Why are we so fascinated with murder?

Originally published May 24, 2011.

The public is endlessly fascinated with murder.  When it’s on the news,  we may recoil in shock and horror,  but often and in other media,  homicide is a source of entertainment. We wonder why people kill and we are intrigued by the ways in which the deed is accomplished.

In the real world,  there is in fact a practical duty we share in understanding the means and the motivations for crime.  Understanding is necessary for prediction,  prevention and protection.

But the popular fascination with homicide goes far beyond the practical.  The story lines are a staple of art and literature and a subject for both drama and comedy.  The murder mystery is often most compelling when it abandons reality and is framed in fantasy.

The crime of murder is a most fundamental taboo and also,  perhaps,  a most fundamental human impulse.  In the Book of Genesis,  Adam and Eve's original sin is quickly followed by the original crime:  Cain's slaying of his brother Abel.  In Exodus,  the law is handed down:  “thou shall not kill.”

We all know that murder is a crime and that sometimes killing is justified.  Self-defense is an example of justifiable homicide.  In real life,  every killing demands that we pay attention and decide:  was this murder or was it something else?   Under the law,  homicide is not at all just a matter of black and white or absolute condemnation.

In every case,  there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.  Was it a first or a second degree murder or was it some form of manslaughter?  Was it the act of a “normal” person,  or the act of someone criminal or someone deranged.

To answer that question,  we usually look to the motive.  Why did they do it?  What would enable them to kill or drive them to the deed?  How did they decide or did they even think about what they were doing?  When it comes to murder,  there are many reasons why.

When people kill for profit or excitement or to terrorize others,  we know that it is simply evil.  It’s more complicated when there are other motivations.

When the killing involves some some feeling or emotion we all share,  we call it “a crime of passion.”  And then we wonder,  was it a common passion or an irrational one?  Was it an impulse we all might experience?  Was it an act that we might understand or somehow excuse?   We all know what anger feels like and can imagine various degrees of rage.  Anger is a normal passion,  so we have to wonder if it might also be an excuse.  The same applies to jealousy.

We are fascinated because we wonder:  would I have felt the same way,  had the same impulse and would I have done the same thing?  Would I have felt justified?   Would I have I have controlled myself?  Was there nothing that could have stopped me or something that should have stopped him?   Sometimes,  there is a very fine line between "normal" human passion and evil intent,  between a loss of control and a desire to let loose.

Some years ago,  a woman named Ellie Nesler walked into a California foothills courthouse and shot to death the man who had sexually molested her son.  It was in the national news and even on Oprah.  People were debating:  was it vigilante justice and cold-blooded revenge,  or did she kill in “a heat of passion” that might have overwhelmed the sensibilities of any common man?  The defense argued that she had been driven mad and was insane.

This happened in Gold Rush country where you can still find an awful lot of the Old West.  The jury said she wasn’t crazy and convicted her of manslaughter.  It was in fact a cold-blooded killing,  but the jury understood her passion and her impulse.  What Ellie said to me when I interviewed her was:  “anybody in their right mind would have done the same thing.”

Our fascination is driven by all of the many complexities that are to be found in the motive for murder.  Even when we are certain that the intent is simply evil,  there are still all of the degrees and forms of evil to be examined.

People are also naturally intrigued by the infinite number of ways the crime can be committed.

The variables involved are almost infinite:  Was the victim targeted or doomed by chance?  Was it planned in advance or a sudden undertaking?   Was the method crude and stupid or was it clever and sophisticated?

We are also fascinated by the investigation:  Were the suspects many or was it someone acting alone? Were the clues subtle or obvious?  Did the investigation require science or logic?  Did the detectives rely on intuition or insight,  acute powers of observation or just hard work?  Was the perpetrator the usual,  obvious suspect,  or was it the person no one would ever suspect?  When the investigation is over,  we still have to ask:  did they get the right guy?
In real life,  we also tend to focus acutely on whether or not it could happen to us.  I am certain that no one is going to kill me for my fortune,  but I am not so certain about my safety when I read about a senseless shooting of an innocent bystander or a burglary gone wrong that left the homeowner dead.  We pay attention because we want to know if we are safe.

In the end,  I think the fascination with murder is natural because there are so many different ways to judge each crime.  We wonder about the victim,  about the perpetrator,  and about the circumstances.  We are intrigued by the motive and the method and how they got away or how they got caught.  We wonder who would be capable of the crime and whether they are “normal” like us or hopefully quite different.

In the real world,  we are fascinated because of the powerful emotions aroused when we consider the fate and fortune of the victim and the pain that remains for their survivors.  In reality,  it is the cold realities that draw and demand our attention.   We actively seek the clues that tell us that we are safe,  that it couldn’t happen to us.

Murder is fascinating whether it’s real or not.  Every case creates a set of questions to ponder.    In the real world,  we need to be intrigued and aware to remain safe.  We need to examine each case and judge for ourselves:  was this a matter of primal instinct or some unnatural act?  Was it a matter of evil intent,  a result of human frailty or a justified response to threat or provocation?.

When it’s art,  all of those questions make it what we call a “thriller” or a “mystery.”  When the body is real,  the “thrill” may be gone,  but the questions and the fascination remain.

Copyright, paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.