BUFFALO, N.Y. -- From Lizzie Borden to "In Cold Blood," "Helter
Skelter," "Lobster Boy" and Ann Rule's creepy cautionary tales, the
popularity of true crime literature, television and film helps
drive our perception of the U.S. as a much more dangerous place
than it is.
David Schmid, PhD, associate professor of English at the
University at Buffalo, and a scholar of America's enthrallment with
murder, says our fascination is not provoked by observable
"The rate of violent crime in the United States is in the middle
of a historic decline that began 15 or 20 years ago," he says, "but
however low the actual homicide rate, Americans appear to need a
regular murder fix, readily available through the popular
Schmid points out that studies indicate many more women read
popular true crime books than do men, a fact that, at first glance,
seems to make no sense, given the gruesomeness of the topic and the
fact that so many of the victims described are women.
"The argument has been made," he says, "that women turn to true
crime to understand the nature of the threats out there and to
learn what victims did that made them vulnerable. The stories help
women generate a list of cautions that actually could help them
avoid becoming victims of abusive spouses, dangerous strangers and
the psychopath next door. So in that sense, these books perform a
useful social function and do some good.
"The problem is," Schmid says, "that people who consume a lot of
true crime tales likely feel much more paranoid, anxious, and
vulnerable. They are more likely to think they will be victims of
violence, despite the fact that it never was very likely and is
much less so than it used to be."
He points out that, in fact, statistics indicate that during a
period in which violent crime rates in this country have dropped
precipitously, people's fear of crime and their opinion about
whether they are likely to be a victim of crime have basically
remained the same.
"Why does fear of being a victim lag so far behind the reality?"
"Because," he says, "even if we aren't addicted to the many true
crime books, television and films at our disposal, most of us watch
TV news, read newspapers and peruse online news sites. All of them
routinely over represent the incidence of violent crime relative to
other news. So we think that we live in a much more dangerous
society than is true for the vast majority of us."
Schmid is the author of "Natural Born Celebrities: Serial
Killers in American Culture" and has published journal articles on
noir literary masculinity, detective fiction and radical geography,
the murderabilia industry, Dracula, serial killer fiction and other
topics. He is working on two books: "From the Locked Room to the
Globe: Space in Crime Fiction" and "Murder Culture: Why Americans
are Obsessed with Homicide."