The Real Reason We Can’t Stop Watching True Crime
America’s love affair with crime as entertainment is at an all-time high. As a genre, true crime isn’t new; its fandom goes as far back as the 1550s, when British authors distributed printed leaflets detailing a sordid variety of crimes — the ickier the better. But today there are more ways than ever to consume crime entertainment: through podcasts, Netflix shows, documentaries, and, of course, Law & Order: SVU reruns.
In the saturated market, women-run programming is becoming a standout. While men perpetrate the most violent crimes, data shows that women consume the most media about them. According to Brandwatch, significantly more women than men listen to true crime podcasts. Many of the thousands of crime podcasts available today — like Wine and Crime, Moms and Murder, and Crime Junkie — are produced and hosted by women.
As a 41-year-old, largely sane feminist professional, I admit to having a thing for true crime that has stuck with me since childhood. I cover crime as a freelance journalist, and I spend my free time researching cases, poring over murder subreddits, and lurking in crime discussion groups on Facebook. For me, crime media is a relaxing escape — one that assuages the near-chronic anxiety and dread I can feel as a woman. I know I’m not alone. A 2010 study found that women use “tales of rape, murder, and serial killers” to help them cope with misogyny and violence in the broader culture.
But is our fixation on all things homicide healthy? I spoke with four women working in true crime media: Laura Richards, a criminal behavioral analyst and co-host of the Real Crime Profile podcast; Connie Walker, a CBC News investigative reporter and host of the podcast Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo; Dee (last name withheld at her request), co-host of the podcast What Did You Do?; and Erin Lee Carr, documentary director of Mommy Dead and Dearest and Thought Crimes.
What follows is an edited conversation with all four women.
Medium: How did you get involved in the true crime space?
Connie Walker: I was reporting on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls for CBC News for a while. Truth be told, I had never done a radio documentary before we made the first season of Missing and Murdered. CBC News had never done an investigative podcast before.
It took some convincing, but eventually we got the green light. So we did the first season of Missing and Murdered having almost zero experience in podcasting.
I’m so glad that we did it, obviously. I feels like it’s the perfect platform to tell the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, because it’s never about the circumstances of one night or one event. The stories began months, or years, or even decades before. You need the space to connect those dots in a meaningful way. Podcasting also gives us insight into communities that we haven’t been able to reach in the same way as traditional broadcasting.
Laura Richards: I’m probably one of the few people who actually likes my profession. Having worked in New Scotland Yard and for the FBI [as a criminal behavior analyst], I realized from a very early stage in my career that we use the media to appeal to the public on murder cases or serial rape cases.
Jim [Clemente] and I started Real Crime Profile [together]. We both wanted the voice of the victims to be at the center of everything that we do. Victimology is always an important part of behavioral profiling, but in the crime space, in terms of shows — if you take The People vs. O.J. Simpson as an example — the victims [got] lost as a footnote in the case.
Dee: I actually started podcasting before What Did You Do? I had a political podcast. [Co-host] Charneil and I were friends, and one day he jumped on Facebook and said, “I want to do a true crime podcast,” and I was like, “I’m in.” That’s how it started.
Growing up, my mother was very much into Unsolved Mysteries. I was afraid of that show, but that fear became interest, so I [began] following people like [criminologist and ID Channel host] Candice DeLong and others in the crime industry. I started watching ID Channel shows like Deadly Women and listening to podcasts like Last Podcast on the Left and My Favorite Murder.
Erin, are there crime stories that you think can only be told in documentary format?
Erin Lee Carr: I love listening to crime podcasts. It’s an incredibly lovely, scary medium. But when you’re talking about actual forensic crime cases, or cold cases, or ones that bring up societal issues, you really want to see the material. You want to see the police records; you want to see the interrogation tapes. You can hear somebody confessing, but what is it like to see that person’s face while they confess under duress? That’s what documentaries really bring to the table: a multidimensional face for the audience to interact with these sorts of prime materials.
Why has true crime become so popular recently?
Dee: A lot of things are going on in the world, like mass shootings, murders. It’s not okay to just sit idly by and watch that stuff anymore. We’re looking for reasons why [these things keep happening]. I think that’s why people are clinging to true crime.
Carr: True crime could be viewed as escapism, and it’s also a way to interact with your adrenaline, a way to practice our worst fears. You’ll be thinking about something that isn’t about Donald Trump, for Christ sakes.
At the end of the day, I think that we all [wonder], “What is going to be easy for my brain right now?” You want to have an hour to yourself, thinking about something that is not your life. You know, why do we watch Law & Order 10 times even though we already know what the ending is? I need to add the caveat that this is an incredibly privileged point of view, because a lot of people don’t get to go home and not think about their life. They’re thinking about survival.
Walker: The reality is that these stories are important. I remember pitching my first story about a missing and murdered indigenous woman. It was over 10 years ago, when an [indigenous] girl I knew from back home had gone missing. At the time, there was a really high-profile case happening in the Toronto news about a white woman who went missing. It was front-page news.
