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.
In Savage Appetites, journalist Rachel Monroe approaches true crime through a gendered lens, profiling four women who all became obsessed with violent crime to the point of disappearing into it. She divides her subjects into four archetypes: The Detective, The Victim, The Defender, and The Killer. Of these four, it’s The Victim (Alisa Statman, a woman who became fixated on the murder of Sharon Tate to the point of insinuating herself into Tate’s surviving family) and The Killer (Lindsay Souvannarath, a twenty-three-year-old girl and neo-Nazi who planned to shoot up a shopping mall on Valentine’s Day) who stand out as, in certain ways, the most like normal true crime fans.
Monroe’s profiles are compelling and, in some cases, revelatory. The fitting-together of the pieces, on the other hand—the big why of women and true crime—never quite comes together, and the end effect is that Savage Appetites takes one step forward and another sideways. She doesn’t buy the pragmatic case for true crime—that it teaches women to stay safe—but while she wonders if “perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us,” the book ultimately concludes that crime stories are a way in which “[women] can talk about the violence that’s been done to us, or to people we love.” At the end of the book, Monroe attends a panel at a true crime convention in which the women in the audience reenact the last moments of a murder victim’s life, blindfolded and restrained in their chairs while a man reads violent (real) threats to them:
We had decided to honor the victims by amplifying that one, worst moment of their lives until the room vibrated with their terror, everyone’s mirror neurons in panic mode. Now the man playing the killer was talking about how he’d rape his victims. Now he was talking about how he’d make them shit themselves.
Monroe finds herself enraged by the exercise and walks out: “I wasn’t trapped; I was just pretending that I was.” The exercise is offensive because it broadcasts the killer’s thoughts. But this story, like some of the other stories in the book, feel less like ways of talking about violence than exercising your capacity for it in a plausibly deniable way. You have tied up a victim, blindfolded her, subjected her to humiliation and threats. Does it matter that the victim, in this case, is you?
Lindsay Souvannarath met her boyfriend, the nineteen-year-old James Gamble, online through a community of “Columbiners,” or Columbine fans. For people, particularly girls, who have grown up in Columbine’s shadow but without any memory of Columbine itself, the shooting is less a real event than a myth. “Girls who’d been toddlers at the time of the massacre in Colorado,” Monroe writes, “had an easier time metabolizing the tragedy as an aesthetic: trench coats, violent video games, industrial techno, semiautomatic weapons, security-camera footage—and cute, misunderstood boys”:
Some of the Columbiners seemed to have a crush not so much on the boys but on the pathos of the whole, horrible situation. They imagined themselves hiding under a desk in the school library, weeping. Most, though, were fixated on the shooters.… They posted the same pictures of the killers over and over, sometimes transformed into memes of their own making: Klebold looking broodily handsome, followed by a GIF of an explosion, captioned “MY OVARIES”; Harris smirking in the cafeteria, accompanied by song lyrics: “You are my sunshine / my only sunshine / you make me happy / when skies are grey / You’ll never know, dear / how much I love you / because you’re dead.” One recirculated image was just simple blocky letters superimposed over a Lisa Frank–style background of pink clouds, ice cream cones, and candy: “I LOVE YOU EVEN THOUGH YOU KILLED ALL THOSE PEOPLE.”
Unlike Klebold and Harris, Souvannarath and Gamble were not very good at planning their crime, which was to take place in Gamble’s Nova Scotia hometown of Halifax. Souvannarath was intercepted at the airport, Gamble killed himself when the police showed up, and, as Monroe points out, they did not actually know how to shoot guns. Nor were the guns available to them very useful for a mass shooting. “The single-action shotgun,” she writes, “would’ve needed to be reloaded after every shot, and the shells were birdshot—unlikely to be lethal, except at close range.”
