As the journalist Rachelle Hampton told The Appeal’s Elon Green back in 2020, true crime “frames the justice system as inherently just, and it frames long prison sentences as something to aspire toward.”
True crime may be based in reality, but it portrays a fictitious world, where every Uber driver is going to kill you, every colleague is a secret murderer, and the landscape of America is far more violent than it actually is. (It is perhaps unsurprising that I heard an ad for a security system during an episode of one of my favorite true crime podcasts on a recent morning.)
But the makers of true crime are responding to audience demand — an audience of which I am a part. When I listen to a true crime podcast or read books about the Manson Family murders, I am, for my enjoyment, listening to people’s worst moments.
On my long runs, or while I wait for a train, I listen to true crime podcasts with titles like “Serial Killers,” “Crime Junkie” and “Medical Murders,” engrossed in the stories of the worst possible people committing the worst possible acts for my own entertainment. I want the crimes to be brutal, I want the case to be complex, even labyrinthine, and then I want to take off my headphones and go on with my day.
But for the families of the people touched by these horrific crimes, the stories of what happened to their loved ones never really end. In an interview with Time magazine, Rosalee Clark, a woman based in Australia whose brother, stepfather and mother were brutally murdered in 2014, said, “We’re treated as fodder. We’re fuel for people’s fascination.”
In true crime, the victims can recede into the background, while the people who killed them are given primacy. Filmmakers make movies about serial killers and the people who hunt them — but rarely do we see the stories of the people they killed: what their lives were like, what their dreams for the future were, the families they loved.
I asked Morrison how he is able to speak to people in their darkest moments. He told me that when he was a young reporter, an editor asked him to interview the widow of a crossing guard who was hit by a car and killed. He came “perilously close” to quitting. “The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to land in on somebody in the moment of her most intense grief and ask all these invasive questions.”