Cressida Bonas

Why are we so fascinated by crime?

Why are we so fascinated by crime?
Elizabeth Holmes arrives at court (Getty)
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A suitcase landed in my garden. It seemed to have come from the sky. Soon after, two policemen urgently knocked on my door. Confused, I invited them in, they hurriedly went to retrieve the bag. Inside was a load of money, drugs and keys belonging to expensive cars. They inquired if the items were mine. ‘Certainly not,’ I said. After they’d gone, I was filled with questions. That evening the policemen returned and I was interviewed for an hour. I asked them for more information, but they were unable to tell me anything.

Drug deals occur regularly on our street. They happen in a flash; a hand through a car window, bowed heads and hushed voices. The flying suitcase incident added a touch of reality to one of my favourite past times which is crime fiction.

Nights in have become more inviting with the return of favourite crime dramas, including the Netflix series, Ozark. The suspense, the twists, the turns and the dramatic plot about a money laundering scheme and a shady Mexican drug cartel has me hooked. I’m drawn to dark programmes; detective shows, thrillers and documentaries about serial killers. I have questioned If this makes me unusual, but with the regular release of TV shows about corruption and evil I realise I’m not alone. The true crime genre is bigger than ever, perhaps this is why we are all obsessed with it. We try to understand the darker side of humanity, the unthinkable acts of psychopaths from the safety our own homes. Perhaps it's a way to neutralise our own fears – projecting them onto exotic and extraordinary scenarios stops them creeping in closer to home.

I was intrigued by the Elizabeth Holmes case. She was the founder convicted of defrauding investors in the blood-testing tech start-up Theranos. I wanted to understand the psychology of someone who’s able to commit such brazen acts. Another story that’s horribly captivating is the case around Robert Freegard, a conman who pretended to be an MI5 agent to manipulate and steal from his victims. The chilling events are captured in the Netflix three-part docuseries, The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman. Similar to Holmes, the disturbing nature of Freegard’s crimes shows how powerful lies can be when delivered with confidence. People watch because they want to see truth and justice prevail. I think the fascination between good vs evil starts when we are young. Children quickly identify the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in stories – who are the monsters and who are the heroes. They usually want the ‘goodies’ to win and to see resolutions at the end. We adults are no different, it turns out.

Unlike my interest in crime programmes, I’m finding the constant broadcasting of conflicts, woes and disasters too much. The doom and gloom on the front of most newspapers is enough to make anyone feel anxious. But away from the horror, there is a world of positive happenings and improvements. Of course, It’s Important to expose criminals and to hold the powerful accountable for their actions, but we also long to feel hopeful. It would be nice to read uplifting facts, global solutions and to learn about the unsung heroes; the people who commit their lives to helping society. I asked a friend how he feels about reading good news. He said he approaches it with cynicism. Not able to trust it entirely, he’s more inclined to believe the bad. Perhaps, ironically, we find it safer to assume the worst.

In the podcast Feel Better, Live More with Dr Rangan Chatterjee, Johann Hari talks about his new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. After having conversations with members of Silicon Valley, Hari argues that we’re fed certain information designed to make us hold our attention. Algorithms have discovered that people engage with anger for longer than with those things that make them feel good.

This makes hope an even more precious commodity; it's a rare thing when we do stumble across it. Avoiding stories that reveal the worst part of humanity may not be realistic, but I’d like to try and flick to a positive and hopeful news channel, if there were such a thing.