I love the way that Mike Boudet does the podcast, but they are all really gory and terrible, whereas some of the other ones are more comedy-based like 'My Favorite Murder.' They infuse comedy into it and so, it kinda makes it a little lighthearted."
Kofteci: "Is it wrong to enjoy listening to murder stories and these brutal assaults when it's funnier and lighthearted because it makes it easier?"
Seeger: "I mean, it definitely makes it more palatable for sure, you know? If you can laugh ..."
Kofteci: "Yeah. Is that weird?"
Seeger: "No, I think that's a normal reaction. When something serious happens, people just want to make it OK, and one way to do that is to make it funny."
Kofteci: "If you got brutally raped and murdered and then 'My Favorite Murder' or 'Last Podcast on the Left' did a show about you, and they were kind of laughing about it, how would you feel? I wouldn't like it if it were about me, you know?"
Seeger: "That feels horrifying and awful. I don't think anybody would want to hear them talking about someone they actually knew."
Krauss: "It depends on how they're infusing the humor. Because with 'My Favorite Murder,' they don't make fun of the murders, it's just their banter that's funny, you know? So, I think that's what makes it OK. It's not like they're belittling the victims or anything like that."
According to Lieberman, the more women who discuss these cases in-depth, the more likely it is that it could lead to real-world changes.
“Even though the odds of any one particular woman being murdered by a serial killer are incredibly low, the problem of violence toward women in our society is a real one, and it's an important one," he said.
"So, the degree to which these shows bring people together and get people talking about the problem of violence toward women is a good thing. The degree to which it brings people together in groups, helps organize them, it may actually result in some real societal change.”