Why do we Enjoy Crime Fiction?


I have to admit that I’ve never really liked crime fiction or detective movies or TV shows. The primary reason for that is that I get scared extremely easily. I have never watched a horror movie in my life and I’m pretty sure I would still get jumpscared while watching Coraline. My parents would often watch crime TV-shows in the evening before going to sleep and I disliked it because I was terrified of having nightmares about it afterwards. Some of those scared me so intensely that I still remember some of the episodes, such as the one in which the killer would murder his victims with a nail gun which, is pretty terrifying if you ask me. Reading crime fiction never really appealed to me either. I had to read a novel by Agatha Christie back in high school and I remember being bored to death because I didn’t manage to get into the plot. However, that might also be because I had forgotten about the deadline and had to rush through it in a single day, which makes for a less than enjoyable experience. Crime fiction was often my parents’ and many other people’s go-to holiday read which often made me wonder why something that is distressing for me can be such a source of entertainment for other people.

Crime fiction is very popular and can be found both in literature and the visual arts. The genre is more ancient than people usually think it is. It gained popularity over the course of the 19th century; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is often considered to be one of the first examples of crime fiction. However, the genre originates further back in time. Some of the tales from “1001 Nights”, for instance, present salient characteristics of crime fiction and specifically of detective fiction. Furthermore, detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction in which a detective tries to elucidate the circumstances of a victim’s death. It is probably the subgenre to which we are the most exposed since it is the way TV-shows or popular crime literature are generally constructed.

Watching a crime tv-show when coming back home from work is still many people’s idea of a relaxing night. Why is it that images and storylines that are, at the very least,  somewhat upsetting are used as a way to relax? How can distressing scenes become a common source of entertainment? Some research has been conducted on the psychological reasons behind people’s appreciation of crime fiction. Different types of story lines will cause different types of emotions in people. Thrillers tend to make people afraid, while gangster movies tend to provoke some kind of anger. Detective stories, on the other hand, trigger a special type of emotions called “seeking emotions”. The seeking system is supported by the dopamine system. The initial aim of the seeking system was to motivate the search for resources such as food in order to insure human survival. Thus the reason why we feel attracted to detective fiction is because it activates our seeking system. Trying to solve a murder in a book or on TV gives us the same satisfaction as solving a riddle or a puzzle. Detective fiction is also attractive because it implies a certain kind of detachment since the detective most often has no emotional relation with the victim. This distance present in detective fiction is due to different factors present at the emergence of the genre such as the development of urban society, the advancement in medical sciences and the rise of crime reports in mass media.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

The reasons why people enjoy detective fiction is due to a transfer of mental activities. This happens when mental activities that were meant for a certain purpose get used for another. In this case, the mental activities that were used in order to hunt or forage are applied to moral problems ,such as crimes, while still being supported by the dopamine system. The activation of the seeking system has different effects on the brain: it energises it, increases interest, attention and curiosity. It also encourages people to search for a covert meaning. Finally, it fixes the connections between clues and a goal in our memory so that they can be useful again later.  However, an overactivation of that system can also have negative consequences as it can cause delusion. Although the seeking system is supported by the dopamine system, it is different from the pleasure system because it does not itself bring the gratification but encourages the search for it. The feelings brought by detector fiction are cold, not like the emotional resonance that will be brought by a romantic movie. The seeking system is furthermore activated through the format of the detective story as it is often the same investigators.

The relaxation people feel when reading or watching detective stories is due to one of the mechanisms of the seeking system is to explore the surrounding environment in order to find clues leading to a certain goal. Things in the environment therefore start to carry a secondary meaning. The reason why crime fiction is enjoyable although its content is disturbing is because the seeking system disrupts the usual rules of proximity and privacy, therefore diminishing empathy. Our seeking system leads us to see the fictional distressing events as clues to get to a goal in order to satisfy our seeking system rather than as emotional events.

I now know why some people find crime fiction so attractive but I am still at loss as to why I don’t enjoy it at all and am not able to get past the distressing images. However, understanding how consuming crime fiction impacts your brain has made me curious. I might pick up a detective story this summer and who knows, this time it might trigger my seeking emotions.

Written by Léa Vandervorst


Grodal, Torben. “High on Crime Fiction and Detection”. Projections 4.2 (2010): 64-85. 

<https://doi.org/10.3167/proj.2010.040205>. Web. 18 Apr. 2023

Martin, Emily. “A Brief History of Detective Fiction.” Novel Suspects. 

A Brief History of Detective Fiction | Novel Suspects

Newland, Courttia; Hershman, Tania (2015). Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ and Artists’ 

Companion. Bloomsbury Publishing. P.17. ISBN 9781474257305


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