For those of us who have fond childhood memories of telling ghost stories at sleepovers — Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, anyone? — it seems to track that, as adults, many of us still carry a deep-seated fascination with unsettling narratives. Over the years, though, there have been plenty of studies pointing to an overwhelming link between women (specifically white millennial and Gen X women) and their ever-increasing fascination with the true crime genre, in any medium.
I can relate. My true crime fixation used to make me uncomfortable. As a kid, I fancied myself a horror writer. Over time, I started watching American Justice and Cold Case Files with my dad — I was mesmerized by the blood spatter analysts breaking down a crime scene and the trial footage with lawyers doing their best to outwit one another to sway the jury. It was haunting, it was sad, but it was also interesting.
Growing up, the boys I had crushes on thought my interest in it was weird while my girlfriends thought it was too creepy, so I usually just kept quiet about it. But then something started to shift more than a decade ago — all of a sudden Serial broke onto the scene and the name Adnan Syed was on everyone’s lips. Suddenly, there was an influx of true crime podcasts, books and documentaries. People, especially women, became more vocal about their interest in the genre. So, what exactly changed? We turned to an expert for some answers.
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Why are women disproportionately more interested in true crime than men?
Western society has always had a bit of a morbid fascination with true crime. In 19th century Britain, a multitude of crime newspapers and magazines were published, from the Illustrated Police News to every lurid detail regarding the Jack the Ripper murders. There was always a willing and eager audience ready to gobble it up. In North America, the 1970s kicked off the uncomfortably named “golden age of serial killers” when the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Kenneth Bianchi were all active and loose on the streets. There was an appetite for those stories of horror and savagery, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that researchers and psychologists noticed a link between women and true crime that was previously overlooked.
Which is why Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, co-conducted an extensive study back in 2010 titled, Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?
Although her research was completed before documentaries such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst made waves (even Serial was still four years into the future at the time), Vicary points out that her initial observations about women and true crime have remained the same in the last decade.
“Although my original study was conducted on true crime books, I firmly believe the results would remain the same whether I studied podcasts, television shows [and] documentaries,” she said. “If you look at the statistics regarding crime podcast listeners, you’ll see that it skews heavily female. It’s clear that women are into true crime, regardless of the specific medium.”
For Vicary, her own interest in true crime also started at a young age. “My mom used to read true crime and got me hooked when I was about 12,” she recalls. “I read everything by Ann Rule throughout grade school and high school. When I was in graduate school, I was originally studying romantic relationships, but my advisor encouraged me to follow my passion and study crime.”
In 2018, the podcast Wine and Crime revealed that women make up a whopping 85 per cent of their audience, which aligns with a study released the same year that found 73 per cent of true crime podcast listeners — in general — are women.
The true crime community likely follows along with the focus of the media, and we know the media likes to cover stories of young white women that go missing or are murdered.
But it runs deeper than that. There’s been many published reports on the fact that it appears to be predominantly white women who can’t help but devour books and podcasts on unsolved mysteries or the likes of Ted Bundy. In the article “The Racial Bias of True Crime: Why is Murder Marketed to White Women?”, Metro UK delved into the ‘why’ of it all. Their theory? Chalk it up to media bias when it comes to which cases to feature. Add to that the fact that the victims of notorious serial killers such as Joseph James DeAngelo and Ted Bundy targeted white women and you’ve got a morbid industry that now involves podcasters selling their own merchandise with slogans such as “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered” (My Favorite Murder) and “Be Weird, Be Rude, Stay Alive” (Crime Junkie) plastered all over t-shirts, magnets and mugs.
“I think the true crime community likely follows along with the focus of the media, and we know the media likes to cover stories of young white women that go missing or are murdered,” Vicary says when asked about a possible racial bias. “These are the cases that get the attention and then get covered by true crime podcasts and shows. However, just in the past six months, I’ve seen networks make an effort to focus more on cases of people of colour.”
Although the change is gradual and there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done so that victims are treated equally in the press and the public, HBO’s recent four-part documentary Black and Missing and Somebody’s Daughter, about missing and murdered Indigenous women, have been making waves in recent weeks.
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Is the true crime genre exploitative?
There have been times where I’ve grappled with feelings of guilt over my own strong interest in the genre. Years ago, I remember trying to listen to My Favorite Murder back when I was searching for a new podcast to listen to and was thrown off when, during a live recording with an audience, the mostly female crowd burst into wild, concert-like applause when the hosts announced they’d be talking about Ted Bundy for that episode. It felt gross, wrong, tacky. It felt too much like entertainment. When did we become so desensitized? At what point does the true crime genre become exploitative and reflect poorly on how we choose to consume this content?
“I have this discussion with my husband all the time,” Vicary says. “‘Don’t you feel bad being involved with all this stuff?’ he’ll ask. But I think the true crime genre varies quite a bit. There are podcasts and shows that have the full support of the victims of their family members. There are documentaries and podcasts focused on finding missing people or exposing wrongful convictions. I think the true crime community can do a lot of good.”
She adds, “That said, there are podcasts out there that have the reputation of being exploitative — playing audio recordings of murders or graphic 911 calls. It seems these are less popular amongst the standard true crime crowd, [though].”
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True crime helps women understand the criminal mindset
Whether you’re reading a book or listening to a podcast, most true crime stories are steeped in details, in addition to breaking down the killer’s every move. What triggered the attack? Did the victim know her killer? If there was a survivor, how did they escape? We want to know.
Women watch true crime so they don’t feel quite so alone. Their fear is validated and unsanitized.
Toronto-based psychotherapist Liza Finlay has a couple of ideas as to why women, in particular, are so drawn to the genre. “Women watch true crime so they don’t feel quite so alone,” she says. “Their fear is validated and unsanitized. Women watch… so they can learn [to] arm themselves and thus protect themselves. Women watch to feel empowered.”
It’s a notion that Vicary concurs with, based on her own research. “My studies found that people are drawn to true crime [stories] that have elements related to survival, whether it be understanding what motivates the killer or how to escape if being held kidnapped,” she says. “This draw was larger for women than men. My guess is that women are learning from these stories, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. That is part of the appeal.”
The fact that there are so many stories about the “women and true crime” phenomenon that it had me wondering: if it were reversed, and it was men who predominantly consumed this genre in any format, would we even be batting an eye? Why do people keep asking why women like true crime, instead of accepting it as plain fact?
“That’s a good question. The stereotypes of women are that they are perhaps the more delicate gender,” Vicary says. “Indeed, research has shown that women tend to be more disgusted by gory experiences and things like that, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that women would want to read about people being murdered. But at this point, the research and statistics are pretty clear that women like true crime. Maybe eventually that finding won’t be so surprising anymore.”
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How to feed your interest in true crime without allowing it to become exploitative
If you’re anything like me and find yourself navigating a delicate balance between your interest in true crime and not appearing too eager to consume these types of stories, there are ways to keep the interest alive by consciously selecting non-exploitative narratives that support victims and their families.
Instead of partaking in tasteless, insensitive money-grabs such as CrimeCon and the home renovation series Murder House Flip or icky podcasts that revel in playing prolonged audio recordings of human suffering (think: the controversy-riddled Sword and Scale), research which podcasts, books and documentaries are actually putting in good work to help bring justice to a grieving family. Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas:
- Missing and Murdered — podcast hosted by Cree investigative journalist Connie Walker
- The Vanished — podcast host Marissa Jones works with police and victims’ families
- Crime Beat — podcast hosted by Global News Calgary crime reporter Nancy Hixt
- CBC’s Uncover — where each season of the podcast does a deep-dive into a different case
- Black and Missing — four-part HBO documentary miniseries
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