Selling Anxiety: True Crime Lit is Both Good and Bad for Us, Says UB Scholar

Bleak and nasty crime tales fuel healthy self-protectiveness and unreasonable paranoia

Release Date: December 21, 2011

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True crime stories make us "think that we live in a much more dangerous society than is true for the vast majority of us," says David Schmid.

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 reality.

"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 culture."

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?" he asks.

"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."

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