Women Are the Primary Consumers of True Crime—but Why?
Most people start their Thursday morning with coffee and the news. I start mine with a Missoula mauler or a maybe a father who murdered his family in Los Feliz (followed by coffee, of course). After the work day, it’s back to a podcast about a surgeon turned murderer until I click on Law and Order: SVU to decompress while I cook dinner. Falling asleep calls for earbuds and an audiobook about the Golden State Killer. In the morning I’m back at it again.
For all intents and purposes, I’m a normal 28-year-old woman—yet a substantial chunk of the content I consume is horrifically gruesome. What’s stranger is that I find it soothing.
The phenomenon of true crime is not new (looking at you, Jack the Ripper), but content is now more readily accessible than ever thanks to podcasts, TV shows, books and online sleuthing forums.
In the wake of prestige shows like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, seven of the top ten podcasts on iTunes tell tales of brutal serial killers or women who vanished into thin air. There’s an entire channel (Investigation Discovery, for those unfamiliar) solely devoted to true crime and even the Weather Channel is paying homage with a new show called Storm of Suspicion.
There’s no doubt that the 21st century is the golden age of true crime. And—guess what? Women are its driving force.
It’s whispered about in spin classes. (Have you watched The Staircase yet?!) It’s fretted over at mom groups. And Nielsen reports ID is the number one cable network in primetime ratings among women of all ages. Yes, a network with shows like Redrum and I (Almost) Got Away with It has an audience made up of 66 percent women and surpasses rivals Bravo and Oxygen for female viewership.
Further, this past October 31, upwards of 7,000 people gathered for a live My Favorite Murder podcast show—said to be the largest event of its kind—at Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater. Looking around at hordes of women who opted to spend their Halloween listening to hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark recount stories of accused devil worshipers and discovered dead bodies, I found the data hard to deny. Women are gaga for lurking killers and back alley abductions. But why?
I spoke with Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell School of Medicine, to explore the science behind our morbid fascination.
As I anticipated, Dr. Saltz explained that the voyeuristic quality of true crime makes the content consumer feel safe. “When it’s true but not happening actually in front of them, there’s a safety, since it’s not the same as standing on the street and witnessing a crime. It’s about being able to say why this will not happen to you—‘Oh, look. I don’t walk on that street corner at night.’ And that can be reassuring.”
Kenyon Laing, a gender-based violence researcher turned podcaster, echoed Dr. Saltz’s findings. Laing hosts the popular Wine & Crime podcast with friends Amanda Jacobson and Lucy Fitzgerald, which boasts an 86 percent female audience and is the 75th highest ranked comedy podcast on Apple Podcasts. (Yep, true comedy is a thing and it’s very popular.)
Speaking on behalf of the trio, Laing explained, “We think women are inherently more predisposed to examining a threat in order to understand and avoid it…It’s rewarding to not only bring a perpetrator to justice at the end of the story, but also to look him in the eyes (metaphorically) and examine the hows and whys of the case.”
Dr. Saltz posited another reason, explaining that, sociologically speaking, there are more outlets for men to carry out their internal aggressions than women. They’ve got Call of Duty. They’ve got WWF. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to want cashmere sweaters and beautiful tablescapes and gentle yoga. In other words, true crime is an outlet for women’s pent-up and often misdiagnosed aggression—anger toward injustice, anger toward misogyny and toxic masculinity, anger toward the world.
This outlet proved particularly useful for Katie DiDomenico, a 30-year-old nurse from Los Angeles, California. Like me, she was one of the 7,000 plus who attended the Halloween My Favorite Murder live podcast and says she was drawn to true crime from a young age.
“I think my love for it started with the Lifetime show Unsolved Mysteries when I was a little kid,” she remembered. “We watched a lot of Dateline and it grew into a love of Law & Order: SVU. I think I’ve seen every episode. But I think what’s so fascinating is the mystery aspect. How is it that a person can go missing and we don’t know what happened to them? Someone has to know, and someone has an answer and someone’s just not talking about it.”
Now, DiDomenico’s consumption of true crime has shifted primarily to podcasts. “They’ve replaced music for me now, so when I’m cleaning or doing laundry, I’m listening to serial killer podcasts instead of music.”
When asked if she agrees with criminologist Scott A. Bonn, PhD’s assertion that the serial killer genre of true crime delivers a “jolt of adrenaline,” DiDomenico concurred but specified that she finds true crime to be more soothing than adrenaline producing: “I feel like knowing some of the situations that, unfortunately, people find themselves in, makes me more aware. For instance, don’t get in a car with a stranger. I can be overly trusting, so knowing the possibilities of what could happen makes me feel more secure.”
DiDomenico isn’t alone. Many women find solace in the coping mechanism of coming up with a plan if something terrible were to happen. I’ve purchased several pepper spray keychains and familiarized myself with the release button inside my trunk for this very reason.
Still, it’s about planning for a worst-case scenario that will probably never come to be. Says Fizgerald: “I think that many women who have been victimized in their own lives and/or are struggling with mental health issues find a release in being able to look at these often violent stories.” The reason? It’s a horrifying situation in which they can’t imagine themselves. “Being able to remove the element of projection when hearing about these stories is a relief.”
I’ve written candidly about my own anxiety and can attest that there is something calming about hearing about an atrocity and knowing it couldn’t happen to me. That said, as I gathered data, it also occurred to me that true crime allows women to see their concerns (the ever-present threat of sexual assault and reduced agency over our own bodies) validated.
In a society that’s often so quick to blame the victim and label facts as falsities, true crime is a rare avenue in which justice is, in many cases, served. The killer is sent to jail. The woman is believed. And right and wrong are decided by a jury of peers.
When murder is more calming than everyday life, what does that say about our culture other than times are unfathomably bleak?
No wonder we’re obsessed.