What Does Our Obsession with True Crime Podcasts Say About Us?

Everyone's an armchair detective now, and sometimes that doesn't sit comfortably.

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Dec 16 2015, 3:50pm

A murder scene. Photo via Flickr

Lately, I've been getting into death. It gets my juices going. I like to unwind with a really grisly murder or, maybe, if I'm having a preposterously bad day, an awful tragedy with a sizable body count.

Don't look at me like that. We're all in the same boat here. True crime has consistently been the most popular genre in books and TV and now, thanks to Sarah Koenig's seemingly unstoppable battleship—the HMS Serial—true crime is now navigating the choppy waters of mainstream podcasts directly into millions of willing ears across the globe. When the second season of Serial fired itself out of the WBEZ cannon last Thursday, everyone got a bit excited. But I'm going to say it early: season 2 is never going to reach the heights of the first one because it's not focusing on a murder. Instead, they've opted for a broad dollop of American army-political naughtiness in the form of the clearly deluded deserter Bowe Bergdahl, who has already admitted to the crimes he's being accused of.

My juices—if you're wondering about the state of them, currently, in terms of what they're up to—are not voraciously overflowing about what is essentially a closed case. Death is such a universal theme that following the podcast's inaugural season up with an American army curio (no matter how fascinating or intricate) is always going to turn off some people. Give us blood. Give us a body. Give us mystery. Like the crowd at a Jacobean revenge play, all we want is to luxuriate in the blood of slaughtered innocents. Don't give me an American soldier who wants to be Jason Bourne and looks like the sort of person who'd knock your drinks over at a bar because he didn't think they fit the ambience of the evening. Give me death.

"The thought that we walk next to monsters every day is what attracts us to true crime," Tim and Lance of the Missing Maura Murray podcast wrote me via email. "To see what humanity is capable of is interesting. It's sort of like looking at a tarantula in captivity. If there was no barrier we'd be hesitant to approach it, but with a pane of glass in between, we would want to get as close as possible to examine it."

What makes the Missing Maura Murray podcast so fascinating to me is that it spawned from a documentary about the "armchair detectives" who were obsessed with Maura Murray, a young American woman who has not been seen since 2004. Lance and Tim basically became the person they were trying to document. Lots of people think she's dead. Others think she ran off and started a new life. Some even think she got abducted by aliens.

"I think if we believe the audience can help solve it then it's more real than entertainment, and if we don't believe that then it's all entertainment," they say. It's fascinating listening—it plays out in real time. As the podcast progresses, for example, listeners become informants, townspeople become characters, and troll commenters transform into knowledgeable allies.

I am aware that I am now one of those people. I have spent many hours attempting to convince my friends that Maura Murray simply wandered into the woods and died. I have explored message boards and comment sections—I even listen to the podcast before bed, as if I'm incapable of a good night's sleep without the comforting words of a poor girl's disappearance ringing in my ears. Thanks to these podcasts I can now listen to someone dying once every 35 minutes.

"I don't feel that discussing a murder or disappearance is immoral," says Aaron of the Generation Why podcast, one of my very favorite podcasts that has covered basically every single interesting true crime case that has ever existed across its 159-episode run. "The listeners can learn lessons from the terrible events that have befallen others. When we spoke with Steve Jackson about his book, Bogeyman, I am sure that some people who listened learned just how important it is to keep your eyes on your children. To never leave them unattended even for a minute."

But what if my insatiable appetite for human suffering is, like, a bad thing? Should I just put on the Football Ramble instead? What if this information is slowly rewiring my brain, like the porn theory that says people's preferences just keep on getting more and more niche, so—before you know it—you're jacking off to a man in a baby costume spanking a woman who may or may not be his own father? Does my obsession for death, my lust for blood, mean I'm going to snap one day and abduct someone on a seedy backstreet just off the dazzling lights of Hull's majestic city center? Is an entire paragraph of questions suggestive of my deeply rooted existential crisis?

"When I was an edgy teen I used to think serial killers and tragedy was cool," says Justin of the Generation Why. "Now I'm disgusted by my unsympathetic view and glad I grew up. The fascination for the serial killer morphed into the fascination of how they get away with it, how they are caught, and how the system and media responds to it."

So I could be helping to solve a mystery but I could also be muddying the waters with inconsequential noise. There was that time, for instance, when Hae Min Lee's brother (Hae Min Lee was the murdered high school teen who was at the center of Serial) went on to Reddit to tell them, in a very polite way, to go fuck themselves because "TO ME ITS REAL LIFE." I consistently wonder if consuming and creating these stories profligates a damaging cultural concept—that death is sexy, that murderers are celebrities, that everyone we know is just one awful event away from becoming a media sensation. "The people we could hurt would have endless opportunity to listen," add Tim and Lance of Missing Maura Murray. "If the truth means publicly tearing a family apart we'd have no interest in that. But if the truth is murder and a cover-up, then we're going to publicize it as much as we can to try and help get a new and proper investigation jump-started."

But there's a very real chance that consuming people's tragedies like entertainment is appropriation of the crappiest form. "I absolutely think about it but would never feel shame or guilt," says Justin. '"As much as I want to believe we're informing the public and educating people on the reality of our legal system I can not deny leveraging the entertainment factor." Nobody wants to, actively, take someone else's pain and suffering and turn it into entertainment—I occasionally stop myself mid-episode and wonder, if someone I knew was the topic, what would I feel about this?

Speaking to Aaron, Justin, Tim, and Lance opens my eyes a bit, though. It seems my fear about being either medically ill or an accomplice to hurt is overthinking it. The allure of these podcasts is that they function as brilliant unfinished stories that leave you, the listener, to fill in the blank spaces—we're hardwired to love a good gruesome death as well as mystery. True crime is the combination of both, and there's no way to stop it—because death, tragedy, and mystery belong to no one. "Once a crime hits the news it no longer belongs to private individuals," says Aaron. "The public wants and needs to know more about it. It started with newspapers and television and continues on with podcasts."

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