Graphic by August Linton
Graphic by August Linton

The trouble with true crime

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by Camille Delany

As a high schooler, I’d often listen to podcasts while jogging in the country by my house, or when walking to school. As I searched for compelling entertainment in the nascent medium, one genre rose to the top: true crime. It wasn’t just me, either. The boom seemed to begin with the success of NPR’s Serial in 2014, after which podcast platforms became increasingly dominated by the genre. Rehashings of cold cases, mysterious disappearances, and serial killings became objects of public fascination, along with the real life stories of cults, shootings, and disasters. 

True crime has long enjoyed mainstream popularity in the form of books and television, but the rise of podcasts and streaming has brought it to a wider audience than ever. However, my experience as an avid listener of true crime podcasts was not entirely positive, and I’ve also recently heard peers discuss negative aspects of their interest in crime stories.

A friend who used to be a huge fan of a few specific true crime podcasts says she’s going to cut back on her listening, as it increases her anxiety. This parallels my experience; when I was a dedicated listener of crime podcasts, I noticed myself feeling paranoid and less willing to interact with people outside of my immediate circles.

The true crime genre isn’t populated with tales of wage theft or corporate environmental destruction, even though crimes like these have enormous impacts and their perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. Even if we narrow our focus to violent crime, true crime narratives rarely follow the most common type of that, either.

FBI homicide data for 2019 shows that in most cases of violent crime, both perpetrator and victim are male, and that they typically know each other. Trends like these aren’t apparent if your knowledge of crime statistics is informed by a true crime podcast feed, as I notice is increasingly common. 

In my experience discussing the genre with friends and acquaintances, true crime consumption is linked with an idea of “research.” Often an enthusiasm for the genre is coupled with a belief that the information presented over the course of the narrative will aid in one’s survival. Engaging with it can become a vicious cycle. People who already feel themselves to be vulnerable are attracted to the genre, and the repetitive narratives of assault and kidnapping increase their anxiety. This keeps them returning in the hopes of gleaning insight into avoiding victimization. 

However, it’s unlikely that consuming true crime media does much to improve the personal safety of women, in part because the type of crimes most frequently profiled are vanishingly rare, and exceedingly difficult to prevent. Women are already conditioned to fear strangers, even as, statistically speaking, acquaintances and domestic partners are far more dangerous. 

The popular true crime podcast My Favorite Murder signs off with the glib tagline, “Stay sexy, don’t get murdered.” This about sums up the attitude of many true crime creators and audiences with which I take issue. The process of consuming a true crime narrative to reassure yourself that you could have seen the “warning signs” and avoided death, kidnapping, or sexual assault is a form of victim-blaming. 

Also, the genre’s commodification of tragedy and violence is uncomfortable at best and, at worst, damaging to victims and their families. I’m not asking anyone to quit listening to their favorite podcast, just to think more critically about the media they engage with. What structures are supported by it? How does it make you feel?

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