On HBO's Newsroom, a television drama that depicts the inner-workings of what goes on from fact-checking to producing on the set of a fictitious news program similar to MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews or Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, there is a scene in which the employees discuss what the lead story should be for the night. The two candidates are whether the United States should raise its debt ceiling or the Casey Anthony trial. Guess which issue affects the lives of more Americans? But, inevitably, guess which issue the newsroom was forced to lead with because their ratings would tank if they failed to do so. Yes, there was only one option: to lead with the Casey Anthony murder trial.
As a nation, we are captivated by these these murder trials. But why? And what does our obsession tell us about ourselves?
The primary reason why these trials are so fascinating to us is because they are real. This point may sound mundane, but it is actually vital to not overlook its importance. Real-life murder trials are the equivalent to our favorite CSI or Law & Order episode x 1000. For in the back of our minds, when watching our favorite crime television dramas, no matter how hard we try to forget, we know that we are watching actors' portrayal of crime. In actual murder trials, where we are used to seeing actors we now get to watch real people, and this overwhelms us with enjoyment.
The Accused are Actually Relatable
Although most people would be reluctant to admit it, the accused are relatable. Hopefully, the vast majority of us are not plotting murder, but many of us do experience the same feelings that the accused experience prior to their alleged crimes. Thousands of single mothers are struggling to raise young children, and often wish that there was a way to get their children to stop kicking and screaming at inopportune times. Countless others have experienced an instance in which one of their friends has done something that 'crossed the line' (for Hernandez this occured in the form of his friend talking to the 'wrong people' at a club). Again, most of us do not resort to extreme measures such as murder or anything close to it, but, because we go through the same situations on a daily basis that allegedly lead the likes of Anthony, Zimmerman, and Hernandez to commit murder tantalizes us. And in this realization we self-assess: perhaps a stressed single mother seeks therapy or a man begins to lighten up regarding who his friends associate with. And in the case of Zimmerman, thousands who were born a generation too late for the Civil Rights Movement have now rallied behind using this case to push for greater progress in racial equality.
These Trials Make Us Feel Better About Ourselves
Boy is this aspect important. Unsurprisingly, when we watch these people, alleged murderers, on the television day after day, we feel better and better about ourselves. "I may have my problems, but at least I didn't kill anyone." This 'feel good' medicine is addicting; we just can't get enough of it.
We Love to Watch People Fall From Grace (When We Think They Deserve It)
Perhaps this aspect speaks most directly to the dark side of the human psyche, but it is hard to dispute that we love to watch people of power fall from grace. Maybe even more than we relish a classic underdog story. This can be attributed to the simplistic notion that, since most of us never 'make it'', we enjoy to see those who had everything 'come crashing back down to Eatth'. As the old adage goes, 'misery loves company.'
You can also draw comparisons to literature's tragic heroes--certainly the famous ones such as Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Throughout the course of human history, we have had a lustful obsession for tragedy. Our very existence could be deemed by many as the purest of tragedies. However, the difference between literature's tragic heroes and our contemporary villains of Anthony, Zimmerman, and Hernandez, is that we could empathize with a Hamlet or an Oedipus Rex who made human-prone mistakes and paid dearly for them. Because our contemporary alleged murderers are not 'heroes' in any sense of the word, we cannot empathize with or, for the most part, begin to rationalize with their decisions. So, we enjoy watching them gradually suffer for the crimes we believe they have committed. As opposed to presuming innocence until proven guilty, we presume guilty until proven innocent and this allows us to play the murder over and over in our minds until we convince ourselves that it is reality.
And we love every second of it: from the crime thriller going on in our minds to the agonizing moments in the courtroom. Our justification, along the same lines as peoples would justify attending a public hanging, is that we can relate to what they were going through prior to murder, but we cannot fathom the decision to kill. And the incomprehensibility of it all leaves us with destruction (of the murderer in the form of life in prison or capital punishment) as the only solution. And, when nothing makes sense, the outlet of destruction is, in a crude way, beautiful. Better yet, 'crude beauty' may just be the best way to characterize our captivation with murder trials; our fascination dually prompts us to improve of our own lives, but also satisfies our troubling yearning for watching great men fall to their knees.