In for the kill: what’s behind our true crime obsession?

Article by Meg Mason /
Vogue Australia /
October, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

When the young suit-wearing woman seated next to me on an early-morning flight took her phone out of her Celine bag, I noticed from a glance at her screen that she was starting her day with a podcast called Root of Evil.

The strangest thing, I realised as I put my own headphones in, wasn’t that she considered a true story about the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a Hollywood actress a palatable start to her day along with her morning coffee. No, the strangest thing was it didn’t seem strange at all. I had listened to all nine episodes the previous week before moving on to Up and Vanished, about the unsolved killing of a former beauty queen.

I discovered both shows via an online listicle appropriately titled ‘20 True Crime Podcasts That’ll Make Your Commute Go By in a Flash’, but they could just as well have been recommended by friends who are also recent devotees of true crime. In no other area of our lives are we more on trend, because all of a sudden women with no prior interest in murder, miscarriages of justice, cold cases or the psychology of serial killers cannot get enough. Homicide has become a daily accompaniment to making dinner, driving to school pick-up and unpacking groceries.

There has always been an audience for true crime, in fiction, tabloid media and television, and as paradoxical as it seems, consumers of the genre have always been predominantly female. So says US social psychologist Professor Amanda Vicary, who conducted one of the few academic studies that have delved into women’s consumption of true crime, and who happens to be a fan herself.

When her study was published in 2010, she says, crime was considered niche. If ‘niche’ is academic shorthand for low-brow, ethically dubious, broadly misogynistic, the preserve of women who write to and then marry death-row inmates, then certainly to women like my friends and I, who would privately consider ourselves educated, politically aware and, when it comes to media, sophisticated in taste and critical in consumption, then, yes, the genre was definitely considered niche. But now? “An interest in crime is socially acceptable,” Vicary says. “It’s out in the open and thought of as cool, something women will talk about with friends.”

Podcasting is how crime crossed over, shedding its reputation as fringe and becoming a phenomenon in mainstream pop culture. And podcasting is how we came to crime, via one show in particular, Serial, about the murder of a high school student and possibly wrongful conviction of her classmate, who is still in prison.

In 2014, the year it dropped, true crime shows didn’t feature on Apple’s top 10 list of most downloaded shows. Midway into 2019, however, six out of the top 10 shows fall into the category, according to podcast analytics agency Chartable. And female listeners? According to separate statistics released last year in the US, they now account for three quarters of the true-crime audience.

As well as being broadly credited as the show that turned audio into a mainstream form of entertainment, in genre terms Serial was our gateway podcast, because through its production values, its public radio credentials, its pioneering form and ultimately by it becoming the first-ever podcast to receive a Peabody (one of the most prestigious awards in journalism), the show invented ‘prestige crime’. It also created an insatiable appetite that has carried over into other forms of media: into publishing, where crime now outsells general fiction; and into television, where Netflix’s Making a Murderer became the biggest true- crime documentary of all time, while The People v. O. J. Simpson was the most-watched cable series of 2016 (a documentary version of the same case, O.J.: Made in America, even won an Academy Award in 2017). Interestingly, a US analysis shows the majority of crime viewers, just like those of us listening on our phones, are female.

Desperate to satiate or, rather, inflame that appetite, media companies have begun to cross-pollinate. Off the back of the Dirty John podcast becoming a Netflix series, Jamie Dornan will star as Dr. Death in a TV adaptation of the hugely popular podcast, while HBO produced a documentary about the Serial case, and Spotify made its foray into original content, starting earlier this year with Summer of 69, about the so-called Zodiac killer of the 1960s and 70s who was never caught.

Scroll any listening app and the volume of existing crime content is overwhelming. Based on rate of production – internationally and in Australia, following the phenomenon that was The Teacher’s Pet and the Walkley-winning Trace – saturation point seems imminent. Except the genre’s popularity among women is still climbing. Almost half of respondents in ABC’s 2018 Podcast Survey had listened to true crime in the previous month, compared to less than a third the year prior, but the jump was higher among women, a 15 per cent uptick in a single year.

The object of Vicary’s 2010 study was to find out why women are attracted to crime when study after study shows that we fear being the victim of violence significantly more than men. The reasons she gives, based on her research, are the same as those we tend to give ourselves when asked that question: that even if we feel conflicted on some level about the content, we enjoy feeling like co-investigators in unsolved cases, that we’re interested in the relational elements of the story, the psychology of men who kill, that we want to see justice done, use crime as a form of ‘exposure therapy’ for our fear of violence and take away real-life survival skills. Others purport to find the genre empowering, a way to process misogyny or bring to male audiences the reality of what it’s like to move through the world as a woman.

