True crime series are nothing new to popular media, and though they draw audiences in the millions, the genre’s recent resurgence questions the impact it’s had on society through depictions often far from the truth.

Dr. Julie Goldenson, a forensic and clinical psychologist of almost 15 years, says different shows vary in accuracy depending on how criminal behaviour is portrayed. “Shows tend to sensationalize crime,” Goldenson wrote in an email, adding that psychologists are portrayed “fairly inaccurately.”

A 2014 study from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, reveals that different people have varied visceral reactions while being exposed to violent film and images depending on their “brain circuitry,” as well as “how aggressive they were, to begin with.”

In the press release, Dr. Alia-Klein was quoted explaining that behavioural patterns become ingrained in a person’s nervous system and are solidified in adulthood. “This could be at the root of the differences in people who are aggressive and not aggressive, and how media motivates them to do certain things,” said Dr. Alia-Klein.

screenshot of netflix screen

Screengrab of various True Crime docu-series and movies available on Netflix Canada (Jade Encila, 2020)

Dr. Gary Ellis, justice studies program head at the University of Guelph-Humber, says he believes true-crime entertainment through all media platforms, whether it be film, television or podcasts is “harmless to most [and] educational to many.” However, Ellis also says that for a small part of the population, true crime may encourage certain people towards negative and sometimes even criminal actions.

“I think the greatest fear I have is the desensitization to crime,” says Ellis. “I think that affects the moral fabric of society, where people stop feeling it, they become numb to it and they don’t care.”

True crime cases are adapted from real life­, affecting real people and society– a fact Ellis says people sometimes forget to recognize. “It just becomes another news story,” he says.

In the classroom, Ellis says true crime has played a role in undoing certain perceptions of the criminal and judicial process. “What you will find is that ‘true crime’, is not always ‘true crime’,” says Ellis. “It is presented through snippets from editors and so on.”

Ellis says that within the justice studies field, actual videos of crimes are used for educational purposes. He says that some of them can get pretty gory; however, explains that it’s the best way to assist students in understanding what is involved in criminal investigations.

Mathusha Nakulesvaran is a second-year justice studies student at the University of Guelph-Humber and is a self-proclaimed “true crime junkie.” Nakulesvaran admits she watches true crime shows and listens to podcasts like NPR’s Serial, regularly, and believes her interest for the genre stems from her passion for the relationship between psychology, mental illness and the criminal mind.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that true crime glorifies crime itself,” says Nakulesvaran. “I like to learn new things and sometimes, these shows help me understand concepts better than any professor or instructor can.”

toronto true crime film festival

She says that as a justice studies student, she acknowledges that there is a fine line between what is real and what is fake or dramatized for entertainment purposes. “Shows don’t always capture the reality of what’s going on in our society,” she says.

Lisa Gallagher, director of the Toronto True Crime Film Festival, says there has been a recent surge of popularity of true crime series. “Older true crime always just used to be about the killer and what is going on in their mind,” she says. “Modern true crime now is way more victim-based.” Gallagher says newer true crime content often relates to different social justice issues and inequalities.

She says modern true crime exists to find out what happened in a case, to get justice for someone or to make sure that people know someone’s story. “They are either advocating for the victims, or they’re letting them tell their own story so that they can have ownership over it,” says Gallagher.

“I have a genuine interest in people,” Gallagher says.

“Nothing gets me more worked up than something unjust– especially when it comes to people’s lives.”

ted bunds

Newspaper editorial on notorious serial killer, Theodore ‘Ted’ Bundy (CBS News, 2018)

Gallagher says that people who aren’t interested in true crime usually have certain assumptions about people who enjoy it. “Some people may think that we’re just into salacious details and that we all love Ted Bundy and think he’s hot– which is absolutely not true,” she says.

Gallagher compares watching these shows and documentaries to keeping up with the news– saying that she uses true crime content to stay up to date about certain crimes and what’s happening in the world.