True Crime Is Rotting Our Brains

I would sooner get stabbed again than have someone make a podcast about me

Oana Gherghe / 500px/500px/Getty Images
Emma Berquist
You Shouldn't Have a Favorite Murder

I was having outdoor drinks with my girlfriends when one of them mentioned her plan to do some solo backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. “Please be careful,” another friend said. “I’ve watched way too much Dateline.” Later, while checking Twitter, I ran across a Nextdoor post detailing the saga of a woman who rang someone’s doorbell and asked for a Band-Aid. She was driving a black Mercedes-Benz, the post continued; was it possible she could be scouting the place to rob later? The comments agreed that it was highly suspicious; no one pointed out that most thieves would probably not case a neighborhood in a Mercedes with a clearly visible license plate. My breaking point came when Newsweek, a magazine with 3.4 million Twitter followers, reported that an internet sleuth had discovered “disturbing” footage of Brian Laundrie, then a suspect in the death of his fiancé, reading the novel Annihilation and provided it as proof he had murderous intentions.

I say this as someone who’s been obsessed with the genre since watching Paradise Lost and learning about the West Memphis Three: it’s time to admit that true crime has rotted our brains.

With the exception of a spike in murders in 2020 that coincided with Covid, major crime has been steadily decreasing for 18 years. Even with the spike, murder rates are a third of what they were in the ’90s. You are more likely to die from heart disease or a car crash than you are from being murdered. And in the U.S., men are far likelier to be homicide victims than women. But listening to true crime podcasts, you would never suspect this. Most of the audience and the hosts themselves are female, and most cases covered by true crime podcasts are about women. It’s making women paranoid.

Pointing this out doesn’t always go over well. In August, my friend Sam tweeted that true crime “is so obviously designed to make you buckle in terror whenever you leave the house.” He was immediately inundated with quote tweets claiming that of course a man couldn’t understand the threats women face on a daily basis, the tweeters either ignoring his profile picture or unaware that Black men in America face a much higher risk of victimization.

I’m not oblivious to violence against women, on the contrary, I am intimately familiar with it. I’ve written and spoken extensively about my own attack, when I was stabbed multiple times by a stranger while walking my dog. But anecdotes aren’t data, and the fact remains that statistically, what happened to me is incredibly rare. That didn’t stop multiple tabloid magazines from emailing me after it happened, asking for interviews. When I looked them up I found articles devoted almost exclusively to crimes against white women with titles such as “My Boyfriend Killed and Ate His Secret Lover” and “My Hubby’s Killer was Hiding in the Wardrobe.” The covers are splashy, sensational, the message clear: danger is all around you. This isn’t new, but what used to be contained mainly on supermarket check-out shelves is now everywhere: on our TVs, on our computers, in our ears. “You’re in danger,” says the new Netflix documentary. “Someone could be outside your door right now,” warns the neighborhood surveillance app. “This dead woman thought she was safe,” chirps the cheerful podcast lady.

That message is one that I now have to fight back against, my brain determined to lie to me. Hypervigilance is a common symptom of PTSD, a trauma response that constantly puts your body into fight-or-flight mode. I have to tell myself that it’s ok to have someone walking a few steps behind me, that no one is waiting for me to let my guard down. In the first few months after my attack, I would panic hearing someone at my back. I bought a personal safety device, something that I could press to send a loud alarm that’s supposed to scare attackers off. Once my car keys fell out of my pocket and the noise might as well have been a gunshot the way I reacted. It got easier the more I went out, but it took me half a year to be able to go for a walk with my earbuds in again. All these things — constantly looking behind you, carrying a safety device, always being hyper-aware — these aren’t normal ways to live. It’s not healthy, and it’s certainly not sustainable. And yet I see women proclaiming that this is necessary, that this is the way you need to move through the world as a woman. I see women choosing to live the way I’m fighting to overcome.

