I grew up terrified of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
I was afraid of host Robert Stack and the way his voice seemed to follow me all over the house. I was afraid that guilty parties could be wandering the streets (maybe even the street I lived on) and seeking to follow up their past crimes with fresh ones. I was afraid because I didn’t entirely understand what murder was: I knew it was something I wasn’t allowed to see on television or in movies, and as a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I assumed it must be related to “stranger danger.”
I likened murderers to burglars and, still traumatized by an episode of “Sesame Street” about house fires, replaced “good night” with the eternal question “No burglars, no fires?”
“No burglars, no fires,” my mom would respond. I’d fall asleep comforted.
When I was 14, I spent the last night of Thanksgiving weekend watching two specials on unsolved homicides, and over the course of a couple of hours, I was introduced to the murders of the Zodiac Killer and the slaying of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia. I was horrified, consumed and intrigued, waltzing into science class the next morning to explain the cases to my friends, who didn’t want to hear about them.
“But don’t you think it’s interesting?” I remember trying to argue. “The killers could still be out there!”
Nobody was interested and my teacher told me to please stop talking about it.
But I always want to talk about true crime. Even as a teen, I wanted to dissect cold cases and delve headfirst into the documentaries that my mom always told me to turn down. Today, my favorite podcasts (My Favorite Murder, Cold Case Files) and books (The Hot One, The Stranger Beside Me) are about murder, forensics and why people morph into the worst and most dangerous versions of themselves.
And I’m hardly alone. True crime is rampant on TV. It’s largely the basis for networks like HLN, occupies a good portion of A&E’s line-up and saw Oxygen rebrand from a “women’s network” to a 24-hour true crime machine.
When I was a high school sophomore, our law class was filled with students like me who wanted to know more about infamous cases, unsolved murders and why they happened. Or specifically, why so many happened to women. Because the more you consume true crime, the more you realize that many of the worst crimes happen to women and children. And then you start to ask questions about how we got here.
I’m not sure how old I was when I realized the dangers that come with being a woman. But as I grew up, I began to understand how common it was to be preyed on. I learned through stories from friends and family members why you didn’t let strangers into your house and why you watched your drink at parties. And I learned on my own how common it was to be groped, grabbed, threatened and harassed.
Perhaps worse than the learning, I grew immune to hearing the most horrible true stories. Instead of feeling fear, I came to a quiet understanding: This is the way life is, our paranoia is justified, and it’s normal to operate under the assumption that should we let our guard down for a minute, something terrible will happen. Hell, even if we don’t, good luck.
So I soaked up more books about serial killers, unsolved cases and murders with no rhyme or reason, hoping to somehow control what I couldn’t. If I could just “figure out” why things like this happen, I’d tell myself, I could stop them from happening. At least to me.
Which isn’t true. But coping mechanisms come in many forms, and I wasn’t the only one using true crime to combat feelings of helplessness.
While I spent my 20s basking in my true crime obsession, I was in my 30s when I was alerted to the largely female communities bonding around podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. Serial prompted conversations about wrongful conviction and our flawed justice system, but My Favorite Murder took time to remember that as interesting as some murders may be, they’ve still robbed somebody of their life.
Plus, My Favorite Murder began calling out the systems that keep toxic masculinity in place while (uniquely) using humor as a means of diffusing the horror that accompanies true crime stories. I finally felt like I wasn’t terrible for laughing my way through the worst-case scenarios.
And thanks to hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark (and their Murderino audience), I found the female perspective I was looking for, which helped lead to conversations and perspectives beyond who, what and where.
Thanks to these communities (and the ones surrounding documentary series like “Making a Murderer” and podcasts like Stranglers), the way that true crime aficionados talk about true crime has begun to change. Instead of focusing primarily on the killers, we’ve started remembering that victims, too, have names and stories and histories and that their deaths arose out of systems based on misogyny, hatred, ignorance and violence, plus the ongoing failures of mental health care.
Even more importantly, we’ve begun to recognize patterns that shed light on what too many of us hadn’t wanted to see: that women of color, indigenous women, transgender women and queer women are at a higher risk for violence; that sex workers are ignored by police and written off as “high risk” victims. We’ve begun to ask why, challenge who and finally (fucking finally) amplify the voices of those who’ve been illuminating these realities for years already.
We are afraid of what we don’t understand, but sometimes we’re even more afraid of what we do. We tell ourselves that we’re in control to drown out the fact that we aren’t. We pretend that we can outsmart random violence with knowledge or tips and tricks.
I began consuming true crime under the illusion that if I learned everything I possibly could, I could help “fix” something. That somehow, from the comfort of my car or kitchen, I would learn enough to confront (or at least not be shocked by) the bleakness of the world we live in.
But while I still spend nights watching “Forensic Files” reruns or reading Ann Rule, no longer am I sifting through accounts of murder and assault in hopes of finding answers or avoiding being preyed on. Instead, I’ve started looking around at everyone else who was listening.
True crime’s popularity today is a testament to the fact that we’re not alone, that we’re willing to work together and to talk and to share and to support and to question the norms that have seen serial killers thrive in infamy while their victims are shuffled to the basements of our memories.
Yes, true crime still offers the thrill that comes with being horrified, but we’re learning to abandon our voyeuristic tendencies and begin using it as a gateway into bigger discussions. Together we’re learning to challenge the status quo that’s seen so much death and so much violence inflicted onto those who never asked for it.
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