I have been absolutely fascinated by the true crime genre for as long as I can remember, but I had never thought about why. This nonfiction genre is far-reaching and encompasses many mediums. There are books like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, podcasts like My Favourite Murder and a plethora of tv series you can stream on Netflix.
True crime, more specifically the real life stories that focus on murders and abductions, have captivated audiences for years. And I think I may know why.
The theory comes from a true crime episode of the podcast, Say More. Poet and co-host Olivia Gatwood puts forward the idea that women consume true crime because it could happen to them.
Many women not only can empathize with the victims, but can see themselves reflected in their faces and habits. Many women also grow up being warned of the dangers of back alleys and strangers. Hearing this, I knew it was right. I listen to true crime and I too try to learn how to avoid the same fate as the victims.
If you type “missing woman” into Google, the results will inevitably show articles and images of those who have disappeared. They are often young, attractive white women. The most notorious murderers, such as Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper and Gary Ridgeway, have all preyed on young white women.
There is this common narrative misconception of ‘the white woman murdered by a stranger.’
In reality, people of colour are much more likely to go missing than white people in the United States, where most of these true crime stories come from. But these stories don’t get the same amount of traction. Prolific serial killer Samuel Little claims he murdered 90 individuals, with the majority of his victims being black women.
Or what about Canada’s infamous serial killer Robert Pickton, who claims to have murdered 49 women on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Many of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous women.
There are other limitations to the commonly-reported statistics. They don’t often include other factors, such as gender identity or sexual orientation. Samuel Little claims that one of his first victims was a young black trans woman and her body was never recovered.
The myth of stranger murder is also inaccurate. Women are statistically more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by any other type of offender.
Misrepresentations by the genre aside, why are so many fascinated by such a morbid and tragic genre? I can think of one reason: control. Knowing how other women have been victimized and avoiding those things makes us feel safe and in control.
But maybe it is not about control. Is it possible that we are also fascinated with being confronted with our own mortality? Or are we trying to prepare for what we feel is the inevitable attack?
When I first moved to the city, I started talking on the phone while walking home at night. I believed that surely, if I was speaking to someone, then I was safe. Then I learned about the murder of Dru Sjodin, an American woman who was chosen by her attacker because she was on the phone. It’s been speculated that she was distracted by her conversation, making her an easy target. I haven’t talked on the phone on a walk home since.
I listen to true crime podcasts or watch videos on the subject and I find that I take note of what made the victim vulnerable. I know how women become victimized and how killers get away with their crimes, and I think this makes me feel safer. I don’t think that this is an uncommon experience, but it is an illusory one. Some women do everything right and still fall victim to violence. You can take all the notes in the world and it may not help you survive.
True crime has changed how I approach and vet the men I meet. I have accumulated a list of red flags that I look for in men in my life and in the lives of my friends. So perhaps true crime does provide women some sort of control in that we know what to look for. Maybe it helps us spot the danger, especially if we listen to true crime stories involving intimate partner violence.
I have one red flag test when it comes to men. If a man ever casually mentions a fascination with men like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, or even Sid Vicious, I ask him why. If he talks about their psychology and their lives, he’s probably okay.
If he talks about their crimes or refers to them with any sort of hero-worship, I run. This should not need to be said, but we see violent men idolized violent men over and over again — fictional and real — from Tyler Durden to Donald Trump, who has been vocal in his violent treatment towards women with comments such as “Grab her by the pussy” and has faced no repercussions.
This is my litmus test. Listening to true crime may not protect us from crime, but listening to those close to us talk about true crime might. In this way, the genre could still provide us the control and safety we are looking for.
Amber Adrian Jackson
Graphic: Nykole King/ Editor-in-Chief