The crimes most commonly include murder; about 40% focus on tales of serial killers. True crime comes in many forms, such as books, films, podcasts, and television shows. Many works in this genre recount high-profile, sensational crimes such as the JonBenét Ramsey killing, the O. J. Simpson murder case, and the Pamela Smart murder, while others are devoted to more obscure slayings.
True crime works can impact the crimes they cover and the audience who consumes it. The genre is often criticized for being insensitive to the victims and their families and is described by some as trash culture.
Hundreds of crime pamphlets about murders were published from 1550 to 1700 in Britain as the literacy rate increased and new printing methods were used. The pamphlets varied in style: some were sensational, while others conveyed a moral message. The pamphlets were mostly consumed by middle and upper classes as the lower classes didn't have the money or time read them. Ballads were also created, the verses of which were posted around town, that were told from the perpetrator's point of view in an attempt to understand the psychological motivations of the crime. Such pamphlets remained in circulation in the 19th century in Britain and the United States, even after widespread crime journalism was introduced via the penny press.
Starting in 1889, Scottish lawyer William Roughead wrote and published essays for six decades about notable British murder trials he attended. The most notable essays are published in Classic Crimes. He is regarded as the head of the modern true crime genre.
An American pioneer of the genre was Edmund Pearson, who was influenced in his style of writing about crime by De Quincey. Pearson published a series of books of this type starting with Studies in Murder in 1924 and concluding with More Studies in Murder in 1936. Before being collected in his books, Pearson's true crime stories typically appeared in magazines like Liberty, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Inclusion in these high-class magazines distinguished Pearson's crime narratives from those found in the penny press.
True crime books often center on sensational, shocking, or strange events, particularly murder. Even though murder makes up less than 20% of reported crime, it is present in most true crime stories. Typically, these books report on a crime from the beginning of its investigation to its legal proceedings. Serial killers have been a highly profitable sub-genre. An informal survey conducted by Publishers Weekly in 1993 concluded that the more popular true crime books focus on serial killers, with the more gruesome and grotesque content performing even better.
Some true crime works are "instant books" produced quickly to capitalize on popular demand; these have been described as "more than formulaic" and hyper-conventional. Others may reflect years of thoughtful research and inquiry and may have considerable literary merit.
Other prominent true crime accounts include Truman Capote's In Cold Blood; the best-selling true crime book of all time Helter Skelter, by the lead Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry; and Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, about Ted Bundy. An example of a modern true crime book is I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.
In 2006, Associated Content stated that since the start of the 21st century, the genre of writing that was growing the quickest was true crime. Much of this is due to the ease of recycling materials and the publication of numerous volumes by the same authors differing only by minor updates. The majority of readers of true crime books are women.
True crime documentaries have been a growing medium in the last several decades. One of the most influential documentaries in this process was The Thin Blue Line, directed by Errol Morris. This documentary, among others, feature reenactments, although other documentary filmmakers choose not to use them since they don't show the truth. Other prominent documentaries include Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and The Keepers.
In the early 1990s, a boom of true crime films began in Hong Kong. These films ranged from graphic Category III-rated films such as The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb (based on serial killers Wong Chi Hang and Lam Kor-wan, respectively) to more general audience fare such as the film Crime Story (based on the kidnapping of businessman Teddy Wang Tei-huei), which featured action star Jackie Chan.
Podcasts with a true crime theme are a recent trend. The 2014 true crime podcast Serial broke podcasting records when it achieved 5 million downloads on iTunes quicker than any previous podcast. As of September 2018, it has been downloaded over 340 million times. It has been followed by other true crime podcasts such as Dirty John, My Favorite Murder, Up and Vanished, Someone Knows Something, and many more.
It's been speculated that fear could play a role in the popularity of true crime podcasts. These podcasts often recount horrific crimes, which triggers the fear response and the release of adrenaline in the body. Due to the possibility of bingeing podcasts, adrenaline rushes can be experienced in quick bursts. Another explanation for the popularity of true crime podcasts is due to the serialized nature of crime, in which events happen one after another. Podcasts that explore a crime episodically can utilize this aspect in their storytelling.
The investigative process of the true crime genre can lead to changes in the cases being covered, such as when Robert Durst seemingly confessed to murder in the documentary The Jinx and was arrested.
A study conducted in 2011, in Nebraska, showed that consuming non-fiction crime shows is correlated with an increased fear of being a victim of crime. As the frequency of watching true crime shows increased, support for the death penalty increased, while support for the criminal justice system decreased.
In Australia, the amount of reports given to the crime reporting network Crime Stoppers Australia that led to charges being pressed doubled from 2012 to 2017. This increased interest in crime is attributed to popular true crime podcasts.
The Netflix show Making A Murderer has had a range of real-life effects, ranging from the show being shown in law schools as instructional material to increased mistrust in criminal investigators.
The true crime genre has been criticized as being disrespectful to crime victims and their families. Author Jack Miles believes this genre has a high potential to cause harm and mental trauma to the real people involved. True crime media can be produced without the consent of the victim's family, which can lead to their being re-traumatized. Recent discussions about the consumption of true crime media have also focused on the impact on the audience's mental health.
Depending on the writer, true crime can adhere strictly to well-established facts in journalistic fashion or can be highly speculative. Writers can selectively choose which information to present and which to leave out in order to support their narrative. Author Christiana Gregoriou analyzed several books of the genre and concluded that tabloidization and fictionalization are pervasive in the works of some of the authors of true crime literature. In some cases, even books by the same author disagree on specifics about the same killer or events. For instance, some facts reported in Capote's In Cold Blood were challenged in 2013. Capote's second attempt at a true crime book, Handcarved Coffins (1979), despite being subtitled "Nonfiction Account of an American Crime", was already noted for containing significant fictional elements.