TRCH Priscilla

NTU Forensic Psychology Professor Dr Nicholas Blagden: "Humans are always interested in the dark side of things."

16 July 19 interview: Ashley Carter

With more books, TV series, films and documentaries on the subject being made than ever before, our interest in true crime stories has never been better catered for. But what is it about humans that makes us so fascinated by criminals and the violent crimes they commit? We talked to Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Nicholas Blagden, an Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology and Co-Head of the Sexual Offences Crime and Misconduct Research Unit, to find out…

What is it about violent crime that people find so interesting?
It’s really hard to pin down exactly what it is. There’s a number of things – some of it is human nature; we’re fascinated by things that are different, novel, not routine. Most of the time when there has been a motor accident, the traffic jams are caused by people rubbernecking. People want to see the incident. It’s the same with watching violent programs or films – it’s one step removed from your own life, so it’s okay to look at it. There’s a voyeuristic element; pleasure from watching or from the mixed emotions of being horrified yet intrigued by it. Some are interested because they want to know about the darker side of humanity – what makes people do it. At heart, I’m a narrative psychologist, and some of it is the power of a good story; bad things happen, then they get worse, but ultimately they are caught or punished in some way.

What sort of reaction can people have to it?
You can find something really interesting, but be horrified by the content. It’s an emotional response. Humans are always interested in the dark side of things, and it can be quite addictive. You watch one programme, feel that emotional response, so you watch another and then another. There’s actually a form of pleasure that comes from exposing yourself to that distress and pain from a safe distance.

Does that reaction fuel your own interest?
People or behaviour that cannot be easily understood fascinate a lot of those working in this profession. We’re all made of the same stuff, so for me, it’s about understanding people, their lives and their story. It’s an uncomfortable question when you ask “given their life experiences, would I act the same?” I’ve always been interested in understanding those aspects of human behaviour and what makes a person commit these sorts of acts.

Do you enjoy watching crime-related films or programs yourself?
I’ve worked and researched in many prisons, and have sat with many men who have shared detailed aspects of their lives with me. Some of these men – men with sexual convictions or murders – have had really traumatic lives and have committed awful crimes. Sometimes these can be quite corrosive interviews. They can play on your mind. When I’ve spent the whole day interviewing men about the worst parts of their lives or even just spoke about the content for hours, I’m more likely to go home and watch Location, Location, Location to be honest. My viewing habits are probably much more different than most. Once you’ve experienced all that heaviness, you want to sit down and watch something softer. Or at least I do, because it can be difficult to process.

You’ve spent a lot of your career working with men with sexual convictions. How did you first get involved in that field?
During my degree I became really interested in it, and got a job working in probation. I was just lucky in that opportunities came at the right time. I started working in prisons from about 2006 and was lucky to get a funded doctoral position between NTU and HMP Whatton. I’m interested in prevention and rehabilitation – whether you can make prisons rehabilitative and what that means for the treatment process. At the moment, much of my work is focused on the transition from prison to community, as leaving prison can be a very hostile experience. I’m interested in the difficulties and barriers when men with sexual convictions return into society.

From your experience, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about prisoners with sexual convictions and murders?
In some ways, it’s how risky they are or how they can’t change. Men with sexual convictions have the lowest rate of reoffending compared to any other group of offenders, at between eight to ten per cent. This would probably be less if there was better community integration. The number is pretty small, partly because the client group tend to be older, or they won’t have access to who they offended against, but mainly because the men are deeply ashamed and don’t want to go down those paths again. The big misconception about murderers – people always think that it’s premeditated or well-planned by some ‘sick’ individual, when in reality it’s not like that at all. For a lot of people it’s a one time thing, like a bar fight that’s gone wrong, or something gang-related, or domestic. For both offences, you are much more likely to be offended against by someone you know.

Do you think that the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and sensationalist approach to covering violent crimes has had a detrimental effect on society?
We are exposed to a lot of violence. There’s an interesting statistic which shows that if a child watches evening TV for two to four hours a day will have seen 8,000 acts of violence and murder by the time they’re twelve, which makes you think. But the effect is different for different people. For some, it has no impact at all. For others, it can have a positive effect, like making them more aware of grooming behaviour and things like that. But it can also have a negative impact, in that it desensitizes you to violence. This is only usually the case when someone already has a hostile view of the world.

If you think the world is a violent nasty place and you’re a child playing Grand Theft Auto, this can feed into your view of the world, make you think people are always out to get you. So there can be a dangerous element to it. But the real risk factors for violent crime tend to be other triggers, rather than the media. Things like poor parenting, poor school attainment, poor parental attachment or being excluded from school, which are the biggest triggers for violent crime. Media can then feed into this by contributing to an already corrupted view of the world.

Do you think that the media’s insistence of focusing on the perpetrators of violent crimes, rather than the victims, is problematic at all?
When it comes to violent or sexual crime, people are much more interested in demonizing. There’s a lot less interest in the victim. I think it does have a knock-on effect, but in terms of funding, victims definitely need more awareness more funding. Victims do get much more funding than perpetrators do for reintegration, but it still isn’t enough. There needs to be much more help like immediate counseling, which is when it counts the most, not twelve months down the line. But we need more funding for both victims and for reintegration.

I guess our interests can be seen in the fact that there’s an entire tourism industry dedicated to Jack the Ripper, but most of us can’t name any of his victims…
Yes, there’s now a big market for dark tourism and it comes back to what we were talking about earlier. It’s taking your interest to the next level, like walking the streets where a murder happened, it becomes more immersive.