I [pitched] a story about the differences in the way these two stories were covered, and the producer stopped me to [ask], “This isn’t another poor Indian story, is it?”
If we can capitalize on true crime’s popularity and say, “There’s an incredible mystery here of the disappearance of a young girl. Along the way, we’re also going to help deepen your understanding about the realities that indigenous people face,” that’s a much easier sell for people who might not even think they’re interested in indigenous issues or social justice.
Richards: I think Making a Murderer and Serial were a tipping point for true crime. My family were all listening. They sent me Serial, and I got addicted like everybody else. But when Sarah Koenig said [something like], “I just got off the phone with Adnan Syed. Can someone this nice really be a killer?” I was shouting at the podcast, “Of course he can!” [Many murderers] are charming and manipulative.
Why do you think so many women are drawn to crime media?
Carr: Women are searching for strength in stressful situations. Especially in the era of #MeToo and sexual assault, I think people want to be like, “Okay, what happened? What did [she] do? And how can I save myself from this situation if this were to ever happen to me?”
Dee: I work in social work… with offenders who went to prison for serious crimes like pedophilia. My co-workers are majority women. I think it’s [partly] the inquisitive nature of a woman, trying to figure out the reasoning behind crimes, plus, unfortunately, women are [the primary] victims of crime. A lot of women have somebody they know who has been a victim. So there may be a fascination there, like, “Why did that happen [to her]?”
Richards: Crime has always skewed toward women with the Investigation Discovery Channel, Oxygen, things like that. I think women are interested in finding out what’s going on to protect themselves and their children. There’s also a fascination with the macabre and [things] that we don’t understand. You only need to be in a car when there’s a road traffic collision or accident [to see] people rubberneck and slow down because they want to know what’s going on. I think it’s part of the human psyche to try to work out puzzles and mysteries.
The [time we’re in now], it’s like anyone can [do] a podcast in their own garage, start talking about crime and drinking wine. In one sense, it’s courageous, but in another, it’s quite dangerous. It’s not for everybody, either, in terms of the subject matter. It can be very difficult dealing with victims’ families, the trauma and the chaos, and sometimes there’s a lack of respect. You are talking about someone’s son or daughter.
On that note, is there a way to tell crime stories without exploiting victims and their families?
Dee: Podcasting in general is a labor of love. You have to watch what you say, make sure you’re not offending anybody, be respectful. I think Charneil and I both do that well. I love true crime, and I’ve loved it my whole life, but I’m not a fan of gore. Sometimes having to discuss some of these stories, you’re like, “Oh, okay. This is difficult.” You have to take a breath. It’s different when you’re listening to it than when you’re saying it out loud.
Walker: It’s not something that I can compartmentalize and be finished at five or six o’clock every day. We worked at Finding Cleo for a full year. It was all-consuming. With a news story, you’re dipping in and out for a day, maybe. You spend a couple hours with a family member. With a TV documentary, you might be there for four or five days.
But with this podcast, we established connections with Christine, and Johnny, and April over months and months. Sometimes you’re finding things out about their lives for them, which I’d never experienced before. It’s incredibly challenging for them. And this is our story, our podcast, but it’s their real lives. You can never lose sight of that.
And one of the differences for me in particular is that I am Cree. I grew up on the reserves; most of my family still lives there. The stories that I’m reporting on, whether it’s violence against indigenous women or access to basic human rights like clean water and safe housing, are all stories that I have a personal connection to.
Richards: I am a feminist. In my work at Scotland Yard, I had to keep being the voice of women and girls. I have been called a “feminazi” who hates men. But the [cultural] narrative is, most often, still about blaming and shaming victims. In the media, many stories go out where the victim’s name doesn’t feature at all. That’s why I use the hashtag #HerNameWas — if a perpetrator’s still alive, people lean toward [accepting] the perpetrator’s narrative over the victim’s. People are doing this with the Shanann Watts case right now. The family of [murderer] Chris Watts came out and talked a master class on victim blaming, saying that he was great and Shanann was the problem. Yet there are ex-lovers who say he was a liar, that he never told them that he was married. He lied consistently.
It’s an irony because [we] put out all these crime prevention messages to women—don’t walk on your own at night, be careful of your drink, keep yourself protected—and yet still, when a girl reports rape, we don’t believe her. I feel very strongly about correcting that narrative as an expert in my field and as somebody with a public profile. As you know, that doesn’t always make you popular.
Carr: Sometimes when you mix entertainment and crime, you become desensitized. One of the things that I find really troubling about true crime is we tend to forget there are humans attached to this, and that’s bullshit. That’s somebody’s kid. That’s somebody’s mom. That’s somebody’s cousin, friend, best friend. I try to approach this material in a way that’s [like,] okay, I want to be excited about what I’m working on, and I want to feel like I’m helping. But I don’t want to be one of these weirdos just using crimes for cinematic ends or my own personal gain.