Though children in masks going door-to-door begging for candy might be wrapped up for another year, real horrors occur every day.
Whether it is a missing person or a murder, these events serve as the fodder for true crime books, television shows, documentaries, movies and podcasts.
If you want to hear about the worst cases of humanity, just belly up to the smorgasbord of content that exists because society seems to have an insatiable appetite for these stories.
Personally, I love true crime content, and I am not alone.
New York Times opinion writer Jane Coaston said she is “obsessed” with it because of the storytelling.
“The genre itself is driven by telling the real stories of horrifying events that ruined or even ended the lives of real people,” she said on the Oct. 27 episode of her podcast, “The Argument.”
I love hearing the stories of others, and when a crime is involved, the interest level is only ratcheted up.
Other people in my world are equally enthralled with the genre. My wife Kendall, my friend Nicky Schafer and my colleague Micah Oelze are also avid fans.
I’ve known Nicky to listen to, among others, the “My Favorite Murder” podcast and even attend a live event for the program.
Kendall told me about her obsession with the stories, too.
“I like the mystery behind true crime and that it allows me to be in on finding out what happened to these people,” she said. “While listening to or watching true crime, I feel an array of emotions, from excitement and suspense to sadness, disappointment, or joy, depending on the cases. I can become completely engrossed.”
Personally, my favorites include the television show “Dateline” and podcasts such as “S-Town” and “Serial,” which in season one’s 2014 debut reexamined the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Maryland and arguably reinvigorated the world of podcasting.
Kendall prefers podcasts, but she also watches programming on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.
“My favorite podcast is called ‘Anatomy of Murder,’ followed closely by ‘Sword and Scale.’ A new podcast has piqued my interest, as of late. It’s called ‘Body Bags,’ and I really got into that when they were discussing the Gabby Petito case and what the possibilities were for the means and cause of her death,” she said. “‘Anatomy of Murder’ is always my go-to. I look forward to Wednesdays when a new episode drops. The hosts are extremely knowledgeable on the topic of true crime and the cases they showcase because one was a detective and is now an investigative journalist, and the other was a former prosecuting attorney. They shine a light on the lives of the victims of the crimes, speak with the family and friends of the victim, give the hard facts in the case, and bring an inside look into the case from the eyes of professionals in the field.”
Micah’s true crime consumption really comes down to one podcast — “The Last Podcast on the Left.”
“The show is well researched and brings in elements of comedy while also reaming respectful to the victims of the crimes,” he said. “I think the hosts are the most intriguing part. Marcus Parks and his assistants often due most of the research; Henry Zebrowski brings in some additional research and most of the comedic elements; Ben Kissel essentially fill the role of the listener in the conversation not having done much research at all but instead reacting to a lot of what is going on and asking the questions we as listeners might ask. This helps to keep the show entertaining while being educational as well.”
But why are we, and society as a whole judging by the growth in the genre, so entranced by these types of stories?
It has come down to a bit of voyeurism. For the same reasons people rubberneck when driving past a car crash, we want to catch a glimpse into the lives of headline-making crimes.
Despite the appeals, the genre does come with some baggage.
Elon Green’s August 2020 article for The Appeal said true crime is dominated by white people. This isn’t to say other races don’t get in on the act; however, the subjects of the stories are usually white victims, and the producers are usually while individuals.
In 2004, Gwen Ifill, a groundbreaking journalist who was the first Black woman to host a nationally televised public affairs program before she died in 2016, coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome.”
As NPR’s Gene Demby reported in 2017, this idea “refers to the mainstream media’s seeming fascination with covering missing or endangered white women — like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway — and its seeming disinterest in cases involving missing people of color.”
The Gabby Petito case highlighted this issue.
The search for the 22-year-old, white Petito overshadowed any other missing person case that might have been going on at the time.
For example, Fox 5 Atlanta reported that six other bodies were found during the search for Petito and her fiance Brian Laundrie.
It’s worse for people from marginalized communities, such as Indigenous people.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming found that between 2011 and 2020, 710 Indigenous people went missing. However, they were unlikely to receive any media coverage. The research found that 76% of articles about missing people were about white individuals, compared to 42% that were about Indigenous people.
Furthermore, the 2021 study showed, articles about missing Indigenous people typically appeared only after the person had been found dead, and those articles rarely included a photo of the individual, unlike those about white people. Also, the stories about Indigenous people emphasized “negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself,” while white victims were only portrayed in a positive light.
In 2016, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology published an article by Zach Sommers that, in looking at missing person coverage at four major news outlets, found Black people were “significantly underrepresented in the population of missing persons who received coverage from these four websites when compared to the black subset of the FBI population.”
There is also concern about what true crime does to our perceptions about the world around us.
Speaking with NPR in 2016, media researcher Nikki Usher said “the news media has always over-reported violent crime,” which leads to “an effect called the mean world syndrome. People who spend a lot of time with media content tend to think the world is a more violent place regardless of where that violence actually takes place.”
In 2003, research published in the Journal of Communication found consumption of news or other content that discussed crime resulted in a four-fold increase of perceptions that the world was a dangerous place.
On the other hand, though, true crime content can do more than marginalize or scare people. It can teach us.
On The Media, a weekly media criticism radio show and podcast produced by WNYC Studios, discussed how podcasts by former gangsters give us insight into how the criminal mind works. Apparently, there is a cottage industry of former “wise guys” regaling the internet with tales from their glory days.
Writing for The Guardian in April 2021, Amelia Tait pointed out that those interested in true crime cases have become amateur sleuths and have contributed to solving crimes, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.
This trend speaks to the appeal of true crime. As Tait said, “online sleuthing seems to sate a deeper, natural curiosity about other people.”
Also, as one of the guests on “The Argument” pointed out, true crime has educated people about the criminal justice system. Now more people have an idea about how the process works, and they can be better advocates for themselves.
Still, at the end of the day and despite the misgivings of the genre, true crime is entertaining. That’s the major appeal.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, Kendall finds true crime to be uplifting.
“It shows that even though there is evil in the world, there is so, so much good,” she said. “People go out of their way to help complete strangers, devote their lives to solving crimes and putting horrible people behind bars, and some even start networks focused on identifying missing people or foundations dedicated to funding search efforts or funeral costs.”
For Micah, true crime can also be informative in a way that shines a light on the shadowy aspects of society.
“A good true crime program is something that presents all facts in a non-manipulative manner, cites their sources (unless it is something fictional like Fincher’s ‘Zodiac,’ but even that is based off a book), and is educational and entertaining,” he said.
So if you have some Halloween candy left, consider indulging yourself while watching or listening to a true crime show. Just remember, for every case that you hear about, countless others are being ignored. Don’t lose sight of that. Those people are important and have families too.
Todd Vogts is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.