I just finished reading a book called Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Anne White. The book has basically two leads; a cop broken by a case she solved twenty (?) years ago and a true crime podcaster eager to report on it. I’m not going to spoil the book, don’t worry, but it did bring up a lot of mixed feelings I have about the world of true crime in general.
I’ve done my fair share of consuming true crime media, so none of this is meant as judgemental towards anyone. I live in a glasshouse, there are no stones here.
My partner hates it when I listen to these shows. He doesn’t see them as the horror-adjacent things they are to me, but rather an intrusion into real people’s lives. Often people who are still alive. Often forcing them to relive some of the worst moments of their lives. And I can’t really say that he’s wrong. At its worst, true crime content is exactly that; a cash grab to titillate the masses. Tell them how close they could be to true evil while giving them the satisfaction of being able to tell themselves “I would never”.
I would never let something like that happen to my children. I’m smarter than that. I would never be caught out like that.
It’s all bullshit, of course, but it gives us a chance to feel superior to someone for a while.
The thing that feels redeeming about true crime is that there’s a chance that when they talk about cold cases, the renewed attention might help solve the case. It might bring a witness forward, someone who didn’t realize what they saw at the time. It might help people put things together in a different way and help find some new information that no one found at the time. I don’t know of any actual cases solved as a direct result of a true crime thing. But isn’t even one case solved worth it all?
I can only imagine that especially in a murder case it might be helpful to find out “why”. Make sure that someone pays for the death of a loved one, no matter how small that might feel. And maybe it is.
Narratives gone awry
I never watched Tiger King. The marketing hit all of my myötähäpeä (second-hand embarrassment) and exploitation nerves hard and I just could not bring myself to do it. But even I know just how hard the “documentarists” hit on the angle of whether or not Carol Baskin killed her husband in the 90’s. And who knows, maybe she did. But with how popular the series got, every other person must be speculating this woman’s life with zero evidence.
This is definitely the other side of the previous coin; true crime, by definition, needs to have a story, an angle. And the worst examples of cold case content always discards presenting a lot of evidence in favor of serving the angle. And then people who don’t look any further, decide someone’s guilt or innocence based on that narrative presented by whoever they were listening/watching/reading. It’s like the very worst things about living in a small town, just writ on an international scale.
If you’ve never heard this word before, it’s a portmanteau of cop and propaganda. And a lot of true crime content is frankly worshipful of cops. Sometimes to the point where it gets uncomfortable for me. I have this same thing happen to me with fictional crime shows; I binge for a while, and then it just starts to grate me. Sooner or later, someone wants to throw their suspect’s rights into the bin and I check out.
When I was a teenager, a female cop wrote an opinion piece in the country’s biggest newspaper. She wanted to say that women who go to certain places after dark want to get raped. That was a very unlovely reminder to me early on about how as a woman, I am expected to be responsible for other people’s actions. I didn’t grok it until years later, of course. At the time it just felt uncomfortable, but I couldn’t explain why. And that, I think, is another thing that’s redeemable about true crime. Beyond the feeling of superiority, true crime media allows us the chance to do practice runs in our minds for how we would act in the situation.
Practice runs in the mind’s eye are simply good. What do you do when this happens? What about this? Sometimes in the heat of the moment all your good plans fly out of your head, but more often, having that small trial allows you to keep your cool.
Is it good or bad?
It’s shades of grey. Isn’t everything? I will absolutely keep consuming true crime media. It appeals to something dark in me that I am not even sure I want to squash, even if I could. But I will continue to be frustrated with it as well.