By |Published On: March 7th, 2023|Categories: Media Psychology, Pam Rutledge, School of Psychology|

Wealth, murder and abuse of privilege; the true crime story with a moral.

Key Points

  • The Murdaugh case has had the appeal of true crime, amplified by wealth and privilege.
  • True crime can increase perceptions of efficacy by providing strategies for protection and survival.
  • The guilty verdict after the trial elicited cheers, confirming the “just world hypothesis,” that bad deeds are punished.

Between true crime documentaries, TV shows, podcasts, and the sleuthing of “internet detectives,” people can’t seem to get enough true crime. While several real-life murder mysteries have captured our attention, few stories have the deception, wanton disregard, and jaw-dropping plotlines of the Alex Murdaugh case. The jury apparently agreed with a unanimous guilty verdict handed down in less than 15 minutes. This was no everyday murder mystery. The Murdaugh trial added wealth and privilege to the murder and scandal of true crime. It was the stuff of soap operas.

What Does True Crime Reflect About the Audience?

What does our passion for true crime say about us as an audience? There are several psychological reasons why true crime is compelling:

  • True crime activates our automatic response to danger. Horrific events activate adrenaline, which focuses our attention. Just like a wreck on the highway, we feel compelled to look and satisfy ourselves that we are not somehow “at risk.”
  • Humans are social animals. As an ever-rising number of reality shows demonstrates, we are fascinated by what others do and particularly aberrant behavior. True crime gives us insight into the psychology of a killer. By understanding how someone became a murderer, we may understand ourselves and the world a little better.
  • True crime gives us insights and strategies about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones. True crime fans are largely women (Vicary & Fraley, 2010). Women tend to feel more vulnerable to violent crime, and narratives function as simulations for real life, providing information about how victims escaped and survived, increasing awareness of danger signs, and empowering women to take steps to stay safe.
  • Media coverage, especially social media, creates a sense of empathy for the victims. It can be positive by validating the experience of victims, but the media also contribute to the romanticizing of dark figures.
  • True crimes are stories. They have suspense, horror, and intrigue, stimulating the same emotions and neurological rewards inherent in the conflict and resolution of a story arc. Emotional activation enhances interest and engagement
  • True crime stories often inspire internet detectives who believe they can help solve the mystery and relish the online attention discussing clues and theories which can hinder investigations and generate false accusations with tragic results.

The Murdaugh Case: True Crime Plus

The Murdaugh case, embedded in wealth and privilege, was a TV producer’s dream plot. Wealth with juicy secrets and the excitement of taboos. It had all the melodrama of a show like Dynasty where you feel good when the villains get what’s coming to them. People have a love-hate relationship with affluence and privilege. As much as we celebrate wealth, we love to pull the rich and famous off of their pedestals. Sometimes it’s because they violated the implicit social order — we were, after all, the ones who put them up there, and we feel betrayed when they aren’t worthy. Sometimes it’s envy and resentment. Sometimes it’s because it shows that they really weren’t that special after all. Restoring heroes to the mortal realm makes us feel better about ourselves.

The Murdaugh Case as Morality Play

The Murdaugh case, however, had something many don’t — a moral. Everything was in excess, from fraud and embezzlement to the murders of his wife and son at the family’s hunting lodge, no less. Alex Murdaugh became the unflattering stereotype of “the rich” so often promoted by Hollywood — spoiled, greedy, amoral, ruthless, and entitled (Zitelmann Rainer, 2020). The blatant and remorseless abuse of privilege created a true crime mystery that was both salacious and yet allowed fans to feel self-righteous. Murdaugh’s conviction reinforces our beliefs in the “just world hypothesis,” a cognitive bias that the world is just and people get what they deserve. The crowd outside the courthouse at Murdaugh’s trail cheered at the verdict.

How Much True Crime Is Too Much?

Information can change our worldview. There’s nothing wrong with a passion for true crime, unless it stops being entertaining and starts to undermine your sense of safety. The “mean world syndrome” describes a cognitive bias where the consumption of violence-related content makes the world seem more dangerous than it actually is. Consuming true crime on social media, podcasts, and television, with the ability to stream content 24/7, can create an immersive experience that can heighten anxiety and decrease the ability to trust (Wingralek et al., 2022). Checking in with your emotions and monitoring your body’s stress reaction to the content will give you clues about when it’s time to take a break.

The Alex Murdaugh murder trial got our attention because it targeted the growing interest in true crime with all the scandal and melodrama of a good soap opera. Beyond entertainment, it was also a morality play — an Aesop’s fable of pop culture — providing cognitive comfort by showing that bad deeds get punished.

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Vicary, A. M., & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers? Social Psychological and Personality Science1(1), 81–86.

Wingralek, Z., Banaszek, A., Giermasiński, A., Goliszek, K., Karakuła-Juchnowicz, H., & Wróbel-Knybel, P. (2022). „Streaming trap – the occurrence of the phenomenom of binge-watching and the mean world syndrome: A narrative review”. Current Problems of Psychiatry23(3), 118–127.

Zitelmann, R. (2020). The Rich in Public Opinion. Cato Institutte.

About the Author: Pam Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.

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