Jennifer Chang is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building makes clear from the start that it is a show to be watched with tongue firmly in cheek. The premise—three podcast-loving residents of a cavernous New York City apartment building have an opportunity to start their own when investigating the death of another resident—is an often absurdist riff on popular tropes, but the show itself can be read as a satire of true-crime fandoms. When former TV cop Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and his co-conspirators Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) try to extract information about the possible murder victim, the lead detective (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) immediately guesses their intentions. “What fucking podcast are you all hooked on, huh?” she asks, exasperated. “I swear to God, if I meet one more true crime nut…” The recognition of a cultural absurdity—amateur sleuths who waltz uninvited into crime scenes in the hopes of solving a mystery that law enforcement cannot—is both funny and pointed.
Much has been written about the “rise” of contemporary true crime, but the genre has never exactly laid low. In 19th-century England, the rise of literacy and technology led to a boom in cheap, sensational fiction for the working classes called “penny dreadfuls.” In pre- and postwar America, pulp magazines like True Detective were not only wildly popular, but training grounds for soon-to-be-famous authors. The 1980s, when the term “serial killer” came into widespread use for the first time, brought terror to the masses via made-for-TV movies and nurtured a subcultural market for things like serial-killer trading cards. And while there were always longstanding exceptions to the true-crime genre’s “lowbrow” reputation, what was long considered a macabre niche interest has exploded into a lucrative mainstream fixation: Spotify currently boasts more than a thousand podcasts in the “true crime” category. As author and podcast host Tori Telfer points out, obsessions with death and crime have always existed; but it’s the multimedia influx of true-crime content that makes it feel both modern and ubiquitous.
NPR’s Serial, which launched in 2014, marked the beginning of this new era of true crime fandom: Broadcast on public radio, the show was not merely the piecing together of a bygone mystery, but investigative reporting of a case happening in real time, with real stakes for those involved. For the first time, it allowed the accused, Adnan Syed, a platform to plead his case to a mass audience—who was riveted by the opportunity to be involved. Suddenly, true crime was not just for bored gossip-starved housewives or strange people lurking on the internet; it was for people deeply concerned about the state of the American criminal justice system. It wasn’t just entertainment, but journalism that exposed the assumptions, biases, and gray areas of how justice is—and isn’t—served. Serial and the torrent of true- crime podcasts that followed reframed the genre as righteous rather than salacious. The emergence of “highbrow” true crime allowed listeners to recast mere spectatorship as objective critical analysis; as Alice Bolin wrote in a 2018 Vulture piece:
“Like the figure of the detective in many mystery novels, the reporter stands in for the audience, mirroring and orchestrating our shifts in perspective, our cynicism and credulity, our theories, prejudices, frustrations, and breakthroughs. This is what makes this style of true crime addictive, which is the adjective its makers most crave. The stance of the voyeur, the dispassionate observer, is thrilling without being emotionally taxing for the viewer, who watches from a safe remove.”
But the kind of invasive fandom portrayed in Only Murders has been facilitated less by podcasts themselves than by their validation of the human impulse to seek out context that aligns with our own fascinations and behaviors. We want to understand what makes people commit murder, to identify how monstrosity is born from humanity. And for women—who make up the majority of true-crime media consumers, according to Literary Hub’s CrimeReads vertical—there’s also an impulse to find rationalization for interests that are often dismissed as “frivolous” simply by association with women. “[H]onestly it was way less annoying when people were like ‘yeah i know most true crime is trashy but i still get into it sometimes’ instead of all ‘actually it’s radical for me to be into true crime because im subverting patriarchal narratives and it’s therefore above criticism’,” remarked author Anna Fitzgerald on Twitter.
The result is that true-crime fandom bleeds into other feminized areas of interest. Bailey Sarian began her YouTube career as a beauty and lifestyle blogger in 2013, but in 2019 published a video titled “Chris Watts — 2000 Page Discovery Murder, Mystery & Makeup.” In it, she applies a full face of makeup while recapping the 2018 case of a man who strangled his pregnant wife and killed their two young daughters, interrupting her contouring and bronzing to emphasize the most shocking details. The video was an instant success, garnering 9.6 million views (compared to Sarian’s earlier videos, which received a few hundred thousand) and establishing “Murder, Mystery & Makeup” as a series. Other lifestyle YouTubers, including Caitlin Rose and Bella Fiori, have pivoted from beauty-centric channels to ones filled with true-crime content in recent years: Of the 10 most popular videos on their respective channels, six of Rose’s and seven of Fiori’s are true crime. These videos are presumably meant to serve audiences with a broad spectrum of interests, but the dissonance between subject and context is unmistakable: It’s jarring to watch grisly stories introduced by flowing cursive title cards or a sunnily familiar “Hey guys!” or to see video thumbnails of faux-shocked, flawlessly made-up faces.
