Rewards offered for helping capture escaped prisoner and jailer 0:49
The fascination with true crime is well established;
you can find countless podcasts, books, and TV shows that bear this out.
But there's something about watching a potential crime unfold live—this month, it's the disappearance of Alabama jailer Vicky White and convicted felon Casey White—that stirs another, stronger kind of emotion.
From the search for Brian Laundrie weeks after his fiancée Gabby Petito was found dead, to the search for White and White (no relation), audiences are fascinated by ongoing manhunts and fugitives evading capture.
Hollywood has also capitalized on this, with fictional films such as "The Fugitive," while true crime media have proven a lucrative and enduring enterprise for decades.
Sexual attraction to criminals has a name: hybridophilia.
Why it happens?
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 also the element of mystery: where is the person and what is he going to do?" said Vicary, who studies the drivers behind women's interest in true crime.
Sleazy crime stories have interested us for "thousands of years," Vicary said, but watching a manhunt unfold live is different than watching an episode of "Dateline" about a crime that took place years before.
The danger is real, and with few answers, those who are following the news are jumping to their own conclusions like law enforcement on the trail of a fugitive.
History is stranger than fiction
Vicary's research has shown that women tend to consume true crime media more often than men, a trend she says is due in part to the need to "learn something" from a violent incident in order to prevent happens to them (particularly if the crime involves a female victim).
"Members of the general public want to know how dangerous someone is; that's what will get people to stop looking at their breakfast cereal," said Dr. Michael Bourke, a former chief psychologist with 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 as if it had been ripped from a movie script: Vicky White was, Vicary said, "in every way ... a respectable and trustworthy employee," who worked on the side of the law.
Casey White, who was turning 75 for various crimes in 2015, also faces two counts of murder.
"It sounds like a movie, but it's real life," Vicary said.
"It's not surprising that people are following him."
The fact that White was an established law enforcement officer who suddenly quit her job for a convict gives the case a degree of "romance," Bourke said, a hook for viewers.
Internet detectives enjoy following cases
FBI: Brian Laundrie claimed responsibility for the death of Gabby Petito 0:38
When Gabby Petito went missing, TikTok detectives put together a picture of what her life had been like in the days leading up to her disappearance using footage from law enforcement, digging into Instagram 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 bloodhounds set out to virtually follow her trail.
Vicary said the same amateur sleuths who searched for clues in the Petito and Laundrie case may be back in the fight for the Alabama jailer and convict: fans "enjoy thinking about where (White and White) went and where they might be hiding."
Bourke said many people who follow the stories of criminals on the run do so for justice, to "feel a part of mitigating that threat" in their community.
But some of them also enjoy trying to "beat (law enforcement officers) at their own game" and "solve" a mysterious disappearance alongside the professionals.
"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 jailer and the convict: details about their lives are emerging and continue to fuel the public's hunger for answers.
Media coverage attracts our attention, even when it is disproportionate
Certainly, the constant media coverage of the unfolding crimes is one of the reasons viewers become entangled in a story: It's hard to look away from what NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik called a "circle vicious" coverage through non-fiction series or live reports on cable news.
Families of Missing Black and Colored People are Frustrated by "Missing White Woman Syndrome"
But the cases that receive the most media attention often focus on a particular demographic of victims.
The 2021 case of Petito and Laundrie took off, many argued, because she was a blonde white woman, much like when the public got excited about 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 continuous airtime as Petito's case did.
"These are subjective choices to elevate to national attention, and it also hinges on the idea that the default of who, someone you want to know about, is going to be white and female," Folkenflik told NPR.
It's a twisted form of escapism
In the same way that some true-crime enthusiasts fancy themselves as amateur, independent investigators, some are drawn to seeing another person make an extreme decision, like running away with a criminal, Vicary said.
Leaving a steady job for a convict is a huge departure from social norms, Bourke said.
"It's that fall from grace," he said.
"What makes someone like that turn bad? There's a magnetism, an attraction to things that are so aberrational, so out of our realm of normality that it intrigues us."
Deep down, "a lot of people wonder how they might as well 'escape' their everyday lives and start over," Vicary said, which may very well play into why these stories grab our attention.
But while it can be tempting to consider running away and developing a new identity, she noted that runaway stories "don't usually have a happy ending."