True Crime Documentaries

True Crime

True Crime is a non-fiction literary, podcast, and film genre about real crimes that have occurred. These Documentaries show a detailed series of stories on the survivors, police investigations, and the crimes involved. The crimes introduced in these documentaries include theft, money laundering, and killings. Murders take up 40 percent of True Crime Documentaries on notorious serial killers. True Crime Documentaries were created to have a purpose in impacting the audience and giving survivors a chance to speak their truths and get closure from the tragic events that took place. Although this genre didn’t originally start with documentaries, it has become one of the most addicting and popular genres with over 1.6 million True Crime books sold in 2018 alone.

History and Development

Figure 1: True Detective was published in 1924 and was the first True Crime Magazine.

Between the 1500’s and 1700’s, True Crime was in the form of pamphlets, broadsides, and street literature that were originally published in Britain, before making their way to the United States as literacy expanded into a growing field. In the 1800’s, literary critics and writers such as Thomas De Quincey published True Crime essays not only talking about the perpetrator of the crime, but how Society viewed these crimes at the time.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century when the first True Crime book was published by Edmund Pearson. Pearson was a popular New York Times Journalist who wrote one of the first True Crime books, Studies in Murder. His book included the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case involving her entire family being murdered by Lizzie herself. The first American True Crime magazine, True Detective, was published in 1924 that first focused on fiction crimes before moving over to non-fiction true crimes. It wasn’t until 1988 when one of the first True Crime film documentaries was created named, The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris. This documentary was based on the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Texas police officer, Robert Wood. In 1989 after Randall’s death sentence, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals deemed the charges a wrongful conviction and were overturned.

Social & Rhetorical Functions

True Crime Documentaries have become one of the most popular genres for the general public today. Documentaries and podcasts have become a controversial topic for many reasons. Many outside viewers were concerned that having a True Crime Genre romanticized “the art of scam.” This meant they felt the genre desensitized the killings of innocent people and tragic events that took place. Others from the general public believed that it gave society closer access to important events that highlighted the flaws of the United States Criminal Justice System. Psychotherapists such as Kathleen Check, believe that True Crime gives society a sense of escapism during rough times in their lives they need it the most. Many psychiatrists believe being able to see inside the mind of a serial killer or dangerous criminal gives people a “psychological protective barrier.” That if they can see how criminals think and operate, they would be prepared and know how to protect themselves.

Figure 2: Official Trailer Documentary of Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer

Stylistic Elements

Since True Crime pamphlets were first published in the 1980’s, the genre has since become only a more popular obsession within society, while documentaries and podcasts have only evolved. True Crime Documentaries became a growing phenomenon and started showing similar stylistic features in all. Some of the most popular True Crime Documentaries to this day are, Ted Bundy: Falling for a killer,  This is the Zodiac Speaking, and The Night Stalker.  Common Stylistic features in True Crime Documentaries include:

  • Reenactments of the crime scenes
  • Survivors speaking about the events
  • Suspenseful Background Music
  • Police Investigation speakers

An example of these stylistic features are shown in Figure 2 in the official trailer of Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer. There is suspenseful music as well as reenactments of the events with the crimes that took place. Just as most True Crime Documentaries features, The Night Stalker Documentary also shows survivors telling their stories either during the terrifying period of Richard Ramirez, or a personal encounter they had with him. Examples of True Crime Documentaries with similar stylistic elements include:

  • America Murder: The Family Next Door
  • Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
  • Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes


1.Cruz, Lenika (11 June 2015). The New True Crime. The Atlantic.

2.Greco, Patti (13 October 2020). Why Do So Many People Like Horror Movies? Six Reasons We Love Being Scared. Health.

3.Marr, John (19 August 2015). The Long Life and Quiet Death of True Detective Magazine. Gizmodo.

4.Roysdon, Keith (11 June 2021). A Brief History of the Rise-and Evolution-of True Crime Books. CrimeReads.

5.Stinson, Annakeara (6 April 2018). Here’s How Your True Crime Obsession Actually Affects Your Brain, According To Experts. Elite Daily.

6.Wikimedia Foundation (20 March 2022). Edmund Pearson. Wikipedia.

7.Wikimedia Foundation (5 April 2022). Killing of Gabby Petito. Wikipedia.

8.Wikimedia Foundation (22 March 2022). Ted Bundy (film). Wikipedia.

9.Wikimedia Foundation (11 February 2022). The Thin Blue Line (1988 Film). Wikipedia.

10.Wikimedia Foundation (3 March 2022). Thomas De Quincey. Wikipedia.

11.Wikimedia Foundation (31 March 2022). True Crime. Wikipedia.

12.Wikimedia Foundation (13 December 2021). True Detective. Wikipedia.

13.Wikimedia Foundation (7 April 2022). Zodiac Killer in popular culture. Wikipedia.

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