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SPECIAL REPORT: What's behind the fascination with true crime stories?

SPECIAL REPORT: What's behind the fascination with true crime stories?
SPECIAL REPORT: What's behind the fascination with true crime stories?
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The true crime genre of entertainment is as popular as ever.

Whether it's the latest documentary series on your favorite streaming platform, a new podcast, or a traditional Friday night routine, the content is out there because people crave it.

The details of the stories are often disturbing, yet, many are fascinated and want to learn more.

We sat down with Dateline NBC's Keith Morrison, one of the most well known true crime storytellers, to discuss the fascination.

“Once you get into these stories they’re just – you can’t put them down," Morrison said. "You have to know more. You have to know more."

As is the case with his viewers, Morrison also is genuinely fascinated by the stories.

“It’s not because of the crime, it’s not because of the gory details – nothing like that. It’s what makes human beings tick," he said.

He thinks people are curious to see what happens when a person ticks differently.

“When they go off track, we need to know what that looks like," Morrison said.

Morrison reiterated the fact that these are real stories, about real tragedies, involving real people. That is one of the reasons why UNLV Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephen Benning believes people are often so captivated by true crime stories.

“True crime shows us both the best of us and the worst of us," Benning said. "It shows the depths of depravity that humanity has, and it also reassures us that there’s a way out, that there’s safety, that even the worst parts of humanity might be controlled – or at least put away.”

Benning says people will gravitate towards the genre for different reasons, but there are some explanations as to why.

“There’s a sense that this really happened, this is true, this might be applicable to my life, rather than being a tale that is woven out of an author’s fantasy, or imagination," he said. “They may get a sense of, ‘I may be able to defend against this. I may learn something. I may figure out how it is that, if I’m in a similar situation, I won’t get taken advantage of.’”

There are different ways of delivering true crime stories. Gillian Pensavalle and Patrick Hinds co-host a podcast called, "True Crime Obsessed."

"We are averaging about 375,000 downloads per episode," Hinds said.

They watch true crime documentaries and then talk about them on their show, kind of how two friends would while having a drink or dinner. It can be pretty light-hearted at times.

“People just really love to talk about this," Hinds said. "It’s a weird, morbid fascination that people just have.”

“Yeah, we just give them a safe space and say it’s okay to laugh about the disgusting car the detective is driving in. We have to laugh about something," Pensavalle said.

Despite the laughs, Pensavalle stressed the importance of being respectful while talking about these stories, as the details involve real people and real-life horrors. She says they pay close attention to all of the facts of the stories so they can ensure they get all of the details correct.

“If we are going to be laughing about something related to this crime, we are super victim advocates. We never victim blame or victim shame," Pensavalle said. "I’m not sitting there with popcorn-like, lounging, watching a documentary. I’m sitting up straight, I’m stopping and starting, everyone’s name I want to get right. It’s part of us being respectful to the story that we’re telling.”

Hinds says their podcast and other true crime content producers, can help keep cases and stories alive.

“Talking about these cases are so important," Hinds said. "We always try to focus on documentaries about under-represented people or under-represented groups, and our way of bringing humor and some light to it is a way of keeping it out there.”

Morrison says when telling these stories comes with serious responsibility.

“It’s incumbent upon anybody like me, doing such a story, to be as sensitive as it is humanly possible to be to the things they’ve gone through, to the emotions they feel, to the concerns they have about having their story told," Morrison said.

Content makers, fans, and sometimes, the real people from these stories are brought together every year at an event called "CrimeCon." Kevin Balfe, the executive producer, says it is not a gathering to glorify atrocities.

"It’s not I think, the stereotypical definition of, this was a murder and we’re going to reenact it. We’ve really never done that, and probably never will do that," he said. “These are real stories. This is not in the CSI, or the fictional realm – these are real stories. Generally, they involve the worst day of someone else’s life. There’s a profound responsibility there and there’s also a profound amount of respect that has to be there.”

He says many of the several thousand attendees are interested in a variety of true crime topics, from criminal justice reform to forensics, to issues of domestic violence. Others are there to learn more about the mysteries.

The programming aims to change the way viewers absorb true crime, by creating advocates and educating people about how the legal process works, according to Balfe.

“This is not a comic-con, where you go in and there’s a massive exhibit hall and people are dressed up as their favorite characters. I know it’s got the word, “con,” in it, but people sort of have to get that out of their mind. It’s really programming heavy," Balfe said. “We ask ourselves a series of questions before we program anything – what is the educational value? Is there a real point to this session or is it just sensationalistic, and if it’s the latter, it doesn’t make the cut.”

Balfe says interest in CrimeCon is growing, and he thinks interest in the true crime genre is growing.

As for the latter, Morrison has no qualms about that.

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“I keep thinking at some point, people are going to get tired of it. But it doesn’t seem to be the case," Morrison said. "I’m not getting tired of it, so, why should anybody else, right?”

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