2.3 A society fascinated by crime?
To make an analogy with the now outmoded vinyl record, if ‘the fear of crime’ track is the A-side of this hit record, the track on the B-side is ‘the fascination with crime’. Fascination may seem an unusual word to associate with the pressing social problem of crime, given its harmful and destructive consequences. After all, we often associate being fascinated with being allured or charmed by someone or something. How might such feelings be associated with those fearful things we call crimes?
Think about the role played by both fictional and non-fictional accounts of crimes and criminals in your own leisure time or that of family members or friends. How many examples can you think of from TV or literature that illustrate our fascination with crimes and criminals?
We turned up quite a few examples.
The TV schedules suggest we thrive on a high-crime diet of murder tales and detective thrillers as well as ‘true-life’ documentaries, especially about the police.
The quickest browse through any chainstore bookshop reveals a vast array of fictional crime thrillers, from P.D. James's English professional mysteries to Elmore Leonard's Detroit and Florida low-lifes and hucksters.
In many bookshops you will also find a whole section dedicated to ‘true crime’ and books which claim to explore the ‘mind of the criminal’ or recount the gruesome biographies of serial killers.
You may have come up with other examples than these of course, but it is likely that you will have found it quite easy to find past and present manifestations of the culture of fascination with ‘the crime problem’. And let's not forget that popular newspapers from the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ to our contemporary tabloid press have gained mass readerships from the retelling – in part as entertainment – of lurid criminal offences, their detection and punishment.
Our society, then, is characterised by a culture of fear about crime but also a culture of fascination. We are seemingly both seduced and repulsed by crimes and criminals. Nor is this fascination with crimes and criminals simply the stuff of fiction. Acts defined as criminal may both seduce and repulse us because they involve on occasions both risk-taking and challenges to ‘normal’ ways of doing things. As the criminologist Jack Katz (1996, pp. 146–7) notes, ‘Watch vandals and amateur shoplifters as they duck into alleys … and you will be moved by their delight in deviance … Watch the strutting street display [of gang members] and you will be struck by the awesome fascination that symbols of evil hold … ‘. Why else are programmes featuring the grainy black-and-white CCTV (close circuit television) pictures of suburban mall shoplifters so popular?