Crime: Why are we so fascinated by it? | Sandra Scicluna

Unity |  Crime seems to activate that curiosity within us, perhaps in a way that enables us to distinguish between good and bad, between us and them

Crime is a frequently encountered topic in normal conversations. Who has never heard statements such as “Did you hear what happened? The person must be mad”, or “The types of crimes are getting worse and worse.”

These are common comments that one often hears in everyday life. Crime seems to activate that curiosity within us, perhaps in a way that enables us to distinguish between good and bad, between us and them. No matter the reasoning, the fascination with crime remains, as is shown by the various crime programmes featuring in television series and at the cinema.

I am sure that you all can think of some ‘crime’ programme that you watched avidly, or crime books and tabloids that you have devoured whilst asking yourselves ‘what is next?’. A more worrying aspect of crime programmes is when viewers start siding with the criminals. Most of the time, these criminals commit theft against someone who deserves it: take as examples Lupin, The Italian Job, Sopranos, Peaky Blinders and Money Heist. Although most of us will not want a criminal to get away with crime, we do not mind siding with a criminal in fiction. Maybe because they are doing what we would secretly love to have the courage to do but which our conventional upbringing does not allow us to do?

This fascination lies in both the fantasy and real worlds. We fear crime but at the same time we are captivated by it. Criminologists analyse crime, scientifically, asking questions about why crime occurs, the extent of crime, society’s response to it and why do certain people commit crimes while others do not. Society is more enthralled by crime stories, by the portrayal of crime, by the underworld, by the mystery of crime.

However, society is equivocally worried about crime. One wonders why we are so fascinated by crime. The answer might be found in the analysis done by Lettieri (2021), a forensic psychologist. He maintains that most of us are in balance, keeping in check the ‘demonic’ or what Freud calls the ‘id’. We have all probably envisaged killing someone at one point of our life. David Buss (2006) found that 91% of men and 84% of women have imagined killing someone. However, most of us do not act on the impulse – our fear of being caught, our compassion, our guilt all stops us from acting out our impulses. Lettieri calls this the ‘virtue’ that is in all of us. The impulse to commit crime is always present but this is balanced out by ‘virtue’.

Thus people commit crime because their ‘virtue’ has failed them. Other researchers have tried to justify our fascination with crime, be it the fact that it makes males feel more masculine, or women getting tips on how to defend themselves. However, it could also reflect what Vicary and Fraley (2010) found on women’s interest in fictional crime stories as being related to their fear of victimisation. This would give them a sense of security through feeling in control and gaining knowledge about crime, albeit in the fictional world.

These ideas seem to be a justifiable way of trying to explain why we are fascinated by crime, however could something more basic be at play? If we believe that in all of us there is an instinct to commit crime, watching crime stories might be a safe way of distancing ourselves from something that disturbs our consciousness but at the same time is very present. Is it a way for us to portray a civilised saintly image while a criminal self exists in all of us?

The worrying side of watching a lot of crime stories, being real crime or fictional is that it tends to distort our image of crime and criminal investigation. Normally, the media portrays sensational stories, crimes that are not everyday occurrences. The overconsumption of these stories can cause serious issues on the perception and fear of crime as well as on the creation of stereotypes of criminals.

Interested in learning more about crime, criminals, and society’s reaction to them? Why not come and read a degree in criminology where we address these and other issues? A degree in criminology prepares you to work in the criminal justice field (policing, corrections, and the courts), in combatting financial crime and in gaming to mention a few areas of interest.

Unity Gazzetta is a collaboration between MaltaToday and the Faculty for Social Wellbeing