I have felt for a while now that the modern true-crime craze has passed its prime. Obviously, people have always been interested in crime and will continue to be, but as for the most recent murder media wave — beginning with Serial and Making a Murderer and exploding from there — I, at least, am over it. Most of the new podcasts coming out are hurried facsimiles of earlier successes, and how many times can the Ted Bundy story possibly be told?
What was once a subject we could pretend was esoteric now accounts for 50 percent of the top-ten podcasts on iTunes, and with that popularity comes necessary critique — last week, for instance, Variety published a story about Crime Junkie host Ashley Flowers’s alleged plagiarism. Crime Junkie is the no. 1 podcast on iTunes, and its host mostly reads from other people’s research — a not uncommon format in the genre. My Favorite Murder, another true-crime powerhouse, has also been criticized at times for sloppy sourcing and inaccurate reporting, though the hosts are comedians, not journalists. But when millions of people are listening, how much does intent matter? What does it mean to be a “fan” of stories about violent crime? And what does it mean that so many of them (us) are women?
In her new book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, author Rachel Monroe examines these and other questions. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
What prompted you to write this book now?
I feel like I’ve been working on it for a decade, without realizing I was working on it. These are stories I’ve always been drawn to — dark stories. My mother and I always exchanged emails about the most fucked-up, awful thing that happened in the news that week. It was this bonding exercise I had with her, and some of my friends. It totally freaked my dad out, and my brothers thought it was totally strange, and I realized that it wasn’t just that I had a weird family, but that it did seem to be a wider pattern in the world: that, for some reason, these really dark stories were drawing a female audience.
I think when I was younger, these were things I consumed a bit mindlessly. As I got older and started doing more reporting and more actively investigating and writing about terrible crimes, in some ways my perspective shifted, and in some ways it didn’t. When I’m in a dark place in my own life, I still crave these dark stories. That was a long-standing mystery about my own psyche, and about other people who felt similarly. That’s where it began.
Did your research lead you to any conclusions about when true crime began to have that gendered association? Has that always been there?
It’s hard to get useful statistics on this, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that for over a century, people have been fretting about the fact that, say, there were a ton of women attending Lizzie Borden’s trial. Ayn Rand had an obsession with a famous murder in the early 20th century, and when she was writing about his trial, she wrote really dismissively about all the women who were soaking up the sensation. That’s a persistent theme when you’re reading historical accounts of high-profile trials. It’s unclear to me whether that was because there was a preponderance of women there, or it was just the fact that any women were interested in these macabre stories [that upset people].
That distinction — whether it’s a lot of women or whether we just perceive it as unseemly for women — I wonder if that’s why female true-crime fans sometimes get defensive when that gendered aspect is highlighted, and why it’s become something many women take pride in.
I developed this theory when I was working on my review of the My Favorite Murder book, which is that, in some ways, it does seem to me like a reaction against this other, contemporary strain of womanhood, which is yoga, wellness, everything shiny and sunny and sun-kissed and organic and perfect. That’s a dominant strain on Instagram at least, and it leaves very little space for darkness and shadow and everything else that’s a real part of human life. I wonder if this intense embrace of a sisterhood of darkness is a reaction against that mandated glowiness.
I think all fandoms can be really defensive — that’s one of the dangers of fandoms. They police their borders and they don’t like to be questioned. It’s wild to even talk about something like a true-crime fandom, once you take a half-step away and realize these are real things that happen to real people. But I think it’s an appropriate word — it functions like a fandom. One thing that was interesting in the book was tracing it back and seeing how some of these similar interests worked before the internet, like when you had to find a mailing list and fax a check to somebody who would send you a VHS of a parole hearing. Obviously it was a much smaller subculture then, because it involved so much work, but people have been gathering around these interests for a long time.
I sort of think the fandom around true-crime entities is what’s ruined it for me, or at least made me question my own enjoyment. It’s creepy to see people make, like, arts and crafts dedicated to serial killers.
My thoughts are evolving as we’re talking about it, but it’s this tricky thing where fandoms and internet sleuths have a hard time reckoning with the fact that now, with the internet, their actions and podcasts can have a real effect on the world, and that there’s a responsibility there. It is fundamentally different to have a conversation [about true crime] with your friend at a party than to disseminate media for millions of people. We’re going to have to come up with best practices as a society for how to handle these things so we don’t cause harm.
I also find myself torn between the responsibility factor and the essential humanity in being drawn to stories like these. I don’t know that being interested in true crime is inherently wrong, just as I don’t think it’s inherently productive, or feminist.
That was one the main motivating forces that inspired me to write the book: On the one hand, there’s this knee-jerk “Don’t question me, I’m a woman, so therefore this is feminist,” and then on the other hand, there’s this real dismissiveness. That’s the sense I get from the My Favorite Murder fandom — some of that prickliness is responding in an honest, righteous way to dismissal or condescension. “Oh, women talking? It must be dumb and vapid or voyeuristic or trashy.” Plenty of people have talked shit about that podcast really forcefully, and some people criticized me for not being more critical, but you know, if this is something that appeals to millions of women, including people close to me whom I love and respect, then there’s something there. There’s something they’re getting there that they’re not getting anywhere else — and the same goes for Oxygen, or HBO crime documentaries, or Ann Rule books. There’s a need being met, and that has to be reckoned with. And it’s an interest that’s been a strain of human nature for as long as mass media has existed.
