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Saranghae, Serial Killer: Women and True Crime in K-drama

Women make up the majority of k-drama viewers, but why do so many of us watch shows where women are often hurt, kidnapped, and even killed? If the climbing ratings of Through the Darkness, the latest k-crime thriller starring Kim Nam-gil, is any indication, women are strangely fascinated by these kinds of shows, instead of being repulsed. Why is this so? And why can’t women stop watching?


Murder, She Wrote (and Watched)

Kim Nam-gil stars as Korea's first criminal profiler in "Through the Darkness"

It's been said that for as long as humans have lived, humans have killed. While murder has had ancient roots in human history, the fascination with it goes that far back as well. Today, true-crime stories and shows are more popular than ever, blending fact and drama while blurring the lines between news and entertainment.

But what is “true crime"? Simply put, true crime is a murder narrative that uses reenactments, recollections, beliefs, insights, and other dramatic elements added to heighten the storytelling. As Jean Murley, a culture professor writes, “True crime always fictionalizes, emphasizes, exaggerates, interprets, constructs, and creates ‘truth,’ and any relationship to the facts is mediated and compromised.” The real goal of any true-crime story is to show the tracking down and the capturing of the perpetrator, fictional or not. It is not usually devoted to critiquing society at large.

There are three major styles of true-crime shows on television: Reenactment/crime documentaries, fictional forensic detective shows, and crime stories used for education and awareness. Many true-crime k-dramas loosely fit in one of these categories, while sprinkling a romance (or even time travel!) every now and then. But whatever the style of the show, true crime as a genre usually falls into the "info-tainment" side of television, where they inform viewers about crimes while enforcing a sense of law and order.


Consuming True Crime

People often assume that because men are the more aggressive sex, they would naturally be drawn to the grisly topics in true crime. But much research disproves that. In fact, despite being the less violent sex, more women are more drawn to accounts of true crime than men. Since Truman Capote’s 1966 seminal crime novel In Cold Blood where he detailed the murder of a family of four, nonfiction books based on real crimes have proven to be extremely popular with women. In fact, social researchers Amanda Vicary and Chris Fraley have found that a high 70 percent of true-crime book reviews are written by women! This genre, despite its violent and disturbing content, often occupies top spots on The New York Times Bestseller List, largely driven by female purchases.

Other researchers like Boling and Hull have also found women are the main audience for true-crime podcasts. When the Serial podcast was launched in October 2014, it quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, incurring 80 million downloads by the time the show ended. A year later, Netflix felt this “podcast impact” when its true-crime documentary, Making a Murderer, opened to a huge global audience. In 2016, the convergence of bestselling books, podcasts, and new television shows about criminals launched a revival of interest in the true-crime genre. It would take no time before this renaissance’s effects would also be felt Eastward.

Women make a large part of the global k-drama audience, but thinking that we only prefer light and fluffy material in k-drama is a myth at best. In fact, the high ratings and popularity of k-dramas that feature graphic and violent acts against women such as One Ordinary Day, My Name, Squid Game, and Juvenile Justice show that women are undeniably drawn to violence and lurid content. If the upward trends are any indication, it’s that this grisly female fascination won't die anytime soon.


The Female Fascination

Women are often the victims or survivors in crime media, so why are so many paradoxically drawn to it?

Psychological researcher David Buss theorizes that people could be fascinated with murder and crime simply because they want to avoid becoming victims themselves. This is supported by Chris Fraley, whose research argues that true crime may have an evolutionary benefit (crime shows are where women can learn from others’ unfortunate experiences). He even found that women would still choose true-crime books over any other book even when the murderers were female!

Women also preferred books and shows where female characters outsmarted their captors with “clever tricks.” As any Law & Order or CSI aficionado will tell you, crime books and shows are a treasure trove of survival strategies, defense tactics, and potentially life-saving knowledge. They also show important scenes of law enforcement procedures, constraints, and violations. Vicary and Fraley also found that women were also drawn to materials that included the psychological profile of the killer because it helped them understand the criminal’s motives as well. Such insights are immensely helpful in the real world where women have to decipher signs that their own lover or a jealous ex may turn violent in the future.

Kim Seo-hyung is a detective who escaped her captor when she was a teen.

But it is not all about crime prevention and survival. True-crime shows are also hugely satisfying for the intellect and the heart. When the audience figures out the motive of the crime early on or identifies the killer before he is revealed, they feel a deeply satisfying psychological kick. This sense of pseudo-expertise could help assuage their fears about the crime and mentally assures them that "because I watched it happen to other people, it won't happen to me."

Kate Tuttle in the New York Times writes that true crime may be a way for female audiences to relive their own vulnerabilities and all the efforts they’ve taken in order to live as a survivor. Because society still judges and blames victims harshly, true-crime shows may offer a cathartic way to understand their experiences. This ironically makes the true-crime genre an unlikely space to process the painful realities and fears that many women have long kept secret.

In a refreshing way, true crime also frees women from the weight of “feminine” expectations. While wholesome and romantic k-dramas are great fun, they also can be rudimentary and downright predictable. True crime, on the other hand, may satisfy the longing of some women who want to go into more subversive places and professions. Instead of merely being passive objects of affection, in true crime, women enter more “upsetting” places. They are morticians, forensic analysts, detectives, cops, criminal psychologists, and investigators. Inversely, they also see female murderers, adulterers, stalkers, sex workers, and all sorts of criminals, thus fulfilling a rather transgressive fantasy.

