“The true crime wave that rose with The Staircase, Serial, Making a Murderer, OJ: Made in America and The Keepers shows no signs of crashing. Take Serial: when it was launched on 3 October 2014, it was downloaded 86,000 times. Today, the combined downloads for the first two seasons have topped 350m.” Stuart Jeffries
PACKAGING TRUE CRIME FOR A YOUTH AUDIENCE
From podcasts, to Netflix specials, YouTube influencers and even festivals, there are various ways for young fans today to get their true crime fix. The seemingly endless supply of stories are rich discussion-driving content. This is why - podcasters and influencers especially - have been able to harness the growing interest in the genre to build loyal audiences around it, and then diversify their product. Creators of the hit podcast ‘My Favourite Murder’, for example, have had such success that they’ve a live tour, a book and a range of their own merchandise.
YouTubers like Georgia Marie and Amber Loves Mystery post regularly about the crime-related stories that have gripped their attention. There is so much out there when it comes to true crime, so young audiences are fans of this content because it breaks stories down into headlines for them. It also filters recommendations, helping them make decisions on what shows or podcasts they decide to invest their time in.
Another significant aspect of the true crime package, is that often, it’s quite the opposite of short-form content. Yes, there are movie-length specials like ‘Abducted in Plain Sight,’ podcasts and YouTubers that discuss a different story per-episode, but often, it’s a commitment of 6-8 hours (or more, if it’s something really juicy) to truly delve into a case. This is what makes the true crime genre unique to traditional TV programming and other types of entertainment targeted to youth - it’s detail-oriented viewing that requires dedication for considered explanation and alternative theories to evolve.
HARROWING TALES: THE YOUTH APPEAL
What makes the true crime genre so appealing to youth?
1. In uncertain times, true crime reinforces a welcome sense of justice. Often, real crimes discussed in podcasts and new documentaries are old cold-cases. Not only do they raise awareness of hidden human behaviours, the revisiting of these cases also leads to the uncovering of new details and things get solved. While the question remains as to whether the lifestyle-ification of true crime is ethical (and potentially dangerously desensitising), there is no doubt that fans of the genre welcome the reinforcement of what’s right and wrong. And at the end of the day, we all love having an opinion on other people’s behaviour.
2. Voyeurism. True crime is scary. It’s shocking. It gives you shivers. It offers insight into complex happenings and complex minds. It teases. It’s binge-friendly, while connecting to a broad range of emotions. It offers young people an immersive, provocative, intriguing (and real) world, completely removed from their own, to discover and escape to. It feeds youth’s curiosity like few other genres do.
“I’m so curious. That side of the human psyche is fascinating. I think the appeal can be the unravelling of the usual cover-up, finding out what really happened.” Keith, 27.
3. Reassurance. The world is a scary place. True crime gives young people control - the feeling that they can tackle the scary stuff in their own realities - while acknowledging that the world is really frightening. In an ironically tangible way, it helps boost resilience. Experts have argued that in learning about murders (and their victims) that people are learning about how to avoid becoming victims themselves. This is especially true for young female fans (more women listen to true crime podcasts than men), who enjoy the ability to listen to these stories from a safe distance.
"Like any woman I am surrounded by images of dead girls all the time, it's this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where because we're told to be afraid of this I think we want to watch these shows to somehow work through that." Amanda Hess
“It helps to understand what to do if caught in a horrible situation.” Helen, 26.
4. The documentary format inspires interaction and forms communities. This brings a whole new meaning to multi-screening, where superfans can turn detective - Serial’s fans started doing their own investigations on a subreddit. Young people love to see the collective effect of their own agency in action. As YouTube influencer Georgia Maria puts it;
“You can listen to 10 different podcasts all about the same case and they can all give you a different look on things… I’ll go off from there and then do my own research to put my own twist on things.”
The truth, is that true crime demands youth attention by bringing “violence, betrayal, greed, stupidity, sex, murder, racial tension, misogyny, poor folk sucking on the fuzzy end of a rigged judicial system, fraud, secrets and lies” to their lives, from the comfort of their couch. A far cry from a simple guilty pleasure - true crime is a culture high.
Netflix and podcast culture around true crime has created a new form of entertainment, where fans give new life to old tales through access to information and online communities. To create something new, you don’t always need to find or inspire a brand new story. Old stories revisited can bring refreshing relevance to youth audiences, who embrace approaching things with their own perspective and modern understanding. How could you invite youth to transform something old by putting their own, modern, stamp on it?
A sense of positivity and togetherness erupts from unlikely sources - showing us how youth welcome connecting to a broad range of emotions. In a world where there is such craziness, and atrocities happen daily, true crime it taps into young people’s innate curiosity and sense of justice while also creating a sense of community. Young people are entertained, but also feel involved. How can you facilitate online entertainment moments that translate into real life participation or foster community?
Characters in true crime stories have become unlikely celebrities or icons in their own right - from falsely accused to lawyers and extended family members. The ‘expert’ may well be back en-vogue. A niche, knowledgeable voice brings with it a welcome refreshing perspective, and can be much more powerful than a voice that has been heard before.
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