Our Obsession with “Stranger Crime”
“It’s when fiction approaches reality that we start to feel uncomfortable. And it’s this uncomfortable corner of our psyche that I wanted to explore.”
This is a true story.
It’s a dark and moonless night. My wife and two daughters were staying in a small cabin in the woods. The storms that had been threatening all day were approaching, and the rumble of distant thunder was regularly interrupted by the deafening crash of lightning strikes closer and closer to them.
“Best to just sit tight for the night.”
The three women I love most in the world were huddled inside when a lightning flash accompanied by a simultaneous thunder crash struck too close. The generator went dead. The lights in the cabin died.
Flashlights came on. Candles lit up one by one.
Outside, all of this was visible through the cabin windows. The rain and thunder drowned out the squishing sound that large boots made as they plodded slowly, leaving imprints in the mud. Then my darlings clearly heard the old porch complain as the boots stomped toward the cabin door.
Our youngest, only twelve, peeked through a window just as a flash of lightning lit up the night, and she screamed just as the cabin door flew open. My wife leapt forward, flashlight in one hand and a large butcher knife in the other, stopping just short of stabbing me in the face.
“For God’s sake Jay,” she yelled, “You scared the crap out of us!”
“But, you knew I went to buy batteries. Who the hell did you think was coming?
Imaginations sometimes run wild. Partly because we have all seen different endings to
this little vignette, one where the man in the boots was a lost camper who lives in the woods and kills intruders (Jason, Friday the 13th), or a serial killer escaped from a sanitarium (Michael Myers, Halloween), or a forensic psychologist turned serial killer/cannibal (Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs).
Why are we willing to suspend disbelief and accept these outlandish crime scenarios when in reality murders are usually committed by someone who knew the victim(s)? In the real world, if there had been a murder at the cabin that night, the police would immediately have suspected the father before considering a Hannibal Lecter scenario.
We obsess over these outlandish scenarios for two reasons.
First, because the media over-reports outlandish crimes.
In reality, violent crime rates have dropped since the 1990’s, to the point that 90% of all crimes committed these days are property crimes. Yet, 80% of what the media reports is violent crime. The more extreme the more the coverage.
The media obsesses over crimes by psychopaths against undeserving victims. And the research shows the types of crimes the media reports are disproportionately what gets written as fiction.
But, these kinds of stories also make for easy fiction because they’re strangely comfortable to us. Why? Because of a second factor that comes into play.
We are easily entertained by these outlandish scenarios because of something I call “outlier complacency.”
You see, when you read a novel about a psychopath with a dungeon buried in the forest, you feel safe because, deep down, a little voice reassures you, “Relax. Don’t worry. What are the odds?” Despite all the media attention, we know these types of crimes are rare—outliers. We don’t believe that they could happen to us or someone we know. They are “possible” enough to give us a little charge of excitement or fear, but so unlikely that we feel safe (complacent).
It’s when fiction approaches reality that we start to feel uncomfortable. And it’s this uncomfortable corner of our psyche that I wanted to explore when I sat down to write my thriller Eye for Eye.
You see, no one has a problem with the “morality” of a Hannibal Lecter plot: undeserving victims; a psychopath killer; cannibalism. It’s very clear who the bad guy is, and who we’re supposed to root for.
But, let’s move away from those outlier crimes and more towards reality. What if woman gets date-raped, and the guy gets away with it? And what if two affluent couples then conspire to murder the rapist—a twenty-four-year-old white male college student?
We still have an arguably deserving victim—the rapist—targeted for murder by normal, rational people. How will our psyche deal with that? And, who is the villain in this story?
Where is that little voice now, the one that was saying “Relax. Don’t worry. What are the odds?”
This scenario is disturbing because it is real. It could happen. No suspension of disbelief is required. This makes for great suspense!
The plotline raises moral questions, and is more unnerving than Hannibal Lecter, because, given these facts, the reader is torn; ‘ does the rapist guy deserve to die? And do our two leading characters deserve to get away with it’?