Why do we love mysteries so much?
According to recent data, mystery fiction is the second highest selling sub-genre by sales (beaten only by the romance/erotica genre…)
Most critics credit Edgar Allan Poe with inventing the modern mystery with his short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841. But the mystery obsession has been around for as long as humans have existed.
A few weeks back, I did some surveying on our subreddit r/mysterynibbles (shout out to the homies) to figure out why the heck we’re all so attracted to the subject of MYSTERY. This led me down a wild rabbit hole of psychology and mythology.
In my research (plumbing the great depths of the internet), there were many many reasons put forth as to explain our collective love for the genre. They all boiled down to THREE main ideas:
Have your cake and eat it, too
Our first reason… why the THRILL, of course! Nothing spurs humans to action like the threat of our own demise, right? People are drawn to taboo subjects just as they’re drawn to roller coasters- for the adrenaline! Now, this answer is actually too simple so I’ve included a second part to it:
Mystery, true crime in particular, allows the reader/viewer to feel both excited AND safe. We are able to observe human nature at its darkest, all from the comfort of our own couch. It’s not that we “love serial killers,” it’s more that we’re intrigued by the WHY behind choosing to take such action. They’re a human, right? I’m a human, right? How did our lives take such different directions?
There are also theories suggesting that fairy tales could have a helpful effect on children’s emotional lives. Stories give children structure for processing and dealing with their own fears and traumas, allowing them to be less troubled by them. In the same way, murder mysteries may function as “fairy tales for adults.” Most fictional mysteries get solved. In a world riddled with horrible events and troubles, the fictional gives us resolution. It moves us from fear and confusion to understanding and, possibly, reassurance.
Humans have survived because they could learn and learn quickly. There is evidence of written education appearing as early as 3500 B.C. Could this be related to the mystery genre?
A study published in 2010 claimed that women were more drawn to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker. Watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes acted “like a dress rehearsal” so that viewers of the materials could be prepared in case of a real life event. According to crime novelist Megan Abbott, mystery fiction can be a place “where [women’s] concerns and challenges are taken deadly seriously.”
This behavior is believed to be evolutionarily inherited - those who “tuned in” and knew about the past/horrible events left more descendants (which makes sense logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli).
The Great Beyond
Mysteries feature topics that are both fascinating and troubling to the human mind—unsolved crimes, unexplained questions, and possible events in natural and human history. In an age where most every answer is available within a matter of seconds, mystery leaves the door open to the unknown. And strangely, through this unknowing and our subsequent curiosity to find out, we are unified. Some of the most important thinkers, creators, and inventors became so because they were hooked by some “mystery.” They wanted to know “why” so they went and brought the human collective closer to knowing.
"Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable." - Albert Einstein
So, what do you think, readers? What draws you to mystery?
As always, stay ‘spicious!
Andy & Mark
Pssst. Hey! You. Yeah, you, the one still reading. Question: are you a true fan of Mystery and Crime? If so, join our official Mystery Nibbles Facebook group and our official SubReddit. We discuss all the goods: mysteries, crime, and anything ‘spicious.
(And hey, tell your friends about us. Share the love!)