The first time I heard the podcast My Favorite Murder, I was waiting for a bus downtown, hemorrhaging my already limited data to stream the episode in my phone’s browser. I had just finished listening to the hosts, comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, interviewed on comedy website Cracked.com’s weekly podcast about what was, at that time, their still young true crime show.
The format is simple: the hosts sit down together in Georgia’s apartment, pet her cats, chat about what they’ve been up to that week, and tell each other the true story of an infamous murder. Neither host knows what case the other has researched, and they experience and react to the details about the investigation, the suspects, the witnesses and the victims right along with the audience.
I’d just begun a new job, doubling the travel time of my commute, and on the lookout for new podcasts to listen to. In that moment I was very aware of dusk settling in, cooling the air and darkening the streets. But I was drawn in by the question at the heart of the interview I had just heard: Why talk about murder in the first place?
Karen and Georgia are fully aware of how creepy the premise of their show sounds, joking in their first episode that this excursion marks the end of their careers. I would agree that it’s definitely not for everybody. What is it, then, about their fanbase that makes them perk up when they hear the mention of psychopaths and serial killers? And why is most of that fanbase female?
As it happens, the majority of readers and consumers of true crime and crime fiction are overwhelmingly female. Formal research suggests that is is not despite, but because women are more fearful than men of criminal victimization. There’s a lot of speculation as to why, but in exploring the motivation behind these fears, it comes down to what you’d expect. Women are more likely to be victims of sex crimes, to be targeted by serial killers. Societal expectations make women feel less physically capable of defending themselves.
Sometimes science has to document ‘oh, duh!’ questions, and I’d say that’s definitely one. I have these same fears myself, and I feel them viscerally. . I am intensely aware of my own vulnerability in a way that I know for sure most men simply are not. When a man approaches me, catches my eye, or calls out to me, I have no idea how that interaction is going to go, but I’m always prepared for the worst. Am I going to be asked for directions, or asked out? Are they going to walk right past me, or attack me?
I specifically gravitate toward true crime because the fear is not abstract. The stories are not fantasy. I was brought up after Megan’s Law and the Amber Alert were established at the federal level, in a Pacific Northwest city whose main claim to fame is as the hometown of serial killer Ted Bundy. My mind was molded by fear and avoidance, and thus these stories are not just not shocking to me, they’ve become normalized.
But even when the plot itself is ripped from the headlines, crime through the lens of TV and film feels voyeuristic to me, exploitative. An excuse to paint actresses with blood and glorify violence, cruelty, and abuse on camera. As intriguing as I find the mystery, the story, connecting the details and evidence to create a case and solve a crime, I’m very aware while watching that I don’t fit in the shoes of the detective, the eyewitness, the killer. I identify painfully with the victims.
Fear as a predictor for women’s attraction to the genre of true crime is reinforced by research into consumer behavior. A series of surveys about literature finds that women gravitate toward true crime more so than they do nonfiction about war or gang violence. There’s a similar pattern in women’s interest in crime fiction, from murder mysteries to CSI. Their findings reveal the same reasons that Karen, Georgia, and their fanbase of self-titled ‘murderinos’ give as to why they seek out these stories. By educating themselves about criminal psychology and defense tactics, they learn what sort of signals to look out for and behaviors to avoid to ensure their own survival. It’s likely for this reasons that such a morbid genre continues to churn out bestsellers, Netflix specials, and other podcasts.
There’s something to be said for always being prepared for the worst. At a certain point it’s impossible to simply avoid situations that pose risk. Dressing to avoid unwanted attention, trying not to be out late – those strategies crumble in the face of the fact that we are all more likely to be attacked by someone close to us, with direct access to us, than by a complete stranger. So often is it always the boyfriend or always the husband, Karen and Georgia just expect it.
