Casefile, the “true crime” podcast which I sometimes listen to when doing the dishes or trying to fall asleep, tries to sell me a lot of things: mattresses, other podcasts, watches, weight loss programs. And, also, a security system. The ads for the security system have, for me, a comic undertone: Surely one lesson of true crime is that most people are murdered by someone they know, and the few that aren’t are, mostly, extremely unlucky. But the hope on the advertiser’s end, of course, is that the podcast has put me on edge enough that home invasion, even of a non-life-threatening-variety, feels imminent.
As true crime goes, Casefile sits firmly on the “ethical” end of the spectrum. Unlike some other podcasts I’ve heard of, if not listened to, it does not play audio of people dying; nor does it dwell on the gory details of the crimes. Episodes are almost always named after victims, and time is spent building up each victim into a particular person. There are no jokes cracked or cute slogans on offer, unlike, for instance, My Favorite Murder, which tells its listeners, “Stay sexy, don’t get murdered,” or Last Podcast on the Left, which is explicitly comic. The discomforts it offers are the discomforts inherent in reporting, those inherent in the stories, and also the discomfort of introspection (why am I falling asleep to this?). At its best, true crime feels much like biography—compelling, revealing, intimate, and, in the last analysis, inexcusable.
Watching people die is an old pastime. One need not reach back all the way to the Colosseum to find it. In Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart—a memoir of his brother, the murderer Gary Gilmore—he remembers a story his mother told him: Her father had taken her to an execution, and, though she tried to hide her face, he “grabbed her by the hair and yanked hard, forcing her to watch the man as he dropped into death.” On the Internet—and in the pre-Internet world of franchises such as Faces of Death—one can easily find real videos of people dying and being murdered. Relatives of a victim of violent crime have discovered what happened by seeing a loved one dead or dying on TV.
True crime is not quite about watching people die, but it does require an interest in the subject, an inhabiting of moments of private violence to an unclear end. It is also a booming industry, particularly in the world of podcasts. In December 2019, for instance, Vulture reported that the comedy podcast My Favorite Murder “averages around 19 million monthly listeners.” And significantly, though violent crime is a male world, the world of true crime is overwhelmingly female. The only category of people left out of the true crime boom are people who have in fact lost a loved one to murder. “Nobody has tried to make entertainment out of [my murdered cousin] Sabina’s story, but if they did, I would burn their podcast studio to the ground,” wrote Lilly Dancyger for the website CrimeReads in 2019.