Like Souvannarath, Alisa Statman, too, was interested in inhabiting the details of a crime. In 1990 she moved into the guest house of 10066 Cielo Drive, the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends had been murdered by the Manson Family. Statman denies any knowledge of the Manson murders before she moved into the guest house, but Monroe is skeptical that she is being truthful on this point, and I am inclined to agree. Statman was not the only person to become obsessed with the Tate family, but she was by far the most successful, befriending Tate’s sister Patti, eventually moving in with Patti and—possibly, depending on who you believe—becoming her lover, too. She published a book titled Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice and, according to Monroe, “lobbied for a law that would’ve allowed non–family members to speak at parole hearings.” After Patti’s death, Statman “opened up Sharon’s grave without [her husband Roman Polanski’s] permission, to place Patti’s ashes inside.”
True crime is a broad genre—broad enough that I don’t know if a general statement can be made of it without running immediately into contradiction. Still, I will venture one generalization: True crime circles two questions. The first is what it’s like to kill; the second, what it’s like to die. These are not the only questions it addresses, or even the most interesting, but they are the draw. If you are interested in crime, it is usually because you are interested in evil and if it exists, in people who have done remarkable and horrifying things, and what it is like when a line is crossed, a life is ended, and the world rips apart. Crimes tell stories of human capacity in the grimmest sense.
For Souvannarath and Statman, their crimes of choice represent more than their events; they are stories that give life meaning and that can be lived out, stories over which it is possible to assert ownership through sheer mastery of the details. That Columbine and the Manson murders were and are essentially meaningless is also what opens them up to be used for this purpose. In a mass shooting one is robbed even of the intimate drama of murder, since the victims exist in their numbers rather than in their individual deaths. The shooter’s psychology, meanwhile, is a blank.
The drama of crime is also, not surprisingly, what tends to interest a lot of the killers in true crime, or at least a substantial subset of them, whose killing can be entirely purposeless. They are also, it has to be said, rarely very interesting people. “Power is when you hold somebody’s life in your hands—and then you end it,” the Australian serial killer Catherine Birnie told one journalist who interviewed her. Anders Breivik put together a playlist for his mass shooting of children in Norway. That these people tend to sound either normal or like cartoon villains points to the possibility that their psychology is mysterious to us because of its banality, not its complexity. Like Souvannarath, and like the consumer of true crime, they are essentially trying on killing for size.
Of course, most true crime fans are not would-be murderers. But that true crime is a way of expressing a desire to commit violence with plausible deniability is one possible conclusion from Monroe’s book, though one she never quite expresses, except in relation to Souvannarath herself. The essential brutality of true crime, it seems to me, lies in its ability to transform a crime into a kind of static reality for others to explore, marvel at, chuckle over, and control. And so instead of reducing anxiety or teaching street smarts, the function of true crime for women is to give them a way of trying violence on, both in experiencing the stories and in reducing them to anecdote, joke, and case study.
Much like watching a horror movie and yelling at somebody not to go up that flight of stairs, true crime allows its consumers to feel as though there are rules and that victims are in some way punished for failure to adhere to those rules. When I visited the My Favorite Murder subreddit for research purposes, a number of posts were about how to avoid being abducted and trafficked—not really, one imagines, a problem most of its listeners are likely to have. “Always SSDGM [stay sexy, don’t get murdered] when you Uber,” reads one post. “The only way you’re guaranteed NOT to get murdered in an Uber,” reads another, with a picture of a dog in the driver seat of a car. True crime soothes a paranoia that it itself causes and which can be—in the right circumstances—its own excuse for violence.
When people gather to watch someone die by execution, it is ghoulish—but also public. An execution is not an intimate event. Nor is it a surprise. The executed leave behind people who love and mourn them, like anybody else, but one aspect of their execution is the transformation of their deaths into public spectacle. It is hardly a defense of public execution to note that true crime, in its attitude toward death, may have turned death and grieving into a matter of private consumption, a story readymade to insert yourself into, a means of violence that keeps you safe and does not implicate you.
In 2019, the Manson murders became a popular topic of conversation once again thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which a washed-up actor and his stuntman go about their business while in the background we see Sharon Tate slowly moving toward the moment of her death. But when the hour comes, the Manson family goes into the wrong house. Tate lives. Perhaps this is one direction our interest in true crime can go: approaching these stories not as patterns to be lived over and over, or as cautionary tales through which we keep ourselves safe, but stories in which it is always possible to swerve in another direction, in which the meaninglessness of a violent death could have simply failed to happen.