With such an array of novels, we can find undiscovered emotions
According to Terry Pratchett, ‘Escapism isn’t good or bad in itself. What is important is what you are escaping from and where you are escaping to’.
An invitation to reflect on our methods of escapism is one worth accepting as we seek new ways to maintain good mental health in a world shaken by the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic—and the prospect of a ‘new normal’— has seen many of us devoting ourselves to new hobbies and interests to distract from the impact of the virus, as well as the constraints of local lockdowns. While some have turned to home baking and indoor workouts, others have found comfort in a place as unlikely as it is familiar: the world of crime.
True crime’s popularity surged during Britain’s national lockdown earlier this year. In March, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness soared to the top of Netflix’s Top 10 list, sparking widespread conversation about the miniseries’ central figure, Joe Exotic. Two months later, Netflix audiences binged Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, a hard-hitting, four-part documentary series, with equal fervour. Moreover, podcast listens in Europe surged, with true crime emerging as one of the most popular genres, alongside educational and hobby-related content.
And, when we’re not finding solace in true crime, we’re escaping into fiction about gruesome murders and dark mysteries. A Nielsen Book survey found that over 40% of people increased their reading during lockdown, with many readers finding ‘comfort’ in crime fiction and thrillers.
This allure, however, long predates the pandemic, and indeed the prevalence of streaming platforms and podcast apps. As author Harold Schechter points out, long before the cases of Steven Avery (Making a Murderer) and Adnan Syed (Serial), people were consuming ‘real-life tales of cold-blooded murder and equally ruthless punishment’ in The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinn of Murther, one of the earliest English bestsellers.
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By Andrea Pearce: Culture Columnist
But why do we find these accounts, often laden with gruesome details and frightening imagery, so appealing? Dr Sharon Packer, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences, suggested that it could be because they make us feel prepared to confront similar situations ourselves. ‘It could be like a dress rehearsal’, she told Decider in 2016.
Psychologists have also referenced schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from witnessing another’s misfortune. Though this sounds cruel, it is rooted in the relief we feel that, if something bad must happen, at least it is happening to someone else. We’re relieved that we aren’t the victim or, worse still, the perpetrator.
Though these make for compelling arguments, formulaic storytelling might be the real secret behind the success of true crime and crime fiction. In times of stress and uncertainty, we find comfort in familiar story structures and the presence of well-defined heroes and villains. ‘In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys’, Lester Andrist, Professor of Sociology, told Hopes&Fears, ‘Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works’.
So, to return to Pratchett’s statement, what are we escaping from and where are we escaping to? Are we selfishly delving into tales of misfortune to distract ourselves from the duller aspects of our own lives? Or are we seeking relief from a reality that doesn’t always reflect our deep-rooted sense of right and wrong? Peter May, author of Lockdown—a 2005 thriller which imagines London shut down by bird flu—suggests the latter: ‘Crime fiction represents a comforting return to the values we sometimes feel we have lost – where the forces of good win out (almost invariably) over the forces of evil’.