I didn’t have a chance, really. When my mother was pregnant with me, she, along with the majority of the nation, watched a grainy white bronco speed across Interstate 405 in the now infamous OJ Simpson chase. My own interest in whodunits started young. As a kid, I’d creep downstairs and sneak-watch Law and Order unbeknownst to my mom. And while my parents let me watch crime dramas and comedies with them as I got older, like Monk, Psych and C.S.I, true crime shows like Snapped became my default choice in white-noise during study sessions. I don’t have endless hours on tap for cable as an adult but I always pop on the My Favorite Murder podcast when I’m working on stuff around the house or cruising on a long drive. The sheer number of hours I’ve spent listening to different cases is so staggering, I’d actually rather not calculate it.
It’s an odd hobby, to say the least. Every story begins with the worst possible scenario. No amount of DNA, fingerprinting, or fiber analysis can bring the victim back. They’re dead. Game over. Practically the only good that can come out of each case involves the culprit being brought to justice -sometimes by trial, other times by their own death- but even that victory is depressing when the families show up all puffy-eyed in the courtroom. You think people would turn on one episode of these shows and flip it off right after the murder happens, but that’s obviously not the case.
True crime is becoming an increasingly popular genre of entertainment. It’s kind of messed up, to be honest, because stories about violence against other people, especially nonfictional violence, shouldn’t be enjoyable. I have a clear childhood memory of my petite mother hunched over a puzzle while Nancy Grace fired off about a possible break in the JonBenét Ramsey case. What’s the draw? Why do people knowingly watch such horrible programming when Hallmark is just a button-press away? Both fans of true crime and the psychologists analyzing their irrational interests can list dozens of reasons why we’re drawn to these gruesome shows- adrenaline, the chance to be an armchair detective, an outlet for anger, the inability to look away from a trainwreck- and while I agree with these answers to an extent, I have a few to offer up as well.
There isn’t a script but there is a huge amount of creativity in filtering through sources, deciding which elements are most important, and how to frame such elements in a way that delivers the story appropriately for the desired format. The idea that everything happening in the story has actually happened adds a whole new level of tension. As for the stories themselves, each case is it’s own little capsule. The characters, the motive, mystery, and the consequences are all introduced and resolved in just a single episode/ book/ documentary/ etc. True crime promises a complete story and each case delivers exactly that. Cold cases are an exception to this rule, but there’s a different kind of devastation and mystery in unsolved cases that pulls on the heartstrings differently. Resolved cold cases are some of my favorite to watch. Hardly anything is more satisfying than hearing an elderly parent finally receive answers about their child who has been missing for decades.
What really differentiates true crime story-telling, though, is an overall genre pattern that consistently differs from traditional storytelling formats. Instead of building up a conflict to the point where characters hit an all-time-low, true crime stories begin with an all-time-low. The deed is done. The who is introduced to us as a body and the what has happened. Everything following is a process of breaking down the why. This flip in narrative also gives the viewer hindsight perspective that the victim lacked. Rather than watching a love story degrade into a grizzly massacre, the viewer is now analyzing the story to see where things went wrong. We can learn from their mistakes if there were any, or we can be shocked by the sheer misfortune striking otherwise prepared individuals. Either way, by showing the audience part of it’s hand, true crime storytelling
Perhaps optimism isn’t the best word, but hear me out. Crime is inevitable. People are attacked, murders occur every minute and many of those affected by these tragedies (the victims, loved ones, even those related to the perpetrators) never get justice. And even if they do, its after years of guilt, grief, and anger. The storytelling format in true crime promises to not only resolve the case, but to do so while you’re eating dinner or commuting to work. Again, with the exception of cold cases and ongoing investigations, true crime cases are resolved, the killer is caught, questions are answered, and justice is served. Each story is actually a triumph in the face of tragedy. So long as society exists, crime will as well so it’s almost empowering to know that sometimes, the system does work.
It’s astounding how many people work on a case before it finally results in a verdict. Cases begin with the first responders before passing on to the detectives, forensic analysts, various specialists, and finally to the prosecuting and defense attorneys and the judge arbitrating between. And those are just people on government payroll. Victims don’t exist in bubbles- they were real people- and sometimes, their lives hold the answer to their death. So often, victims are found by loved ones as opposed to professionals trained for crisis management. These witnesses are spouses coming home from work or friends popping in for a lunch date. They could be parents waking up their children, or conversely, children looking for their parents who failed to wake them up. Every victim was a living person, not just a case or a statistic, and their loved ones see their personhood even after death. And while the genre has struggled with objectifying the victim, and even creating a spectacle of the notion of murder, it has increasingly moved towards honoring the victim and including the journey of loved ones to finding closure.
Loved ones are completely invested in finding answers, so their contribution is not only understandable, but expected (and tried by media if it differs too far from the “norm.”) But there’s a whole other group of people absolutely vital to our justice system that aren’t particularly tied to the victim: everyday acquaintances. There’s the coworkers that paid enough attention to know something was up with that unexpected absence, the neighbors that called the police after hearing loud noises, and the random citizen that recognized the J. Doe on the news as the person sitting next to them at the bar last night. These are the people that don’t necessarily have any skin in the game- they could just walk away and their lives would continue on without appreciable change- but they don’t. Instead, they decide to call in information, even show up to court and testify, and without their contribution, there would be many more boxes in the cold case file room. There’s also the countless instances that never escalate to criminal offenses because of intervention from strangers. At the end of the day, there are horrible strangers hiding in the dark (though most aren’t strangers and most aren’t hiding) but there are wonderful strangers willing to step in on behalf of victims as well.
In essence, I love true crime because it gives me hope: hope for our system, hope for the families of the deceased, hope for humanity as a whole. A hundred years ago, it was almost impossible to solve crime without a smoking gun and complete cooperation with witnesses but now? A strand of hair could be enough to send someone to prison for life. Precincts work together, databases are growing by the minute, and homicide rates are increasingly trending downwards. And at the end of it all, there’s something about the contrast between the darkest aspects of brutality and the beauty of people coming together to reconcile that injustice.