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The Gabby Petito Case: A Psychiatrist Details the Universal Human Appeal of True Crime Stories

It seems everyone in America knows the Gabby Petito’s name and the scant details of how she went from smiling for Instagram photos in Grand Teton National Park to being found dead in the Wyoming park, with law enforcement now looking for her missing boyfriend.

She had a beautiful smile and was on an enviable adventure driving cross-country, but the real reason people know her is because her life became a true crime story, a genre that holds perennial allure for people.

“People are totally captured by true crime. My family and I both like true crime stories – there’s something very fascinating about them that appeals to our sense of mystery,” said Dr. Javeed Sukhera, chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Living, part of Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network.

What attracts and holds viewers’ interest, Dr. Sukhera said, is the relatability of the people involved. Petito was an average young adult, eager for adventure.

“There’s a projection of the self going on,” Dr. Sukhera said. “We look at it and think, ‘I can project my own experiences and relationships into the way this story’s being told.’ It’s like when we read a book, we unconsciously read between the lines based on our own experiences, and enjoy the book or not based on those experiences.”

The media’s use of Petito’s smiling face with daily stories also underscores the sense that the person involved is a real person, which matters to viewers, Dr. Sukhera said.

“My kids will often ask when we start a movie if it’s a true story. We’re all making that inference ourselves, and it determines how we relate to things,” he said.

The 24-hour news cycle and availability of podcasts and other communication mediums make true crime tales more available for public consumption than ever.

Podcasts take the stories a step further than movies and television shows, expanding the narrative to broader audiences that might not as easily relate to a White victim like Petito. Dr. Sukhera admitted that the first podcast he ever listened to was “Serial,” an investigative journalism series that examines more obscure crimes.

“’Serial’ put podcasts on the map, challenging the idea that stories that don’t fall within the traditional guidelines aren’t relatable,” he noted, noting that the first episodes focused on Adnan Syed’s 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Maryland.

Stories revealing gruesome findings become macabre, but fans of true crime need not worry there is something negative about their interest and intrigue.

“My instinct says that being interested in true crime is less about something pathological and more about universal human appeal,” he said.

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