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Here’s why you love True Crime as much as you do

With the exception of Christmas and Boxing day, half a dozen separate tours will guide groups of up to fifty people - every evening, irrespective of the weather - to follow in the footsteps of Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Despite his last known crime occurring over 130 years ago, his appeal seems to be at an all-time high, which is interesting because he’s by no means the most prolific serial killer in history, even by the standards of his own time, in his own country. 

It allows us to play the role of the killer without actually committing a crime

Between 1879 and 1892 Dr Thomas Neil Cream, aka ‘the Lambeth Poisoner’ was responsible for murdering as many as 8 people and he’s barely known in comparison to the Ripper, though somewhat ironically, he’s just as well-known for confessing to be Jack the Ripper. Virtually written out of history are Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins who, between 1880 and 1883, poisoned at least 4 people, and who's heard of Amelia Dyer who may have strangled to death as many as 400 children between 1878 and 1882. Her body count puts her in the same postcode as Countess Elizabeth Báthory, yet she’s relatively unheard of.

According to psychiatrist Dr Sharon Packer our love of true crime is about people getting pleasure in other people’s suffering coupled with a sense of relief that you were responsible for doing something heinous, while some criminologists think it allows us to play the role of the killer without actually committing a crime. All perfectly acceptable theories, though a little vague on specific factors that contribute to an infatuation with the piece de resistance of true crime, serial killing, but not all serial killers are born equal. 

The world biggest, best-known serial killers in the 20th Century were the likes of Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, all whom systematically murdered millions of people, yet there are very clear distinctions between democidal governments and those that like to wear your face as a hat. Which brings us nicely onto Ed Gein.

Arguably a true-crime superstar, Gein’s body count is the lowest it can possibly be to justify the serial killer moniker: two. However, it’s what Gein did with dead bodies that made him an instant hit. His crimes were headline news and from that moment on, sightseers from across the state and further afield headed to Ed Gein’s house for a piece of the action: 20,000 people alone showed up to inspect the plot prior to it being auctioned and by that time the house itself had burned down. His horrific occupation inspired Pyscho, Silence of the Lambs and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and to a certain extent, therein lies the answer. 

At the end of the last century, Dr Harold Shipman quietly poisoned over 250 people with diamorphine but, like Dr Cream who you’ve probably forgotten about already, doesn’t make for good ‘true crime’ reading. Fred West on the other hand does, with similarities to Ed Gein’s Property in Plainfield, Wisconsin, 25 Cromwell Road in Gloucester had to be demolished to prevent the attention of so-called ‘dark tourists’. Even now, the empty plot on which the house stood is visited by thousands of people every year. 

At the end of the last century, Dr Harold Shipman quietly poisoned over 250 people with diamorphine but, like Dr Cream who you’ve probably forgotten about already, doesn’t make for good ‘true crime’ reading. Fred West, on the other hand, does, with similarities to Ed Gein’s Property in Plainfield, Wisconsin, 25 Cromwell Road in Gloucester had to be demolished to prevent the attention of so-called ‘dark tourists’. Even now, the empty plot on which the house stood is visited by thousands of people every year. 

So why West and not Shipman, why Jack and not Dyer? The way the despicable Dr Shipman quietly despatched his innocent victims is more upsetting than horrifying, the same can be said for Amelia Dyer, though her monstrous crimes have been dulled by time, unlike the frenzied, vicious murders courtesy of someone like Jack the Ripper, killings that operate on an unprecedented visceral and frequently depraved sexual scale that lie on the periphery or beyond human understanding, to such an extent that the horror is almost inconceivable. 

Instead, their crimes invite morbid curiosity, imagination allows us to momentarily contemplate the agony of live disembowelment or the cold practicality of dissecting a corpse before we return to our normal, everyday lives. These projected mental glimpses of a violent death help us to deal with our own mortality, it’s a cartoonish, reflection of death rather than the real thing. Putting it another way, watching a documentary about Ted Bundy is a world apart from choosing to see a video of a person being decapitated in a desert because the latter is ‘real’.

At the end of the last century, Dr Harold Shipman quietly poisoned over 250 people with diamorphine but, like Dr Cream who you’ve probably forgotten about already, doesn’t make for good ‘true crime’ reading. Fred West, on the other hand, does, with similarities to Ed Gein’s Property in Plainfield, Wisconsin, 25 Cromwell Road in Gloucester had to be demolished to prevent the attention of so-called ‘dark tourists’. Even now, the empty plot on which the house stood is visited by thousands of people every year. 

So why West and not Shipman, why Jack and not Dyer? The way the despicable Dr Shipman quietly despatched his innocent victims is more upsetting than horrifying, the same can be said for Amelia Dyer, though her monstrous crimes have been dulled by time, unlike the frenzied, vicious murders courtesy of someone like Jack the Ripper, killings that operate on an unprecedented visceral and frequently depraved sexual scale that lie on the periphery or beyond human understanding, to such an extent that the horror is almost inconceivable. 

Instead, their crimes invite morbid curiosity, imagination allows us to momentarily contemplate the agony of live disembowelment or the cold practicality of dissecting a corpse before we return to our normal, everyday lives. These projected mental glimpses of a violent death help us to deal with our own mortality, it’s a cartoonish, reflection of death rather than the real thing. Putting it another way, watching a documentary about Ted Bundy is a world apart from choosing to see a video of a person being decapitated in a desert because the latter is ‘real’.

Mark Twain famously said, 'truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't.' Alfred Hitchcock’s rendition of the Ed Gein story in Psycho is certainly creepy, but the sheer outlandishness of the actual crime is impossible to comprehend, to such a degree it almost transcends reality. Similarly, the tantalising question of the identity of Jack the Ripper has undoubtedly contributed to his popularity, to the point he’s become a combination of both truth and fiction, and that’s the allure of true crime, in a nutshell, a toxic cocktail of established facts and endless questions. 

By Jamie Dwelly

Tuesday, 12 March, 2019 :24