Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Alexis Lira

My interest in true crime began at a young age. I’d scour the internet for the macabre: tales of Albert Fish eating babies, articles about the (mostly) men who did terrible things to women, and the occasional crime scene photo.

I can talk about serial killers like how my husband gushes about Star Trek or Star Wars. My ability to school people at parties with my knowledge of Ted Bundy or the Golden State Killer has everything to do with my childhood desire to become Dana Scully. I don’t laud these mediocre white men. I want to outsmart them.

It felt like I had found a like-minded community. The snappy chit chat that went on between the hosts of the show, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, was easy listening. The lighthearted way they talked about death and murder was refreshing. Sign me up!

My Favorite Murder was also the first place I heard women talk about the empowerment of “f*ck politeness.” Heck yes. F*ck being polite!

I listened to the dispensed advice and felt smug about the fact that I already did most of the things intended to keep me safe: locking doors, checking the backseats of cars, sleeping with the windows shut. After listening to the hundreds of tragic stories, it all seemed obvious to someone who was already hyperaware. How could something bad ever happen to me if my brain was an armory of knowledge and murder facts?

But inundating my psyche with horrible stories eventually had the opposite effect. As I continued to consume MFM episodes, countless other true crime podcasts, Netflix documentaries about murderous husbands, and seasons of Forensic Files, the feeling of empowerment faded.

Since the release of the ultra popular Serial podcast, helmed by podcaster-extraordinaire Sarah Koenig, true crime has exploded into pop culture. People have always been horny for murder content, but today, the genre is on a roll. Apple Podcast charts don’t remain static for very long, but there’s nary a week that goes by without at least one true crime show in the top 10.

The genre is so popular now, Apple finally created a whole separate category for true crime podcasts. A quick look at Netflix’s true crime offerings is just as revealing. If you’re just getting into the genre, there’s enough content there to last you a while.

True crime content varies wildly. Some take journalistic integrity seriously, and then there’s the stuff produced expressly for entertainment value. There’s trashy, streamable documentaries, heavily plagiarized podcasts and deep investigative dives into stories that have received little attention from the media. There’s also content that falls somewhere in between.

People f*cking love true crime. One of the experts I contacted for this piece, Erin Parisi, a licensed mental health counselor and Master’s Level Certified Addictions Professional (MCAP), talked to me about her interest in the genre. In our conversation, we instantly clicked.

Parisi often didn’t have to elaborate when she referenced a serial killer or specific piece of true crime-related media. I immediately recognized and understood her fascination. When I asked her why people are drawn to true crime, she cited curiosity, fascination, and a desire to make sense of things.

She also pointed out that learning “how to avoid being one of those people” (aka being a victim) was a big reason for wanting to tune in.

Women make up a large portion of the true crime fan base. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that women are more attracted to stories where women are the victims. There’s a preparatory appeal to identifying with the victim.

We believe that if we educate ourselves, we might be able to avoid the situation depicted. There’s a tinge of victim-blaming inherent in this kind of thinking, though. As Parisi puts it, “the truth is that for so many of the victims… they didn’t do anything wrong. They were victimized anyway… you can do everything right and still have something happen.”

And yet — even though we can’t really ever be prepared for random acts of violence — consuming true crime satisfies an “always be prepared” mentality.

I confessed to Parisi that true crime bothers me most when women are the victims. She suggests that the link between true crime and anxiety depends partly on the person, but anxiety is more likely to result when the victim is someone you can identify with.

According to Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist whom I communicated with via email, “identifying with a victim is a form of expressing empathy.” But over-empathizing, in any situation, has the ability to negatively impact your overall emotional state.

“Especially for those who experience some level of PTSD as a result of being victimized,” explained licensed psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens in our email exchange.

There’s a limit to how much you can burden yourself with emotionally while remaining mentally healthy.

A lot of true crime, in addition to being horrific, is also incredibly depressing. Stories of persons wrongfully convicted, tales of parents killing their young children, chronicles of injustice within the criminal justice system… it all gets to a person after a while.

Parisi assured me that it’s possible to continue listening and consuming true crime content while downplaying the harmful effects. Her suggestion? Mix it up, perhaps listening to comedy content like My Dad Wrote a Porno. She added: “how can you think the world is only dark and scary when Rocky Flintstone is out there?”

Parisi also posits that the kind of true crime content being consumed makes a difference. Ultra-gruesome recountings might not be the best idea if you’re prone to anxiety. Deep dives on Reddit to find out the grisly details probably aren’t in your best interest either.

I spent years gobbling up true crime. Books, movies, documentaries, podcasts and all that time I was a paranoid mess. I triple-checked door locks. I worried about who might be watching me through my open blinds. I seldom felt safe in my own home.

And yet I still listened, watched, and devoured anything true crime related. Why in the world was I so fixated on something that was causing me mental anguish?

As time has progressed, I feel less comfortable with true crime content produced solely for entertainment value. There are exceptions, of course: podcasts that shed light on victims whose stories often go unreported or ignored (Missing & Murdered is a prime example).

But the girl power veneer that coats true crime is a miss when you consider how women are aware of their vulnerability on a regular basis. We don’t need true crime (specifically, stories about women being murdered) to teach us any lessons.

After a frightening incident last year that led me to call 911, I feel less enthusiastic about true crime. In the aftermath, I was objectively safe, so why was I unable to hit play on my podcast app?

“Watching something similar to what you experienced play out can bring back the images, sounds, thoughts, and feelings that were present at the time of the event,” writes Dr. Beurkens. “This can cause a person to feel very distressed and anxious for hours to days (or even longer) following this exposure.“

Everything I listened to made me ultra-anxious. I was plagued with feelings of guilt and embarrassment (I felt I didn’t provide the dispatcher enough information), and I would experience heart palpitations anytime I encountered visuals that reminded me of what had happened.

I still enjoy true crime, from time to time, but my interactions with the genre are much more limited and carefully curated. I didn’t even cut out true crime consciously, at first, but slowly, I’ve noticed comedies and reality shows taking up more digital space on my apps.

And I’ve noticed myself sleeping through the night.

No more midnight checks to make sure the alarm was set. My mind was no longer occupied 24/7 with the fear that someone might decide to kill me. I still have my moments — I am perennially anxious, after all — but reclaiming my leisure time and filling it with things that spark joy instead of fear has helped immensely.

I have KonMari’d my psyche before even getting to my terribly messy closet. I have a clearer head, a more positive outlook on life, and I discovered a deep appreciation and love for comedy.

I don’t listen to stories about serial rapists lurking in the shadows. I stay away from tales of women being kidnapped, confined, and tortured. Instead, I spend my mornings listening to Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell throw jabs at each other as they talk about fast food on The Doughboys podcast.

Steph Coelho is a freelance writer focusing on home & garden, health, wellness, and other lifestyle topics. When she’s not click-clacking away on her keyboard she’s either digging in the garden, sautéing in the kitchen, or nose-deep in a good book. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.