From Netflix series to compelling podcasts, we can’t get enough of true crime. But why?
Last year I read Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was a stunning account of a lifelong pursuit of the prolific Golden State Killer.
This particular killer’s chilling modus operandi allegedly involved stacking china upon men’s backs while he assaulted their wives in another room, warning that if he heard the china fall, everyone in the house would die. Joseph James DeAngelo, who is suspected of being the Golden State Killer, was recently found to have been a police officer. Reading McNamara’s descriptions of his methods while my flatmate was away caused me to start thinking about my own movements in terms of what a predator outside would see.
Could my pattern of light use, or the way I kept checking my locks, signal to someone watching in the dark that I was a woman at home alone? I altered my behaviour, kept more weapons in my room, and planned the different ways I might escape from a killer or, at the very least, call for help.
I also found myself observing other flats and houses from the point of view of a future killer. Which ones had easier points of entry, those with windows away from the road, unlikely to be illuminated by cars, or those with dogs that might alert their owners?
It wasn’t just about fear, although the book had undoubtedly scared me. I considered this valuable knowledge to be added to a mental box, labelled ‘survival’, which was tucked away in the recess of my mind. And I know I’m not alone.
A 2018 survey found that the surge in popularity of podcasts such as My Favourite Murder was due to a growing appetite for true crime, which was mainly being fuelled by women. The findings were backed up by previous research from 2010, which showed women were far more likely to be fans of true crime than men. Every woman I know is obsessed with true crime to some degree, and there is something at play here that goes way beyond mere entertainment.
We women are socialised our entire lives to expect and avoid violence as best we can. We are inundated with life hacks: don’t tie your hair back, it makes you easier to grab. Don’t wear provocative clothing. Don’t walk too slowly. Don’t wear headphones. Don’t go out, but don’t stay at home either, as you are far more likely to be attacked in your home. Don’t trust strangers, but don’t trust friends and relatives either, as you’re far more likely to be killed by someone you know.
When watching, reading, or listening to true crime, I find myself asking how I will cope when this happens to me. How will I cope when this happens to someone I love? Have I armed myself with enough knowledge to be able to see the threat coming, when it does?
Netflix in particular have tapped into true crime’s popularity with a series of wildly popular documentary shows like Making a Murderer and The Staircase. However, it was The Keepers that made the heaviest impression on me. Most of these documentaries paint a bleak picture of friends, family and lawyers facing off against entrenched judicial and police corruption and apathy. There is somehow something even grimmer about The Keepers, which reveals a veritable hydra of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups involving the Catholic Church, local government and law enforcement.
This makes its protagonists – two retired women who took it upon themselves to investigate the unsolved murder of their teacher – even more awe-inspiring. Do women feel compelled to be detectives because we are also so often the victims? Because we like to think that, whatever the odds, other women might pursue justice for us when the law doesn’t?
These odds are greater when the victim in question isn’t white. A case that recently captured my attention was the disappearance of nine-year-old Asha Degree, from Shelby, North Carolina, in 2000. Her overnight disappearance from her family home was made even stranger by witness accounts of her walking along a highway located a significant distance from her house in the early hours, during a storm.
Select belongings (including discarded wrappers from the sweets given to her by her basketball coach, Chad Wilson) were also found in what seemed like carefully chosen locations, days after her disappearance. A bag had been packed, which was discovered the following year wrapped in a bin-liner on a construction site. Asha was initially dismissed as a runaway, with speculation that the nine-year-old was going to meet a boyfriend or, shockingly, was involved with something drug-related. The case was only recently reopened by the FBI due to continued pressure from Asha’s family and the public, not least a woman called Wendy Hughes, who runs a blog dedicated to the collection and analysis of evidence. The case remains unsolved.
All true crime dangles the promise of catharsis; a real sense that maybe justice will, or has been, served. A rare example of when this could actually be delivered can be found in The Jinx, a series of interviews with real estate heir, Robert Durst, around which was constructed a six-part documentary about his suspected involvement with the disappearance of his wife, as well as two later murders for which he was never convicted. Durst’s erratic behaviour and strange demeanour throughout the interviews cumulates with a startling “confession” to himself in an empty bathroom, after he forgot that his microphone was still live. His words resulted in his arrest.
Maybe on some level, the foundation for our fascination with true crime is the idea that, with enough research, we could look dangerous people in the face and recognise them instantly for what they are. It’s one of the best opportunities we get to know our enemy, to dive into their methods and their weaknesses.
Because, more often than not, we don’t get to experience the relief, the vindication, when men like Durst ask themselves out loud, as if mystified by their own actions, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course”.
Hanna Jameson is the author of The Last, published by Viking (Penguin), on the 31st January 2019, £12.99
Images: Netflix, Getty, Unsplash