Recently, though, I’ve found myself newly attracted to the genre. And it’s clear that I’m not the only one: True crime is having, as they say, a moment. There’s a boom in the genre across media, from books to television to podcasting, and it’s clear that women are the target audience.
A 2010 study found that around 70 percent of Amazon reviews of true-crime books are by women (compared with books about war, where 82 percent of the reviews are by men). Something is going on here, but what? Men, the statistics tell us, are involved in violent crime — as perpetrators and victims alike — in much larger numbers than women. When women are connected to crime, we’re much more likely to be victims or survivors. Perhaps our fascination with these stories stems in part from wanting to learn from them. If a woman escaped her attacker in this particular way, we think, perhaps I could too.
On the popular true-crime podcast “My Favorite Murder,” the hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, trade horror stories. Sometimes they present the crimes they discuss as cautionary tales. Both hosts are irreverent, silly and self-deprecating. But they’re serious, too, especially when talking about their struggles with anxiety and depression. When they dig into the creepiest bits of their stories, their curiosity feels like permission to feel our own. They reminisce about moments of vulnerability, adolescent walks through lonely fields, that time your friends left you alone at a drunken party, that night you forgot to lock your front door. They talk, sometimes with tears in their voices, about the strength of survivors and the need to mourn even — or especially — the kind of victims society discounts. They sign off with a catchphrase (now the title of their new book): “Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered.”
Some will say that true crime as a genre is hopelessly compromised. They will say it’s exploitive, ugly, prurient, voyeuristic. As Susan Sontag wrote in “Regarding the Pain of Others,” “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Her subject is war and its photography, but I think there’s a similar warning that true-crime audiences should heed. Any assumption of identification and solidarity is fraught, especially in a world in which white female victims are elevated to an almost cult status, while women of color, who are murdered at a higher rate, are too often ignored.
And yet, in the best true crime there’s a quality of the fairy tale or fable: a simple story that reveals powerful, complicated truths. “Hansel and Gretel” is a true-crime story: Their father and stepmother abandon them; the witch tries to murder them. Why do children love that scary tale? Because the fear is a thrill, because they can imagine themselves in the same situation and they like the useful advice about bread crumbs and white pebbles. And because in the end justice is served — evil is vanquished and the lost children make their way home.