Writing for our Mystery issue, Emilia Bona explores the surge in popularity of true crime documentaries, from Netflix's Making a Murderer to Sarah Koenig's podcast Serial, and asks: why are women so obsessed with murder? Illustration by Jacky Sheridan.
Every night before bed I scroll through a Facebook page for true crime enthusiasts where more than 30,000 self-declared ‘Murderinos’ share gruesome stories of unsolved crimes and brutal killings. The group was set up for fans of the podcast “My Favourite Murder”, a weekly show presented by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.
Since the podcast launched earlier this year Karen and Georgia have regaled listeners with tales of their own “hometown murders”, and discussed their theories surrounding the death of JonBenét Ramsey, a six year old beauty queen who was murdered on Christmas Day, 1996. While this morbid podcast is by far my favourite, I’m also subscribed to around ten other true crime shows, as well as being a voracious consumer of documentaries and books of the same genre. I know my obsession is unseemly at best (and abominable at worst), and yet my appetite for true crime is seemingly insatiable. Whilst my interest in chilling crime stories may be bizarre I am certainly not alone in my fascination with murder, survivor stories and serial killers. From Serial to The People v. O. J. Simpson the market for true crime is booming. What’s more, the authors and audience for this genre are disproportionately women. Historically, English-language crime novelists were women like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, carving out a gendered audience for fictional murder mystery. True crime books by authors like Anne Rule were similarly coded as a women’s genre, much like gothic literature was in the late 18th century.
Women are the primary consumers of mystery and true crime, a fact that prompted the podcast “Stuff Mom Never Told You” to dedicate an entire episode to answering the question: “Why are women true crime’s bloodthirstiest fans?” In a brilliantly researched show Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin asked why it is that true crime draws its largest audience from women. The hosts highlighted a study by psychologists Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley titled, “Captured by True Crime: Why are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” The study surveyed online book reviews and women’s book preferences, finding that this subsection of readers opted for books that “examine the psychology of killers, share escape tactics and involve women as victims”. From these findings Vicary and Fraley hypothesised that true crime’s popularity is linked to evolutionary fear instincts that compel women to verse themselves in the best ways to protect themselves from danger.
I asked whether my fellow “Murderinos” thought there was something to this theory, after it rang true with me. I am constantly plagued with panic over the endless list of horrific things that could potentially happen to me at any given moment. While much of this is down to the fact that I think I’m the centre of the universe, it’s also a symptom of a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which causes me to catastrophise wherever possible. When you’re always afraid that the worst will happen, exposing yourself to the most gruesome tales of true crime is a way of subjecting yourself to the worst case scenario and learning how to protect yourself from it happening to you.
Karen and Georgia spend whole segments of their podcast advising listeners on how to “stay sexy and not get murdered”. From avoiding hitchhiking to listening to your gut instinct when it tells you something is wrong, a lot of their advice echoes the warnings women are bombarded with from early childhood. Breeding fear into women is an important part of patriarchy, but not all of these fears are imagined threats merely crafted to scare women into submission. Whilst studies have shown that men are more likely than women to be the victims of homicides, these figures include rates for drug and gang-related violence, which disproportionately involve men. What’s more women are more than twice as likely to be killed by a partner or intimate acquaintance.
Women are constantly conditioned to be vigilant. Growing up with reminders not to walk through certain areas alone and not to trust men makes you start to think about crime in a personal and direct way, as you learn to catalogue the myriad of potential threats you face by virtue of being born female. Certainly among the members of the My Favourite Murder Facebook group I noticed a hyper-awareness among the podcast’s female listeners, based on the perception that horrible things can and do happen to women all the time. A lot of members of the group told me that their fascination with true crime felt like a way of learning all the awful things that have happened to other women and educating themselves in how to avoid it themselves. Since women are primarily victimised by people they know (whether that’s in relation to homicides or sexual violence) one poster on the page told me that an obsession with true crime is a way of teaching oneself how to spot the signs.
Male egos are perpetually plumped up by the notion that they are natural leaders and doers, with an entitlement to space and to ones own voice. By extension men can be seen as far more likely to overestimate their own abilities and underestimate threat when compared with women who are generally better at assessing risk. Hyper-awareness and vigilance can also be associated with trauma survival, which many women live with.
It’s debatable whether a heavy diet of true crime contributes to fostering mental wellness, with warnings that such a focus serves to breed anxiety and baseless panic. I often wonder whether my perception of threat has been exaggerated by my interest in true crime. David Schmid, author of “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture”, argues that our obsession with getting a ‘murder fix’ in books, documentaries and podcasts is in no way reflective of the actual homicide rate (which is in the middle of a historic decline in the U.S.).
Our distorted perception of crime rates also relates to the types of people true crime enthusiasts may regard as ‘likely victims’. The genre offers a seriously off-centre narrative in its focus on the violent murder of white women. While these are the stories that capture media attention and garner the greatest public interest, the reality is that African American women are significantly more likely to be the victims of violent crime and intimate partner violence than any other ethnic group in America. This has been repeatedly highlighted by Last Podcast on the Left hosts Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski. The trio present a show dedicated to horror, crime and paranormal activity, where they regularly discuss ‘the less dead’ – minority groups who are more commonly victims of violent crimes but less likely to garner the attention of law enforcement or media outlets. Among those neglected by the sensationalist nature of true crime are sex workers, homosexuals and ethnic minority groups.
I don’t buy into the argument that women are more inclined to engage with true crime because they are the more ‘empathetic sex’. This notion gets thrown around a lot when discussing the gendered consumption of true crime, but it’s little more reductionist and gender essentialism that needs to be ignored. Whilst there are no essential differences between men and women that make either gender more likely to indulge in true crime, women are certainly more likely to make a direct and personal connection to victims due to the reality that we suffer sexual and physical violence at an alarming rate.
My fascination with true crime feels like a way of conjuring all the worst things that could possibly happen and allowing my anxiety to consume me entirely with tales of death and evil before reassuring myself that an awareness of potential threats could make me better placed to face them in future. Though it’s undeniably gruesome my penchant for true crime caters to something I have always wanted and needed. Women may be the biggest consumers of gruesome true crime, but this inclination towards the macabre might just be our way of making sense of a world that often feels like it wants to hurt us. Whether these perceived threats are real or imagined, I can only hope that my true crime obsession has helped me to stay sexy and not get murdered.