The American fascination with true crime is well-established; you can find myriad podcasts, books and TV programs that prove as much.
But there’s something about watching a potential crime unfold live – this month, it’s the disappearance of Alabama corrections officer Vicky White and convict Casey White – that scratches another, more urgent itch.
From the weeks-long search for Brian Laundrie after his fiancée Gabby Petito was found dead, to the hunt for White and White (no relation), audiences are fascinated by ongoing manhunts and fugitives evading capture. Hollywood has capitalized on this, too, with fictional fare like “The Fugitive,” while true crime media has proven to be a lucrative and enduring venture for decades.
But what is it about a manhunt that can grab our attention and hold it for weeks, even months?
Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, points to the immediacy and unfinished story.
“Not only could we be in danger ourselves, but there’s the mystery element – where is the person and what are they going to do?” said Vicary, who studies the drivers behind women’s interest in true crime.
Sordid crime stories have interested us for “thousands of years,” Vicary said, but watching a manhunt unfold live is different from watching a “Dateline” episode about a crime that took place years prior. The danger is real, and with few answers, those following along are coming up with their own conclusions like the law enforcement officials on a fugitive’s tail.
The story is stranger than fiction
Vicary’s research has shown that women tend to consume true crime media more often than men, a trend she said is partly driven by a need to “learn something” from a violent incident so they can prevent it from happening to them (particularly if the true crime tale involves a woman victim).
“Members of the general public want to know how dangerous somebody is – that’s going to be the thing that gets people to look up from their breakfast cereal,” said Dr. Michael Bourke, former chief psychologist for the US Marshals Service and current instructor at George Washington University.
But in the case of White and White, theirs is a story that sounds like it’s ripped from a film script – Vicky White was, Vicary said, “by all accounts … a respectable and reliable employee,” working on the side of the law. Casey White, who was serving 75 years for several crimes in 2015, is also facing two counts of capital murder.
“It sounds like a movie but is real life,” Vicary said. “It’s not surprising people are following along.”
The fact that White was an established law enforcement official who suddenly left her job with a convict lends the case a degree of “romance,” Bourke said – a hook for viewers.
Internet sleuths enjoy following along
When Gabby Petito disappeared, TikTok sleuths composed a picture of what her life had been like in the days before she went missing using law enforcement footage, Instagram deep-diving and triangulating her last known location based on other users’ posts. When Brian Laundrie went on the run after Petito’s body was found, those sleuths set out to virtually follow his trail.
Vicary said the same amateur detectives who sought clues in Petito and Laundrie’s case may be drawn back into the fray for the Alabama corrections officer and convict: Those following along “are enjoying thinking about where (White and White) went and where they may be hiding.”
Bourke said many people who follow tales of criminals on the run do so to exact justice, to “feel a part of mitigating that threat” in their community. But some of them also enjoy trying to “beat (law enforcement officials) at their own game” and “solve” a mysterious disappearance along with the pros.
“Mysteries are fascinating to people,” Bourke said. “People are looking for the clues; people want to solve the puzzle.”
The clues keep coming in the case of the Alabama officer and the convict: Details about their lives are emerging and continuing to feed audiences’ cravings for answers.
Media coverage holds our attention – even when it’s disproportionate
Certainly, the constant media coverage of crimes unfolding is one reason viewers become entangled in a story: It’s hard to look away from what NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik called a “vicious cycle” of coverage through nonfiction series or live reporting on cable news.
But the cases that get heavier media attention are often focused on a particular demographic of victim. The 2021 case of Petito and Laundrie took off, many argued, because she was a blonde White woman, just as audiences glommed onto the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, another blonde White woman, in 2005 and closely followed the search for suspects. Meanwhile, many missing people of color received little-to-no national coverage or continued airtime like Petito’s case did.
“These are subjective choices to elevate them to national attention, and it’s also hinged on the idea that the default of who – somebody that you’re going to want to know about is going to be somebody White and female,” Folkenflik said on NPR.
It’s a twisted form of escapism
In the same way that some true crime enthusiasts fancy themselves amateur, independent investigators, some are drawn in by watching someone else make an extreme choice, like going on the run with a criminal, Vicary said.
Leaving a stable job for a convict is a major deviation from societal norms, Bourke said.
“It’s that fall from grace,” he said. “What makes someone like that go bad? There’s a magnetism, a pull toward things that are so aberrant, so out of our realm of normality that we’re intrigued by it.”
Deep down, “a lot of people wonder how they could also ‘escape’ their everyday lives and start over,” Vicary said, which may very well play a part in why these stories hold our attention. But while it may be tempting to consider going on the run and developing a new identity, she noted that fugitive stories “usually don’t have a happy ending.”