More readily than saying we “enjoy” true crime, we claim to feel “addicted” to it, which in a physiological sense may actually be true if we’re scared by the content. “Fear is our fastest and most primal emotion,” explains Steven Crimando, a behavioural science expert specialising in violence and trauma. When activated, even in a simulated way, fear quickly overrides any other emotion, dominates our attention and delivers a hit of adrenaline that can be chemically addictive. As with any substance, it’s something we build tolerance to and require in bigger doses to achieve the same effect. As a way of triggering that primal response, Crimando says, podcasts are a “near perfect delivery system” because of the way we listen, usually alone, isolated from background noise by headphones, immersed in sound effects. “You’re basically mainlining content straight into your fear centre,” he explains. “If you’re looking for distraction and a sense of relief from your everyday stress, podcasts get you on the on-ramp very quickly.”

“Fear is also incredibly stimulating to your imagination,” Crimando adds. “Television will show you a scary guy from central casting, but when a podcast says: ‘There’s a scary guy at the back door’, you customise him in a way that is much more frightening: he becomes your scary guy, the thing that scares you the most.”

Podcasting may have perfected crime as a form and made the content more intelligent and addictive, but has it made its consumption any less ethically dubious? Especially to those of us who identify as feminists, are advocates of #MeToo, and wouldn’t consider violence against women in any other context other than a way to make our commutes go by in a flash.

Prestige or not, the fact remains that the victim in the vast majority of crime narratives will be female. Podcasts rely on dead women and their brutalised bodies as much previous crime forms did. “Look at Law and Order as one example,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer in gender, technology and pop culture at the University of Melbourne (who also counts herself as a fan). “It’s a show that’s made 20 seasons mostly out of women being killed in horrible ways and using their bodies as an entertainment product in a way that fits into the broader culture of women being objectified.” Certain types of women are privileged over others, Rosewarne adds: sex workers, models, the mistress, the girlfriend.

In other cases, the victim will be the girl next door – pretty, young, outgoing and full of promise, or a wonderful mother adored by everyone who knew her – to borrow descriptors from a thousand opening episodes. And, says Rosewarne, overwhelmingly Caucasian, in accordance with the media bias known in sociology as ‘missing white woman syndrome’.

In that sense, podcasts like The Last Days of August, about the suspicious suicide of a porn star, or Accused, about the murder of a bubbly young college student in the 70s, have not strayed from the template. Except that those women were real, a fact so morally complicated that the temptation when listening is to pretend it’s not, at least when workshopping with colleagues in the office kitchen the whereabouts of the bloody knife or the testimony of the abusive boyfriend.

Still, podcasts are only responding to demand by disproportionately focussing on crimes involving women. Women actively prefer stories with a female victim, Vicary also found, likely because as well as being more naturally able to empathise with other women, a crime with a female victim is invariably a gendered one, playing into our specific and uniquely female fear of sexual violence.

But how are we not, in our own preference for female victims, perpetuating an age-old media fetish? And what does our fascination with crime say about where we are as a society and as individuals? Last year, female viewers of the Netflix series Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile took to social media to discuss the hotness of Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy before the network felt moved to issue a plea on Twitter to desist. Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley took a similar stance, reminding fans the fictional character they were crushing on in his hit series Youwas actually a psychopathic stalker and murderer. To say the least, it’s complicated.

“At the end of the day, we are [often] still talking about a real person who was actually murdered, and I think we do need to be careful about that,” Rosewarne says. “I think we need to consider if the content is ethical. For me, as much as I’ll admit to always watching a trashy film, in the context of sexual violence it has to be presented in a way that is not gratuitous. Although you can still present a high level of detail, if it’s highly sexualised or titillating, I personally choose to stop.”

She continues: “We have no shortage of content. We don’t have to pursue the ones that make us uncomfortable.” Whereas a publisher had no absolute way of knowing if we read, finished or liked a volume of crime, podcast technology means “abruptly ending a series and rating it sends a message to producers about what we do and don’t want”.

“It’s about be discerning,” agrees Emily Webb, co-producer and presenter of the podcast Australian Crime Stories. “Although it’s an individual choice, the question for me is how it’s presented or whether it serves a higher purpose.” As a producer, she says, “I consider our topics very deeply and try to tell stories that touch on social issues, make a broader point or give a voice to a woman who didn’t have agency in the life she lived and isn’t here to tell her own story. It’s a fine line and I am always conflicted about whether I am being a good feminist, how to strike the balance. But that’s just being a woman in society.”

Perhaps the greatest mystery, still unsolved, is that we can feel simultaneously uneasy about true crime and addicted to it. That women are equal parts terrified and fascinated by violence, and that even as feminists we can find entertainment in the violation and murder of women who really lived. “The reality for women,” Rosewarne says, “is that we can believe two things at once.”