As a middle school girl, I enjoyed watching criminal dramas with my mom—especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. My father, however, believed such media ultimately created the kind of criminals they depicted. And while I didn’t become a criminal, I did grow up with a different sort of brokenness.
As a child, I had abnormal fears and paranoia about being kidnapped. I would lock the doors when my mother worked in the garden and check behind every door for kidnappers. Most of my childhood nightmares cycled through scenarios of rape, kidnapping, and murder. These images and scenes lodged themselves in my brain and replayed obsessively.
I didn’t consider this unusual until I found myself at 20 years old crying on the phone to my husband because a random car pulled into our driveway—and I assumed its occupants were about to break in, tie me up, and throw me in the trunk. In the following days, as I reckoned with reality, I felt ashamed for being so afraid of something I’d only ever seen on a TV screen.
Today, criminal dramas and true crime are becoming more popular than ever. A 2022 poll found that half of Americans enjoy consuming this kind of content—with one in three saying they consume it at least once a week—and 13 percent say it’s their favorite genre.
Of course, we’re not the first or only generation to be attracted to the macabre. People have killed for sport and glorified gore for millennia—from gladiator battles featured in the Roman Colosseum to public executions held in town centers that even children attended.
But treating evil as entertainment can impact an entire society, just as it takes a toll on individuals.
A reporter from Health with a similar experience to mine interviewed a psychiatrist who explained that crime dramas can negatively affect viewers’ mental health, especially in people who are already prone to anxiety.
“What people do not realize is the power of video to affect certain people, to cause vicarious trauma or full-blown PTSD,” Ottawa forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Bradford says. “We cannot minimize the powerful effect of these types of videos.”
This effect played out in real time for the contractors Facebook hired to sort through flagged content—including photos and videos of murders, abuse, and other forms of violence. The Verge reported that these contractors developed PTSD, which resulted in illegal drug use, sex with coworkers for “trauma bonding,” and a variety of mental illnesses.
Does this mean criminal drama and true crime producers, writers, and publishers should be shut down and people should boycott their programs? Not necessarily. One psychiatrist found that not everyone is affected in the same way. In some cases, watching crime shows can enable trauma victims to become empowered over their memories and emotions and to feel prepared for a future attack.
But this logic goes only so far, since consuming content like this can also distort our expectations of reality—which in turn can influence how we interact with the world and the people around us.
“Shows that focus on murder and rape can really take you to a bad place,” a psychologist from Cleveland Clinic says. “They can help you become more vigilant and aware, but you don’t want to become overly reactive to the point where you’re not leaving your house, you’re not socializing, you’re not functioning.”
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s character Catherine consumes gothic novels full of murder, villains, madness, and adultery. Catherine becomes so absorbed in these dark stories that she invents a similarly dramatic tale in her own life. She suspects a terrible secret of her friends’ family in whose home she is staying—believing their father is guilty of killing his wife.
Yet his real sin turns out to be prejudice, not murder. When he discovers Catherine’s status in society is lower than he thought, he sends her away into the dark of night. Obsessed with perils more phantasmic, Catherine failed to anticipate the ordinary danger of a faulty character.
What if, like Catherine, consuming criminal dramas can cause our fear and anxiety to grow to the point where we are blind to the true threats around us? What if we psych ourselves out looking for imagined hazards while overlooking the real ones in our midst?
Vice interviewed a psychologist about the negative effects of binging true crime content and confirmed that prolonged exposure can activate the sympathetic nervous system. In real danger, this activation is necessary for our survival, she explains—but when this system is overworked, it can lead to anxiety and depressive disorders along with other health concerns.
Scripture explains why our bodies react negatively when we witness horrific suffering, injustice, and crimes against the imago Dei. From Genesis on, we see how Yahweh created us for a life lived in his sanctified garden walking alongside him—forever. We were created for an abundant life centered on beauty, joy, peace-filled relationships, and dignifying work.
We are called to set our minds on things above (Col. 3:1–4)—on what is right, pure, and good (Phil. 4:8)—and to guard our hearts, for from them flow streams of life (Prov. 4:23). Our souls are patterned after God, and so they should likewise crave righteousness and hate injustice.
That said, the Bible itself recounts the tragic and gruesome stories of living in a good creation defaced by sin, which is why some Christians see a redemptive value in dark literature and media. As Sara Kyoungah White writes, the horror genre can sometimes reveal hidden hypocrisy.
To pray and fight against injustice as God calls us to, we must be aware of what tragic horrors are happening in our world. Likewise, protecting our children requires knowing what potential dangers we must guard them from. We also need selfless people in many different industries—including the justice system, law enforcement, and trauma therapy—who will not look away from evil but who are willing to contend with the darkness and defend the innocent.
So, cloistering ourselves away from all evil is not the answer—nor is it possible.
Still, we need to discern when we’ve crossed the line from striving to become informed advocates into indulgently consuming unhealthy entertainment. And to develop this kind of wisdom, our minds must be able to think clearly. For some of us, that may require leaving criminal drama and true crime content behind altogether—if only so that dramatized injustices won’t distract or numb our brains to the actual injustices we are called to fight against.
While sin, evil, and death are inevitable in this world, they are also enemies of God’s kingdom. As Kate Shellnutt wrote for CT last year, death “robs us of what God made and called good. It should make us mad.” Are we being entertained by things that should grieve us instead?
In the church, we tend to swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. Some embrace an “anything goes” attitude to escape the legalism breathing down their necks. Others hoist their guardrails 30 feet away from the appearance of sin and judge those who do otherwise.
Instead, Christians should encourage each other to pursue wisdom and discernment according to their own tolerance levels. Consider how Paul directed the believers in Corinth on matters of conscience (1 Cor. 8). Although he proclaimed freedom on the issue, he ultimately encouraged those who enjoyed their freedom not to flaunt it before those with tender consciences or coerce them to forgo their consciences altogether and so become a stumbling block to them.
Our consciences may not always be right, but to regularly disregard them can ultimately lead to disobeying God’s revealed law, as Kevin DeYoung wrote in The Hole in Our Holiness.
This is a call to be conscious consumers not only for our own sake but also for the sake of being sensitive and sympathetic toward those around us. As believers especially, we should be careful about the books, movies, and shows we recommend to others—giving content warnings when necessary. We must be aware that those we invite to the book clubs and movie nights we host may be highly triggered by certain topics. This is one way we can love our neighbors well.
Ultimately, we must be aware that crime entertainment can have a traumatic effect on our bodies and souls, and we cannot simply look to what our neighbor does. We must instead trust the Holy Spirit—who indwells and guides us into all discernment, wisdom, and truth—as we seek to make choices that show kindness to ourselves and grace for our neighbors.
To the one feeling embarrassed as I once did: Don’t feel ashamed if graphic horror leaves you with bile in your throat. It was never meant to be.
Lara d’Entremont is an editor for Calla Press Publishing, an editor-at-large for Beautiful Christian Life, and a staff writer for Gospel-Centered Discipleship.