In 2014, the 13-episode podcast Serial investigated the murder of a Maryland teenager and “electrified group chats, provided rich loam for conspiracy theories, and turned hordes of millennials into experts on cell towers,” says Katy Waldman, a New Yorker staff writer. Somehow the genre convinces people, ordinary citizens, that they can know what and who are behind a crime. As a result, in a number of recent cases, investigators have been swamped by amateur detectives and wild theories.
Earlier this year, Waldman reviewed a book questioning the public’s preoccupation with true crime—podcasts, tv shows, movies, and books. Waldman’s review centered on Rebecca Makkai’s 2023 novel, I Have Some Questions for You, primarily a murder mystery set at a prestigious boarding school, which also critiques true crime on three counts, “exploiting real people for entertainment, chasing gore rather than studying systemic problems, and objectifying victims,” especially young white women who are pretty and rich.
Is the popularity of participatory and armchair crime investigation “the thrill of conjuring monsters to despise” as Waldman suggests? Or another example of “the numbing, almost hallucinatory pervasiveness of violence against women,” and “how greedily such stories are consumed”?
About a third of podcast listeners listen to true crime, but only last week, in the Washington Post, Hope Corrigan reported on people quitting the genre altogether. Corrigan opens her article with the story of a young woman who realized she was becoming overwhelmed by anxiety and paranoia, which she attributed to a “near constant consumption of true crime.” Those who quit this preoccupation report improvements in their mental state and sleep.
What seems to be changing now, Corrigan says, is how “some fans, and even podcast hosts, grapple with heightened anxiety and qualms over exploitation of victims,” and profiting from someone’s murder. Families of victims are speaking against the shows. A victim of a non-fatal attack said she “would rather get stabbed again than have TikTok users descend like vultures on my social media.”
Not unexpectedly, the popularity of the genre has inspired some tasteless merch, including a doormat that reads, “Crime Shows Have Taught Me Unexpected Visitors are Sketchy.” That may have started out as a poor joke, but recent tragedies suggest quite a few people may actually feel that way.
True crime tales may be most valuable when they reveal problems in the system that can be corrected. In the hands of a “capable creator,” stories of real crimes can reveal a lot about how the justice system works or doesn’t work, can demonstrate how social class and race affect crime and punishment, and can give voice to the voiceless. In less skilled hands, negative effects may predominate.
Professor Jean Murley, who studies the cultural impact of true crime, cites The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson, as one of her favorite books in the genre. This memoir and meditation from 2007 deals with one of the Ann Arbor murders of 1967-69, which occurred when I was living there. I read Nelson’s book several years ago and was surprised at how much of what I was sure I knew was simply wrong. Several novels I’ve read in recent years have considered the impact on investigations of social media piling on—notably New Zealand author Paul Cleave’s The Quiet Ones and The Pain Tourist. Unfortunately, such fictional accounts reflect actual events in society, where social media “suspects” become targets of vigilantism