Introduction to the True Crime Genre

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Introdcution to the True Crime Genre

Stephen Pinker's Video

  • What is Pinker’s argument/thesis?
  • What do you make of the argument “Violence is in ever increasing decline, living in most peaceful moment of human existence”
  • Is this thesis striking? WHy or why not?
  • Perception vs reality of violence today

Taleb Challenges Pinker’s Thesis

Agree that diabetes is a bigger risk than murder --we are victims of sensionalism. But our suckerdom for overblown narratives of violence does not imply that the risks of large scale violent shocks have declined. (The same as in economics, people’s mapping of risks are out of sync and they underestimate large deviations). We are just bad at evaluating risks

In turn, Pinker responds to Taleb with “Fooled by Belligerence”


  • If it bleeds, it leads, 24 hr news cycle, instant communication through internet - creates perception
  • Are there motivations on the part of entities in positions of power to foster this perception?

Why has violence declined? A Few Theories

  • Thomas Hobbes - the importance of the state and authority in mediating personal relations. The failure of this more recently with Trayvon Martin (Florida). Violence decreased in spaces that had established, democratic states.
  • Life is sacred, life is longer and more pleasent (James Payne) As quality of life increases so does the value of that life.
  • Reality - changes in communication make it a smaller world. more communication = more empathy?

Harold Schecter Interview on his True Crime Anthology

Luc Sante quote: "The non fictional narrative of crime has chiefly been associated with such raffish vehicles as the ballad broadside, the penny dreadful, the tabloid extra, and the pulp detective magazine."

raffish - "unconventional and slightly disreputable, esp. in an attractive manner." - nice word choice I wonder what the modern equivalent of the penny dreadful is - TV? 16 and Pregnant?

"the fascination of the abomination" Conrad, from Heart of Darkness. I don’t think it’s quite the same fascination as the fascination with the trainwreck - somehting more internal & reflective ( - maybe Conrad is a bit of a sidetrack, but the idea of the shaman sent to face the darkness parallels the idea of the police or soldiers sent to deal with disorder & violence

nice the way the interviewer gets all that into one question

Schecter says the crimes that get play reflect the fears of the day - from poisoning around the turn of the 20th century to serial killers today. So maybe we could look at true crime narratives of the past and see what they say, in a broad sense, about their times

The figure of Ed Gein as archetypal:

Idea of the communal psyche

Influence of True Crime on 19th century writers like Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, etc. David Reynolds’s Beneath the American Renaissance.

The figure of normality

A survey of True Crime in many ways a “social history of the U.S.”

Is Schechter making similar argument as Pinker? Entertainment has become less violent?

Recent article fot the decline in serial killer in which Schecter is quoted: love the illustration at the head of the article

Harols Schecter's Intro to True Crime Anthology

Plato: "the virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does." Do we want to be wicked? Is it a secret desire within us, perhaps even something we don't acknowledge to ourselves? Maybe true crime shows us the ugly reality of our darker impulses. It could be both a catharsis and a warning.

  • The news media cycle? Is fascination with the horror of crime a new phenomenon?
  • The Puritan Execution sermons as our first stop on our ride through true crime.

How does Schecter begin to define True Crime?

The tension between True Crime and hi and low brow culture.

Melville paying to attend a public execution in England in 1849. “The mob was brutish. All in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene.”