Contemporary true crime has been shaped by the evolving role of social media—online vigilantism and the post-9/11“If You See Something, Say Something” campaign cultivated the belief that not only can anyone be a citizen detective, but that it is our civic duty to involve ourselves in instances of wrongdoing or injustice. The reach and targeting of social-media platforms and algorithms has encouraged us to see all reported information, no matter how speculative or unverified, as created equal. Manufactured media sensationalism isn’t new, but as Emma Berquist—a writer who was herself the victim of a random stabbing—points out, an increase in both volume and accessibility is rotting our brains. “True crime runs on heightened emotion and fear, convincing people, and especially women, that every stranger is a possible murderer … So many true crime shows advise women to trust their instincts, but how can we trust instincts that have been hijacked by induced anxiety?” she writes, citing studies indicating that both fear of crime and violence on television have increased over time, despite declining crime rates overall and a decline in serial killings specifically. Stoked in true crime fans, this dissonance often manifests as a kind of radicalization. It’s a more subtle form than, say, white nationalism or inceldom; but modern true crime’s interrogation of the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other biases at the foundation of institutions like the criminal-justice system can make its fans feel called to push for the “right” answers. And, as with more extreme forms of radicalization, participation can be intoxicating—it can make fans feel privy to information unavailable to the general public, and rebrand passive listening as an active crusade toward justice.
“True crime brain” is a cocktail of psychological overstimulation and biases masked by the fallacy of objectivity, and there is no better case study than the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. A burgeoning influencer who was reported missing in September 2021 after embarking on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Petito captured America’s attention as her story was picked up by social media—most notably, by true crime TikTok. TikTok’s ability to facilitate (and formulate) virality has made it a haven for true-crime content. The app recently tripled its maximum video length from one to three minutes; and because it doesn’t allow direct reposting of videos (favoring “duets,” which encourages users to add their own commentary and footage), more and more videos are produced and filtered through layers of algorithmic hurdles, further and further from the original information. It’s a perverse game of Telephone in which every participant in the chain competes with the previous one for a single moment of attention in a neverending feed. Just a week after Petito was declared missing, the #gabbypetito hashtag on TikTok had amassed more than 820 million views. That number is now 1.8 billion.
TikTok disinformation researcher Abbie Richards (who also created a now-infamous conspiracy theory pyramid) recently unloaded in a Twitter thread about TikTok’s “unhealthy obsession” with Petito’s disappearance and true crime’s “disgusting” exploitation of trauma for profit—a thirst for titillating gossip masquerading as virtuous acts of social good. “Supporting a victim and her family does not include poring through her intimate details and then broadcasting them for attention and profit on social media,” Richards wrote. “You are not a detective. Log off.” Ryan Broderick, who authors the Garbage Day newsletter, similarly critiqued social media’s penchant for turning trending topics into their own mini-internets: “#GabbyPetito is its own entire online ecosystem,” he wrote, “complete with Discords, public Google Docs, websites, subreddits, DM groups, TikTok challenges, user drama, and even, most upsetting of all, influencers.”
The citizen sleuths on the Petito case may have been sincere (“I swear TikTok is going to solve this case before the FBI let’s gooo fam!” one tweeted enthusiastically); however, her remains weren’t found thanks to evidence compiled by amateur detectives on TikTok, but because the media spectacle put unignorable pressure on law enforcement to do their jobs. And once creators had exhausted their supply of verified facts, they shifted into conspiracy mode, sharing as much speculation and (mis)information as they could find. “One user commented that her fiancé’s enjoyment of Fight Club was a red flag,” wrote Berquist, “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.”
Online vigilantism and the post-9/11 “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign cultivated the belief that not only can anyone be a citizen detective, but that it is our civic duty to involve ourselves in instances of wrongdoing or injustice.