I think it’s hard for people, myself included, to allow yourself to maintain an interest that you’re also critical of and not necessarily proud of. But there’s a difference between knowing your interest is human and normal and thinking it’s cool and refusing to ask yourself why.
I think it’s such a pleasure to be critical about your own fascinations and obsessions, but maybe that’s just my personality. I think people can react by saying, “Oh, if you’re asking me to think critically about this, you’ll make it not fun,” and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it can be fun to realize you like reading books about serial killers and also think about what cultural strains and mythologies you’re feeding by gobbling them up.
And if something you like can’t stand up to that critique, it’s probably not very good. Why do you think true-crime fascination inspires a kind of vigilantism in people?
I think our access to so many sources of information is part of what’s fueling the true-crime craze now. If you think back to the ’90s, if you wanted to read about Jeffrey Dahmer, you’d watch a made-for-TV movie, maybe you’d watch Inside Edition, you could read a lurid paperback, but it was hard to get anything outside those official channels. Now people have access to the internet and all sorts of documents and Facebook pages. Google can take whole evenings away from you. It can be a real service, in some ways, highlighting cases that never got it in the first place. But if we’re doing crowd-sourced investigations, it’s hard not to worry about what stories are considered the most tragic, which do tend to be missing pretty young white women. It raises my hackles when I see someone trying to build a career based on finding a pretty girl.
I think I know the answer, but tell me anyway why those are the stories we consider tragic.
Racism is the obvious answer. We grow up in a culture that teaches us implicitly that certain violence is unacceptable — against white women, largely — and certain violence — against young black men, against trans women, against the homeless, against the people who are most likely to be victims of violence — is somehow unsurprising, or maybe even deserved. There’s an idea that there are some “good” victims, who are worthy of our attention and our outrage and political action, and then the people who are actually the primary victims of crime get shoved off to the side and don’t count. Even if people aren’t consciously trying to replicate that racist cultural trope and going by what they find most interesting or what’s gotten the most media attention, that bias is built in.
People talk about being fascinated by true crime because they empathize with the victims. Empathy can be a positive force, but there’s so much bias built into empathy, and I think as white women, if you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, the stories we empathize with are just other stories about white women. I write in the book about when I was in college being consumed with this story about a girl who’d gone missing in Richmond, where I’m from, and getting disgusted with myself when I realized that I was really just thinking about myself. I felt kind of fucked up in my own life, and I was using what happened to her as this sort of dark mirror to think about my own pain. Once I had a little bit of clarity that that’s what I was doing, that started to feel pretty disrespectful to her. But I think those are the ways that empathy can blind us to pain that doesn’t look like our own.
A lot of true-crime critique does seem to center on this idea that we should focus on the victims, but I guess I get why we highlight what we perceive as aberrant. I wonder if that’s almost an anti-empathy — to be most interested in what we assume is most different from us.
As a reporter, I’ve interviewed a handful of murderers and been in court to watch them testify, and it’s really striking — the difference between the cultural construct of a murderer and real life. In the stories I’ve covered, the murderers have tended to be pretty dull, pretty damaged people. It’s pretty apparent immediately that they’ve had hard, awful lives themselves.
There’s also not an answer. I think some of the killer-centric media out there is trying to dig in and find why — why would somebody do something like this? And I think, in reality, it’s often not like it is on CSI, where there’s an elaborate backstory that traces back to childhood trauma. Often it’s people with terrible impulse control who were themselves abused, who have low IQs, and who have the opportunity to act on their worst impulses. It’s not an interesting story, it’s just a really sad story. Maybe in some ways that’s harder to hear. Maybe we prefer a killer who has a message, because even if there’s a terrible logic to it, there’s a logic to it.
If there’s a reason or a pattern, we can avoid it.
So much of the way we focus on true crime, as if it’s a psychodrama soap opera driven by individual personalities, leaves out so much that is really important, which is the political and economic context, and who is vulnerable, and who preys on whom. In some ways it lets society off the hook if we keep telling ourselves these stories over and over again.
Do you see us reaching a point of cultural reckoning with our true-crime consumption? It feels to me like the bubble is about to burst, if it hasn’t already.
As critical as I can be of the true-crime genre, I think there are a lot of smart people dissecting things and questioning stories that were told previously. Like any fandom, it’s not a monolith, and there are people producing really smart, interesting, subversive, critical work within it.
When people talk about the true-crime boom and they want to trace it back, there are plenty of arguments you could make. Something I’ve been playing around with is this comparison to the Weimar Republic, which was another time when crime was low but people were obsessed with crime stories. Violent crime is at a historically low rate, so consuming all these stories distorts our perception of how dangerous the world is. But the Weimar Republic was also a time of great political instability and ambient hate and blame, and that was also a period when [people were drawn to] these stories that simplified life — stories that blame one bad guy we can capture, instead of blaming large political and economic systems. There are some alarming parallels there.
I think it also has to do with the media ecosystem. I think people don’t talk enough about that. When one thing is a hit, then for the next two to three years you’re going to see facsimiles of greater and much lesser quality as people try to cash in. I think we’re seeing that play out. We’re probably in the middle of the grifter-story boom, which will last for a little while. Then we’ll move on to whatever the next thing is. But crime is always going to be interesting to people.