Crime stories are a fundamentally conservative way of looking at the world. Republicans bleat about high crime rates in lawless liberal cities because someone stole a toothbrush from a CVS. Suburban crime paranoia is as old as the suburbs themselves — hell, it’s why they exist to begin with. The reactionary basis of true crime is how you end up with ostensibly liberal podcast hosts defending the death penalty and arguing against double jeopardy protections. It’s easy and correct to condemn Fox News for increasing our grandparents’ blood pressure, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear about roving gangs of MS-13 coming to their gated communities, but we should also consider that other demographics might be susceptible to fear-stoking propaganda. How can we listen to story after story of women being abducted or murdered and expect it to not have an effect on our psyche? A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that fear of crime and violence on television have both increased over time, despite crime rates declining, and that women reported more fear of crime on surveys than men. True crime runs on heightened emotion and fear, convincing people, and especially women, that every stranger is a possible murderer. I see women on Twitter questioning whether it’s safe to let a plumber into their house, or instructing others to rip out strands of hair to leave in cabs for DNA evidence in case the driver murders you. These are not sensible reactions, they are the thoughts of someone who has been deeply traumatized. So many true crime shows advise women to trust their instincts, but how can we trust instincts that have been hijacked by induced anxiety?

“Stay sexy don’t get murdered,” is the tagline of one of the most popular true crime podcasts, as if being murdered is a choice women make, or a risk that can be avoided if we’re just smart enough. Women aren’t stupid; we don’t walk down dark alleys alone while wearing stilettoes and lamenting loudly about how no one would miss us if we disappeared. We all take precautions, we lock our doors and let our friends know where we’re going. “Be aware of your surroundings and don’t trust strangers” is not particularly helpful advice for avoiding the one scenario in which women are most likely to actually be murdered: by their partner. It’s victim blaming dressed up in empowerment; no one questions someone killed in a car accident, but if a woman is murdered her story becomes a precaution.

Take the reaction to Gabby Petito’s disappearance. Her Instagram account has been combed through by amateur internet sleuths accustomed to seeing stories like Gabby’s tidied up and parceled out by Netflix for public consumption and discourse. One user commented that her fiancé’s enjoyment of Fight Club was a red flag, and that someone who liked the Joker and Harley Quinn probably glorifies violence. Another user suggested his Spotify playlist was concerning. “If only she’d kept driving,” someone else wrote. The implication of these comments, of course, is that Gabby should have seen these warning signs and protected herself. She should have been paying attention to stories like her own. These users would have been smarter, they’re saying. This is the message that young women are internalizing, that hypervigilance will keep you safe, that being in a constant state of anxiety is simply a fact of life and not something to work on with your therapist.

I think, somewhat horrifyingly, of what the internet sleuths would find on my own Instagram if I hadn’t survived my attack. Would my story have been the kind that was featured on a podcast, two bantering hosts dissecting my life and my book choices in between plugging ads for affordable furniture? I think I would rather get stabbed again than have TikTok users descend like vultures on my social media, zooming in on pictures of my messy bedroom to analyze the tedious minutia of my deeply average life. Looking for warning signs, trying to find a way to convince yourself you’d survive is normal, a natural response to the paranoia and anxiety these stories inspire.

But instead of trying to exert control, it’s more instructive to examine that need and where it comes from. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life, something we accept in so many circumstances. The most rational way to avoid violence would be to never be in a relationship and stay away from your family members, but none of us are willing to give those things up. We know there’s a chance we could die every time we cross the street near a self-driving Tesla, but we manage that fear, we fold it into a life that requires street crossing. Human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-delusion; it’s hard wired into us, the only way we can function with the knowledge of our own mortality. We look for a way to live without fear of dying, a way to outwit danger, but all we’ve done is make ourselves more paranoid and allowed the Investigation Discovery channel to run more than 70 shows with titles like Murder is Forever.

I read on a thread in the reddit community of a popular true crime podcast that Ted Bundy preyed on the natural instinct people have to help. He pretended to be injured so women would find him less threatening and would have a harder time saying no to him. Something to trust your gut on, yes, but do we really want to let Ted Bundy become our yardstick for humanity? The skull fucker guy? If the woman who found me bleeding on the footpath thought I was faking, I don’t know what I would have done. She directed the paramedics over the phone, stayed with me until they arrived. The one fact I can cling to when fear threatens to override my empathy is that there are more people like her than people like the man who hurt me. It isn’t naïve or reckless to trust one another. That stranger walking behind you doesn’t want to kill you; in fact, they may just save your life.

Emma Berquist is the author of Devils Unto Dust and Missing, Presumed Dead. She lives in Texas with her small mean dog.