Only Murders in the Building successfully captures the magnetism of connection even under horrific circumstances: the element of excitement and bonding that comes from belonging to a community searching for a singular truth, and a feeling of purpose often missing from everyday life. Much of its wit is derived from the now-familiar sophistication of Serial—the delicate piano score of the title credits, the cameo by Tina Fey as the buttery-voiced podcast host Cynda Canning—and the portrayal of the ethical challenge of simultaneously producing entertaining content and performing due diligence. (“The only thing that matters right now is that there’s a killer on the loose if we’re right, and he could be living somewhere in our building!” Charles exclaims to Oliver as they dig through the building’s trash, hoping to uncover clues about the murder victim. “Oh, that is a very good line,” Oliver responds. Badly delivered, but a good line. So do it again for me, and this is what I need, I want you to really hit ‘killer.’”)
But the reality that Charles, Oliver, and Mabel eventually discover is that true crime brain can also be alienating—that trying to make sense of tragic events can unintentionally flatten those tragedies into the satisfying narratives we crave, divorcing them from their real-world content. The people whose lives were overtaken by amateur sleuthing in the name of Gabby Petito are well-aware of the nature of their obsession—“I am going to tell my boss I need some time off to focus on this,” joked one Twitter user. “My job is really getting in the way of me solving this case at this point.” But treating Petito’s disappearance like a new Netflix series to be binged rather than a horrific real-life loss prioritizes viewers over subjects. Anything can be fair game for entertainment so long as it’s treated tastefully, but the intrinsic system of rewards and the added layer of monetization means that there is always profit involved somehow, measured in dollars or clout.
The “popification”—and commodification—of any serious subject is inevitably ethically nebulous, but there’s something about true crime that feels particularly glib. Perhaps it’s the distance between spectacle and reality created by entertainment; or maybe the salacious treatment that horrific murders (whose victims are mostly women) receive once processed by content creators and marketed for clicks and likes. Podcast host Jeremy Hammond discovered that the top show on Patreon is one called True Crime Obsessed, the aesthetics of which are starkly at odds with its subject—the banner image is of the two creators, mouths agape with excitement, throwing pink and white confetti. (“This is so fucking bleak,” he tweeted.) Only Murders briefly reckons with this as the trio closes in on the truth: “This is Mabel’s life. We can’t exploit her pain, playing detective,” Charles admits. “Every true crime story is actually true for someone.”
And that’s the issue: As the boundaries and definitions of pop culture continuously expand and everything can now be considered content, equally obscured is whether or not that is a good thing—like anything peddled to the masses, murder loses its edge with overexposure, and it is easy to become desensitized to the true horror of it while focused on the lurid details and intrigue of unsolved mysteries. While it’s reasonable to assume most true crime podcasters, YouTubers, and TikTokkers have good intentions, there’s still something grossly exploitative about turning the most intimate and painful details of someone else’s life into serialized entertainment. When we see their good-faith efforts presented with the same search engine optimization tactics used for content featuring “pranks” or experiments—splashy titles in all-caps, provocative questions like “Did he do it??” and “What happened to [insert victim’s name]??“—it’s also reasonable to think their motives extend beyond respect and justice for victims.
Petito’s parents were relatively lucky in that her case progressed with lightning speed, but for the families of other missing and murdered women, especially those of color, that is not the case. Petito was media catnip—a young, pretty, white aspiring influencer trapped in what appeared to be a toxic relationship—and the attention given to her disappearance highlighted a systemic bias in criminal investigations and raised the question of whether public interest in true crime is as much about justice for victims as it is about desire to consume stories. Petito was a pawn in an emotional crusade that largely divorced her from her personhood; but, unlike the Native women whose disappearances and murders are far higher than the national average, her murder was acknowledged. Gabby Petito’s family and friends may feel relief that they now know what happened to her. But they also know that millions of people salivated over—and profited from—her gruesome death, and will continue to stumble across Instagram accounts “honoring” her with police statements presented as pastel carousel graphics, or TikTok users recounting the shocking details of her case in the name of “awareness.” Ultimately, the dead and missing did not ask to be currency in the economy of true crime. If social media has primed us to see every part of our lives as potential content, it leaves little room for humanity.