I don’t want to see another sweet romance on the Hallmark Channel. I already know they all end the same – she picks the charming hometown hunk instead of the rich city guy! I’m not interested in syrupy love stories. I don’t care if the kind but cautious widower with the precocious kids finally finds love again with the quirky, yet endearing nanny. No way.
When I sit down on my sofa with a big bowl of popcorn after a long day at work, I am out for blood. I want death, destruction, and mayhem. Bring on the high body counts and grisly crime scenes. Give me the story of a man with six wives, three of whom died mysteriously, two that haven’t been found, and one who got away to tell her chilling tale. And make it real.
I like to watch what I affectionately refer to as “murder shows.” I am a faithful devotee of the ID Channel and I listen to every podcast about cold cases, missing persons, and serial killers that I can find. I always regarded this habit as a guilty pleasure, or worse, a sort of dirty secret that I dared not discuss in polite company lest I scare nice people. You know, the ones who only watch made-for-TV romantic comedies.
Recently I’ve discovered that I am definitely not alone. There aren’t a thousand podcasts about gruesome slayings because no one’s listening, if you know what I mean. My friends all watch murder shows too. When we get together we discuss them in great detail, and usually as if we actually know the people involved in the harrowing tales.
“Can you believe she actually accepted a ride from him?” we ask in utter disbelief.
“If a man with a broken leg on a deserted road at three am flags you down to help him with his flat tire, DON’T STOP!” we cry.
“NEVER GO TO THE SECOND LOCATION!” we chant in unison.
For what it’s worth, my friends and I have also vowed never to date a man with the last name Peterson, and we have a lot of viable theories regarding the identity of the Zodiac Killer if anyone’s interested.
I started wondering why these dark, disturbing stories are so appealing to me and 98 percent of the people I know. I asked around and what I’ve concluded is pretty surprising. This isn’t about dehumanizing the victims and their grieving families and it definitely isn’t about glamorizing homicidal maniacs and criminals. We aren’t consuming this content because we get the sick thrill as the perpetrators. It’s more complicated than that.
Murder shows help us feel safer.
I know. On the surface this sounds absurd, especially when that documentary about BTK literally kept me awake at night for weeks. I’m still having nightmares about a podcast I listened to regarding the case of PeeWee Gaskins, a raving, cannibalistic psychopath who claims to have killed hundreds of people.
When we watch murder shows, we get to see the tricks that predators use to lure their victims so we aren’t so vulnerable. I feel empowered knowing how sociopaths groom their prey. I know what fatal mistakes to avoid, like drive to a very public location and ask for solid proof if you’re pulled over by someone claiming to be an undercover cop.
Modern life can be worrisome, complicated, and chaotic, and it’s stressful. Most of my peers suffer from varying degrees of anxiety, and it seems like murder shows help us process some of our fears and excess emotions. Think of it like riding a roller coaster. It’s a safe way to get scared, because the whole time you know nothing truly bad is happening. It makes us feel more in control of our fear. If the content gets too intense we can change the channel or switch to a more lighthearted podcast.
Enjoying a good tale of real-life macabre provides an adrenaline rush. Most of the time the duties of everyday life are tedious – filling out forms, endless paperwork, taking care of our families, commuting to and from work. We need some extra stimulation and thrills, and watching, listening, and even reading about true crime is an easy, accessible way to add some excitement to the monotony without taking risks that might have consequences.
In a world that often seems unfair, a lot of people today want to know that justice still exists. We’ve been affected by criminals or know someone who has, and we want to do something to fix it or at least better understand it. My interest in true crime can be traced to three shocking events that occurred when I was in high school. When I was in ninth grade, Steven Brian Pennell, infamously known as the Corridor Killer, used the apartment complex where we lived at the time as a dumping ground. Two years later, my cousin, a college student in North Carolina, was brutally stabbed to death by a stranger who broke into her off-campus apartment. Soon after that, when my family moved to Florida, the entire state became paralyzed with fear as Danny Rolling, the Gainesville Ripper, viciously mutilated five students in one week.
These tragedies left an indelible mark on my spirit. Because of them, I feel a kinship to the stories I hear about on murder shows. I don’t want anyone’s senseless loss to have been in vain. I want the missing to be found. I don’t want them to be forgotten and I don’t want their killers to get away with what they’ve done. Finding out “whodunnit” provides that sense of justice that I seek.
Romantic comedies always have happy endings, but murder shows never do. Like millions of other people, I am fascinated (possibly obsessed) with true crime stories, but it’s not so much about seeing tragedy as entertainment. We’re working through our fears and empowering ourselves with knowledge in an attempt to make sense of unspeakable acts so they don’t happen again.