Column: This mom knows true crime is grisly but good
It’s about humanity, both the best kinds of people and the worst.
I promise I'm not planning to kill you.
I know we generally don't have to tell each other that, but I feel like I should clarify that to start. Because I am obsessed with murder.
It turns out a lot of us are obsessed with it. Research shows that half of Americans consume true crime content and a third of us do so at least once a week. Women are more likely to fall into the category of true crime fanatics and they’re likely to consume more of the content than men. (The research also shows that women’s interest is not because they’re planning on having their own Dateline special.)
Count me in. Very few days go by that I don’t watch a YouTube video, listen to a podcast or read a book about crime. If my daughter enters the room I’m in and hears that I’m watching something, she’ll ask “Is that a murder?” as I go to pause it. (I may be fascinated by that content, but I make sure she doesn’t take it in with me – I hope she can go a few more years at least without learning about the horrors of humanity.)
I know spending so much time listening to the details of such macabre and twisted events seems dark at best. And it is dark, of course. (If something happens to me, the police are sure to be suspicious when they get my search history full of ghastly questions like “how long do poisons take to work,” “Does Drano really remove fingerprints” and “burying bodies under endangered plants.”)
There is an element of voyeurism, of feeling like a fly on the wall for morbid events. But there’s a lot more to the fascination with true crime.
I think one reason so many of us partake of this content and its darkness has to do with it being an outlet for the anxiety and darkness we’re already feeling. We’re surrounded by darkness: mass shootings, economic struggles, the climate crisis, food insecurity, poverty, war, natural disasters and more. The news is dark. Some of our daily lives are dark.
Some of us worry our futures are dark.
Focusing on the darkness of true crimes can help us channel those thoughts toward the external and give us a break from our own darkness.
And, of course, it gives us the chance to get to know, in some way, other people and to empathize with them. I’m touched every time I learn about the victim in a case and hear how those who love them describe them.
(This does sometimes lead to wondering how I would be remembered. I mean, the only time I ever lit up a room involved changing a lightbulb. I’m guessing it would be something like “She was pretty weird but she was good at, like, vacuuming and helping with homework and stuff. She made a lot of spreadsheets and kept the gummi worm industry in business. We’ll miss her because she was good at telling us what to do. We won’t miss her because she was so good at telling us what to do.”)
True crime content isn’t perfect. Some content is inaccurate, exploitative and sensationalized. But a lot of it – the best of it – is about people. It’s about humanity, about the best kinds of people and the worst.
The best content and the best creators highlight the lives of the people involved. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara is the best crime book I’ve read in the past several years, not because of the gory details but because of the personal details. By making us feel the individual human effect of these crimes, she made readers feel involved in the case. The result was not only a phenomenal book but also renewed interest in the case, which led to the arrest of the man responsible for these crimes.
Because true crime goes further than just providing entertainment in the moment. Increased attention on cases featured in true crime content has led to dozens of cases being solved. Many content creators shine a spotlight on cases that are often overlooked in our society – missing and murdered indigenous women, people of color and members of other marginalized communities.
Cases where local authorities failed to act appropriately are discussed regularly, putting pressure to hold these officials accountable. Creators highlight cases that require action from viewers, from contacting elected representatives, sharing information on missing people, supporting organizations that make a difference in these cases, and pushing for changes in laws to close loopholes that allow dangerous people to be on our streets.
All of these cases – these people – deserve more attention and true crime gives it to them, both on the personal and the macro levels. (I’ve seen fundraisers for organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hit six figures.)
Good is done by true crime content creators and those of us who consume their content. True crime has become more than a genre. It provides a way to focus anxiety and darkness into something positive. It transcends a macabre interest and becomes a community dedicated to doing better for the people affected.
Because we may seem obsessed with murder, but what we’re really obsessed with is justice, accountability and change.
Alicia Strnad Hoalcraft is a chronic insomniac with an inability to keep her jokes to herself. She works for Forum Communications and lives in Moorhead with her daughter. Her hobbies include collecting memes, driving her daughter up the wall, and thinking about that one thing she said in 1992. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.