The worst can still always happen, sure, but following their discussion of how a would be victim survived an attack in her own apartment, Karen says, regarding that paranoia, “you don’t need to beat yourself up for thinking about it. You don’t need to tell yourself you’re crazy for thinking about it. You’re smart for thinking about it. You’re empowered for thinking about it, you’re taking action. You don’t have to live in it and shut the door. Go out in your life knowing that you are armed with information.”
The subject of that survivor story is Jennifer Morey, a lawyer who went on to become director of Trauma Support Services in North Texas. They quote her saying, “Horrible things happen in life, but it’s all about how you’re prepared for them.” Not only that, but she is aware and honored by their coverage of her story. In a live episode they read a letter that they received from her, expressing her thanks, for reminding her that her story can serve to help other women, and reminds any listeners of the gift of life, and challenge of survival.
Gendered trauma is just ingredient in the cocktail of fear that draws listeners to these raw, open conversations. Murder and true crime are at the heart of the conversation, but Karen and Georgia are very clear that their interest is inherently tied to their own experiences and anxieties.
“Tell me everything,” Georgia says in their first episode, “So I can avoid it.” Karen explains the publicization of their contemplations on murders as something she’s putting out into the universe “like the Secret. But the secret is that I don’t want to get murdered.” They’re also up front with their personal struggles with mental health and trauma. They ascribe their fascination to anxiety, leading to this exchange:
Georgia: “In any situation, I’m aware of how I’m going to die. Is that healthy?
Karen: “It keeps you alive!”
Their friendship is itself built upon a charged moment of horrified fascination. They came across each each other at a party held by a mutual friend, where Karen told a personal story about a car accident she narrowly survived. It was a gruesome experience, a vivid moment of trauma that she readily shared, sending several people backing away, white faced. But as Karen relates gleefully, “Georgia just pushed to the front, with her eyes as wide as they are now, like, ‘tell me more!'”
That moment of vulnerability is what sets the tone for the show–not a dry lecture on just the facts, ma’am, or a detailed exploration of the minds and motivations of monsters, but an open, trusting conversation. The hosts regularly lament that their show isn’t as tightly planned, produced, and scripted as others. “If you’re here for facts, you’re in the wrong place,” they warn in their first episode. Karen and Georgia verge off topic into tangents and sidebars, laugh and cry over the course of the same hour, and that genuine interest in and compassion for each other permeates the atmosphere.
Most of their merchandise (original and fan-made) features quotes from the show, reflections, warnings, and advice taken from their commentary on the stories they cover. Somehow it all encapsulates the kind of things I’d say to my friends, as well as sage advice. “Get a job, buy your own shit, stay out of the forest!”“You’re in a cult! Call your dad.” “Here’s the thing: fuck everyone.” And my favorite, “fuck politeness.” The latter especially rises to the top of my mental chatter whenever I find myself caught between being nice, and being safe, a situation I think a lot of women find themselves in. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve given out my number rather than turn down or avoid a stranger that gives me the creeps. That simple reminder that you shouldn’t sacrifice your safety to avoiding offending someone just isn’t something I think women are given.
Listening to Karen and Georgia speculate over cold cases, opine on sentencing laws, and complain about injustices makes standing alone at night somehow less scary. As an anxious person who spends most of her time locked in an ouroborus of worrying about worrying, it’s reassuring to know that I am not only not alone in my experience, and to be validated for my thoughts and actions. Each episode is threaded with that support. Just because my fear is at the forefront of my thinking, it isn’t holding me back. It’s preparing me to look out for, protect, and defend myself. Learning to weaponize my weakness has only made me stronger.
If you too would like to maximize your experience of long walks alone in the dark, whether on the way to school or work, or on a jog round the block, the podcast My Favorite Murder can be streamed and downloaded for free from the Feral Audio website.
[image credit: myfavoritemurder.com]
Aeron Lloyd is a graduate of the University of Washington, where she studied psychology and American history. She now misapplies that knowledge by overthinking movies, personal interactions, and current events at her tumblr, with occasional breaks in between to pretend at being an artist and a musician.