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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Martin Brunt

My specialty is true crime, but even I’m puzzled: why are we so addicted to the dark side of humanity?

Monster in the Morgue, a Sky true crime documentary series, is based on one of Britain’s longest-running cold cases.
Monster in the Morgue, a Sky true crime documentary series, is based on one of Britain’s longest-running cold cases. Photograph: Sky Uk/© Sky UK

A day after a horrific stabbing in the Midlands, a resident took out her mobile phone and said to me: “Listen to this, it’s absolutely disgusting.” She then played me an audio recording that seemed to capture some of the fatal attack on two students. We stood there, as the sun went down on a lovely summer’s evening, appalled and dumbfounded.

The woman said it was being circulated on WhatsApp, and she wanted me to expose the man she believed was sharing it. In order to describe it accurately, I’ve replayed the clip several times. If it’s a true recording – and I think it probably is – it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Such random, unpredictable violence. I thought of my own three children, grown up now but once students who often walked home through dark city streets after nights in bars and clubs. They were never attacked. But the thought process, the sadness, the “what ifs” that bring it all closer to home, will be familiar to many.

We have an enduring fascination with fictional and true crime. I have broadcast to millions of people over the years as crime correspondent for Sky News. Scroll up and down the channels, and true crime is everywhere. It is the stuff of books, magazines, radio shows, podcasts. Fans can indulge themselves at CrimeCon, here or abroad, often billed as “the world’s No 1 true crime event”. I was recently a speaker at one in London. A YouGov poll last year concluded that half of Americans enjoy true-crime content, and one in three consume it at least once a week. Why this fascination with the dark side of humanity?

My belief is that we project ourselves or our loved ones into the scenarios in which crime, particularly violent crime, happens because it usually occurs in circumstances broadly familiar to us. Madeleine McCann vanished while sleeping in a holiday apartment on the sort of package trip millions of us have taken, but without such a tragic ending.

The disappearance of Nicola Bulley from a riverbank in Lancashire in January was, strictly, a missing person inquiry, but began as a potential crime story and was treated as such by the media. It also attracted intense interest from armchair detectives who got out of their seats and actually visited the scene, replicating Nicola’s last walk, getting under the feet of police and pestering locals. For the three weeks until the discovery of Nicola’s body, they posted their theories on social media. We dubbed them TikTok tourists.

The police must cope with the fact that amateur sleuths are better informed today than they’ve ever been. The proliferation of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series and other TV dramas and reality shows encourages viewers to not just watch, but to seek to solve, crime.

We try to imagine how we would cope in the same situation, grateful in the knowledge that it has happened to someone else and that what we have learned perhaps provides a valuable lesson. We insert ourselves: would the outcome have been any different for us, might we have survived a similar attack?

Indeed, David Wilson, a leading criminologist, believes our fascination with violent crime is a necessity, a subconscious survival instinct: we need to study it to know how, why and where violence happens so we can avoid It. It applies even more to women, widely believed to be the main consumers of true crime, because they are much more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence.

Kerry Daynes, a forensic psychologist, says women’s fascination with crime is also greater because crime reporters, like me, most of whom are male, tend to focus on stories involving female victims, even though far more men are physically attacked and murdered.

Howard Sounes, author of Fred & Rose, the story of the Cromwell Street murders in Gloucester, says women make up the vast majority of readers who contact him. They tell him his book terrified them, but then write glowing reviews of it.

For 200 years, Madame Tussaud and her successors cashed in on the public’s appetite for the grisly details of true crime, with the wax museum’s notorious Chamber of Horrors. It closed “permanently” in 2016, after parents complained the exhibits were terrifying their children, and amid a feeling that a celebration of murder was in bad taste.

But it reopened last year, by popular demand, on the eve of Halloween. At its dingy basement entrance was a warning that “anyone under 16, with a heart condition, pregnant or plain scared” could avoid it, and take the stairs to the next attraction. When I visited, I didn’t see anyone turn back.

People may revel in crime but they also have a sense of justice, which may once have driven thousands to attend public executions. Beverley Cook, curator of a Museum of London exhibition titled Executions – 700 years of Public Punishment in London, believes some watched such officially sanctioned violence as a way of confronting their own death. Hanging days were viewed as public holidays. Would people go and see them today? “Absolutely”, she told me.

Back in the Midlands, a man who lives close to the scene of the stabbing said he had an audio recording, picked up by security cameras, but insisted he had not shared it with anyone except the police. “Nobody would want to hear that,” he said.

He was right, but he was wrong: the woman who played it to me reckoned that what she was sent had been shared hundreds of times already.

We know what humans do, but who can truly explain it?

  • Martin Brunt is crime correspondent for Sky News and author of No One Got Cracked Over the Head for No Reason: Dispatches from a Crime Reporter

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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