True crime also offers a world where lead female characters are not beholden to the male fantasy and gaze. In these shows, we see women firing weapons, carrying out vengeance, and even inflicting physical violence on those who hurt them. In many shows, female detectives and cops have realistic body types, unfussy hair, and bare faces, as opposed to the usual skinny and glass-skinned rom-com female lead. For example, Kim Seo-hyun in Nobody Knows and Kim Shin-rok in Beyond Evil are barefaced detectives who wear the same wardrobe repeatedly and are not interested in men or dating. These non-sexy details can already be pretty liberating to many female viewers.

Kim Shin-rok plays a barefaced detective bent on catching a serial killer in "Beyond Evil"

Of course, some would argue that the true-crime genre is exploitative and prurient, even voyeuristic. This is true to an extent, and critics of television have come down hard on shows that turn violence into an excuse for titillation. But you will find that the lovers of the genre will defend it because it forces what Murley calls a “tabloid sensibility into high culture." True crime offers a sense of honesty about human nature that you won't find in other genres. These shows offer a peek into the private lives of "normal-looking" people and their discomfiting appetites. They take us into the disturbing world of the "quiet" accountant or the cheerful friend who has an inexplicable freezer in the basement. True crime reminds us that everyone is never who they seem. In a way, the genre helps make sense of the senselessness of crime and reinforces many women’s hardened worldviews that lean toward the realistic and cynical rather than cheerful and optimistic.


The more ‘realistic’ a program is thought to be, the more trusted, enjoyable—and therefore the more popular—it becomes. Yet realism too is an artificial construct...
There is nothing natural about realism, but it does correspond to the way we currently perceive the world.

John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television


Police hunt for a serial killer in "Beyond Evil"

Finally, Tuttle posits that true crime is a modern fairy tale because murder narratives are simple stories that prove longstanding truths. Recall that even fairy tales in their original form were quite violent, with most characters being slain or tortured by witches or violent men. So why do children love them? At this point, we have to admit that it is because fear is a universal source of thrills and that the longing for justice is universally shared. After all, when most true-crime stories and shows end, killers are captured and face execution or incarceration. These shows offer their viewers a sense of closure and a restored sense of order to the chaos initially wrought by the crime.

So to the women who still feel guilty about consuming true-crime shows, fret not. Research proves that you are not alone, and there are myriads of reasons why you could be drawn to it. Whatever they may be, we all know that we know that when we finish an episode and shut our laptops, we will need to confront the worst in the real world again, anyway. And nothing may be more frightening than that.


True Crime in K-drama

There is no shortage of true-crime shows in k-drama, Whatever your tolerance level, there's something for everyone. Here are some of the more interesting and noteworthy ones that audiences have gravitated to in recent years.

Cat and Mice

  • Hell is Other People/ Strangers from Hell

In this subversive 10-episode Kafkaesque drama, Im Siwan stars as a young crime fiction writer who has to get along with his murderous and perverse dormmates in order to survive his squalid apartment. It’s not long before he captures the fancy of their resident dentist (Lee Dong-wok) who may not be all he seems.

Killers and their Kin

  • Mouse

The longstanding debate of whether nature or nurture makes a killer is explored to exaggerated and slightly campy lengths in this high-rating serial killer tale. Lee Seung-gi is excellent at his dual role as both an adorable cop and the dark criminal he later becomes.

  • Flower of Evil

Moon Chae-won is Cha Ji-won, a detective who is unaware that her very own husband could be a killer. When the past comes back to haunt the couple, Ji-won will have to choose between convicting the man she loves and saving him from himself.

  • Hello Monster / I Remember You

Seo In-guk plays criminal profiler Lee Hyun whose father was a convicted murderer and whose younger brother has disappeared mysteriously. Now Lee Hyun needs to come to terms with his past and discover for himself if nature or nurture makes a man a monster.

The Constant Pursuit of Closure

  • Nobody Knows

Since losing her friend two decades ago, Cha Young-jin (Kim Seo-hyung) has transformed herself into a cold detective and has dedicated her life to hunting down the killer.

  • Beyond Evil

This Baeksang-winning rural crime drama explores a serial killing on a small scale. Shin Ha-kyun stars as an inscrutable police detective who clashes with a young Seoulite detective as they race to solve a slew of murders that eerily resemble the crimes nearly 20 years ago.

Together in Tragedy

  • Come and Hug Me

A true-crime Romeo and Juliet, Come and Hug Me asks if murderous psychopathy can be passed on from father to son, and what a woman has to do when she falls in love with the man who could be her family’s killer.

A killer is on the loose in the sleepy town of Ongsan, and single mother Oh Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) may be the next victim. It is now up to the community and a besotted police officer (Kang Ha-neul) to stop him in this series that won the Baeksang Daesang (grand prize).


Are you a true-crime fan? Which shows are your favorite? Let us know in the comments section!


If you enjoyed this article, check out our other deep dives in the Gwenchanoona Saranghae Series:

Works Cited:

Buss, D. M. (2005). The murderer next door: Why the mind is designed to kill. New York: Penguin.

Boling, K. S., & Hull, K. (2018). Undisclosed Information—Serial Is My Favorite Murder: Examining Motivations in the True Crime Podcast Audience. Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 25(1), 92–108. doi:10.1080/19376529.2017.1370714

Murley, J. (2008). The rise of true crime: 20th-century murder and American popular culture. ABC-CLIO.

Tuttle, K. (2018, February 16). Why Do Women Love True Crime? The New York

Vicary, A. M., & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(1), 81–86.

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