SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Maybe it’s watching 48 hours on CBS. It could be checking out that true crime book at the library or listening to podcast about a mysterious death out west.
There’s an interest in true crime whether it’s about a serial killer, an unsolved murder or a missing person.
Part of the interest is “the mystery component,” said Nita Gill, the adult services librarian at the Brookings Public Library.
People want to try to solve the crime, Gill said.
Chris Wevik of Beresford said her interest in true crime lies in the investigation. “Just the steps involved,” she said. “The footwork the investigations put into it. The technology involved…”
Wevik is writing a book on at least 83 unsolved murders and missing persons cases in South Dakota. While she is interested in the investigation of crimes, her book isn’t an investigative piece, Wevik said.
“This is not investigative. There are no crime scene photos…,” Wevik said. “It’s more about the facts of the cases and the victims themselves, who they were…”
But, there is the hope that the book could jar a memory or cause someone to reconsider a past answer or spark a desire to help with a case so that unsolved, or cold cases, in her book could be solved, Wevik said.
“It’s more satisfying when a crime is solved,” Gill said. “It’s frustrating when you don’t know why or who did it.”
Checking out true crime
Library users in the Siouxland Libraries system have long been interested in true crime, said Beth Berg, the collections librarian.
“We’ve been buying books like this for some time,” Berg said.
Ann Rule, whose books include This Stranger Beside Me” in 1980 about serial killer Ted Bundy, has been a popular true crime author, Berg said.
Berg said purchasing records from the last 10 years indicate an increased interest in true crime material.
It’s been the practice to purchase true crime books on demand, Berg said.
Ten years ago, the library would buy 1 copy of a true crime book.
“In the last five years that increased 2 to 1,” Berg said.
“I don’t want to say usage doubled but the way we purchased indicated there was more use on more holds on books,” Berg said of true crime material.
In the last three years, the purchase pattern has increased to about 3 to 1 where the library is buying three copies, Berg said.
“There’s definitely been a marked increase in popularity,” Berg said.
Why the interest in true crime?
Berg is not really interested in true crime but she did some research on why it’s popular.
Berg said she found out that true crime an offer “safe fear” where the reader is not in actual danger but responds with some fear. “It’s the same adrenaline rush as riding a roller coaster,” Berg said.
Gill said human curiosity plays a role.
At the Brookings library, true crime with a regional tie is very popular. Examples include “The Duct Tape Killer” by Phil Hamman and Sandy Hamman and “The Less People Know About Us” by Axton Betz-Hamilton are among the most popular.
A 2010 study by Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley called “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” explores why the public, and particularly women, are drawn to true crime.
“In conclusion, despite the fact that true crime books are often gruesome, shocking, and frightening, they have garnered a considerable audience,” the 2010 study said.
Although women may fear being the victim of a crime, the fear may prompt them toward true crime, according to the study.
“…they may very well be learning important skills that will prevent them from one day becoming the victim of a killer,” the 2010 study said.
True crime as news and entertainment
University of Sioux Falls media professor Nancy Sutton said there has always been a human interest “to follow a crime.”
A crime is news but then, it can evolve into a book or a movie and in the present day, a docu-series on streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu. There is almost a cyclical evolution between the news of crime and entertainment of true crime, as Sutton describes it.
True crime can be a source for fiction in books and movies, Sutton said.
But the former TV news reporter and anchor, said true crime is first news.
In this era, “in real life it’s easier to tell (true crime) as a story,” Sutton said. It doesn’t have to be fictionalized.
True crime documentaries such as those on streaming services has become a form of entertainment “when in fact they’ve been news all along,” Sutton said.
Streaming services have increased what is called binge-watching of true crime programming. Binge-watching is when a viewer watches multiple episodes of a series in rapid succession.
An undergraduate capstone research paper by Rachel Tinker at Elon University called “Guilty Pleasure: A Case Study of True Crime’s Resurgence in a Binge Consumption Era” explores binge watching and true crime.
“The binge consumption era is changing the way all media, and true crime, in particular, are produced and viewed,” Tinker said in her paper.
Although true crime can be a form of entertainment, “It’s important that we don’t de-sensitize a horrific news event to become entertainment so that we lose the importance of the sense of right and wrong,” Sutton said.
Sutton said while true crime material is readily available to consumers, so are news stories from multiple outlets.
Social media allows people to respond to true crime and people must make sure they do not share “knee jerk” opinions about cases or those involved, Sutton said. Consumers should read and watch the news stories and get informed on the facts, she said.
Tinker’s paper said true crime programming can share opinions within the series about those involved. “In order to keep people hooked, these shows must utilize rhetoric to push the viewer to one side or another, even if the final decision falls to the audience,” Tinker concluded.
Will a crime be solved?
Wevik hopes that her book will help solve a crime.
Gill said readers have long been interested in solving a mystery or a true crime.
Even when true crime material was not as available as today, the public was interested in helping solve crimes, Sutton said.
Sutton was working in TV news in California when serial killer Richard Ramirez was active. Ramirez was the called “The Night Stalker.” Ramirez murdered or injured at least 18 people from June 28, 1984, through Aug. 24, 1985, in California.
The public would frequently call in tips about the “Night Stalker,” Sutton said.
“People would call that they thought that had seen him…,” Sutton said.
Social media involving true crime can be a “huge problem” and a “blessing.”
The interest in true crime has helped find missing children or persons, for example, Sutton said. But again, a downside can be the emotional opinions shared about true crime.
Still, Sutton said it’s likely today’s emphasis on true crime would have helped to solve the “Night Stalker” case sooner.