Emma Berquist stops by to tell us about how true crime doesn't have to make us better people, and in fact may be more harmful to us than we realize—but we don't let her in, because we don't want to get KILLED!
Content advisory: This episode contains some brief descriptions of a violent knife attack.
Episode Info + Links: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1112270/episodes/9590031
Emma's article, "True Crime is Rotting our Brains"
Where else to find us:
Sarah's other show, You Are Good
[YWA co-founder] Mike's other show, Maintenance Phase
Sarah: Podcasts are great, God knows I love them. But they're not going to cure all of society’s ills. Also, we need time to talk about Buffy.
Welcome to You’re Wrong About the show where we continue to ruin true crime for you, you're welcome. I'm Sarah Marshall and my guest today is Emma Berquist. Thank you for coming on this show Emma, it's good to have you here.
Emma: I'm happy to be here. Big fan.
Sarah: Emma and I are going to talk about true crime today. Emma is an amazing writer and most recently has a piece out in Gawker called True Crime is Rotting Our Brains, and I agree. Over on Patreon, we have a bonus episode on the Pinkerton Detectives with Jamie Loftus. She is back to talk with us about more ghost related shenanigans, and that'll be out on Thanksgiving Day and time for the traditional walk around the neighborhood that you will return from in a better mood. I'm such a big fan of your writing and I was so happy to be able to pull you on here. I'm miming that I like lassoed you like a calf, which I'll let people imagine is how that went as opposed to just a lot of emails.
Emma: You roped me in. That's how it went.
Sarah: You are just a very cool, aloof calf, and you were like looking up at the moonlight and I got my lasso out. So, in this episode we're going to talk about true crime. I feel like this is a very broad title and it could go in a lot of directions. But I mean, my summary of it is how a true crime is aspiring to prestige status and how that's a complicated trend and we're going to make it more complicated. But how would you summarize things?
Emma: I would say that the popularization of true crime and the mainstream appeal now of true crime, has led to a lot of alienation and not trusting one another with people not feeling responsibility for their neighbors. I think it's all connected, and I think it's something that's been just particularly harmful for people's state of mind.
Sarah: Comforting is a complicated word and I think it fits one of the definitions of comforting to be told over and over again in basically 15-minute vignettes. Don't leave the house, nothing good is out there, don't talk to strangers. Your world will not be made bigger or more interesting by letting people into your life or by building relationships. There's just nothing good can come from other people. Which I feel like there are times when the same way that I feel like depression wants to stay alive inside of your body and will do anything it can to keep going and multiplying. That seems like that same kind of logic.
Emma: Right. I think a lot of the things that we consume do the same thing. Like, it's better to hate yourself inside. It's better to only be responsible for yourself, and to only worry about yourself, and to protect yourself. And that is not a healthy way to live. It's not a good way to live and it's not the way that humans are supposed to be living. We have to try and create senses of community so that people do feel those connections to one another so that they do feel that they have responsibilities towards society and one another.
Sarah: Yeah. The sense of being part of a larger organism, I think is a feeling that Americans maybe have a harder time than a lot of other people grasping, but I think it's within our capacities. This episode tells people that like we can be working on that difficult, moral social work. We can also watch as much Criminal Minds as we want to.
Sarah: Yeah. I love this conversation for talking about if we stop trying to assess everyone who we see as a potential threat, then what kind of connection is available to us? Or how can we take up space in the world if we're not busy with that?
Emma: Right. What kind of connections are we denying ourselves in our attempt to stay safe?
Sarah: We talk a little bit in this episode about the attack that you survived and that is, there's not really, I don't think any detail at all. I do want to let people know it's coming.
Emma: Oh yeah, I should have a bit of a trigger warning for that one. It was one of those things that just does not happen very often, which is I was randomly attacked by a stranger in a park. But it really does change your perspective on a lot of things. One of the things that I worked with my therapist was I was never going to get sort of a satisfactory answer about why. Why me? Why then? Why did he do it? What was driving him? And I think a lot of true crime is maybe sort of looking for that answer. The truth is there isn't always an answer and having to sort of surrender that and having to move on with my life and say like, okay, well, I'm just never going to get an answer. There is no end to that, there is no conclusion to that is going to make me happy because even if I found an answer, it wouldn't be satisfactory. So I think sort of reckoning with that made me think about the narrative of true crime, and how we put endings on these stories that really don't have endings because there are people's lives, real lives.
Sarah: Yeah. I love being able to talk with you about this concept of what is a book? What is the story? What can stories give us? How can they console us? How can we learn from them and then what are their limitations? As you know, as stories with beginnings, middles and ends that are smaller than people.
Emma: I got a lot of really lovely messages from a lot of people who had similar things happen to them. It's just really nice to see your words and your story resonating with people.
Sarah: I remember that piece coming out. I remember reading it. I actually remember feeling short of breath while reading it, and then being like, I think I'm older now and reading about something awful happening affects me differently than when I was a teenager. I was just like, what is the world like? I can't conceive of things happening to me ever. I really encourage people to read that piece and I feel like something that it takes you into a world where things just happen to people and people do things. There was a truth in that I really had not encountered or acknowledged before in that way.
Emma: You know we say, ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ and it's completely true. I didn't even know how to end the piece. I just kind of had to end it at some point because you can't really tie it up with a nice bow. It was like, here's what happened to me. I'm okay, the end. There's not a way to end that's going to be satisfactory for anyone. You just keep going.
Sarah: Yeah. Let us just keep going into this podcast and then into the rest of our lives.
Emma: That sounds good to me.
Sarah: As someone who is consumed, I think actual tons of true crime over my life. I'm very excited for this topic.
Emma: Yeah. I'm guilty of that as well. There's a reason I think it's bad for you because I listen, watch and read so much.
Sarah: Yeah. Because being bad feels pretty good, to quote The Breakfast Club. I was so excited to have you on because this article came out, this was in Gawker, several people that I know immediately sent it to me because they suspected that it would be my jam. I was like, this is my jam. Yeah, I would love to start just by maybe talking about like what made you decide to write this piece. Because I feel like this really said a lot of things that needed to be said. And thank you for doing that. How did you get there?
Emma: Well, you know, it started a couple years ago when I was actually the victim of a violent attack. Afterwards, when I was going through the healing process and going through therapy for PTSD, I started paying more attention to what I was consuming and how it was affecting my psyche. Then I also started noticing that a lot of what some of my friends were saying, and a lot of the women that I talked to on Twitter or social media were saying about their consumption of true crime and the effect that it had on them. It was very similar to what my brain was doing with PTSD. The fact that they were saying things like they didn't want to go out after dark or that they didn't let people come into their house if they didn't know them, even a plumber or an A/C repair person, things like that.
That was sort of what fighting against working on in therapy, trying to lower my hypervigilance, trying to sort of overcome these hurdles of being afraid of new people and being afraid to venture far outside my house by myself. It seemed really sad to me that people were putting themselves deliberately into these sorts of fight or flight states of mind intentionally, while I was trying to really fight to get myself out of it.
So, I started thinking about, you know, what the cause of that was and part of it is that we are just very plugged into everything now. So, you know, we get all bad news all the time and you can't really separate yourself from that. But I do think part of it is that a lot of women are listening and consuming a lot of true crime and I think that it is having a psychological effect on us.
Sarah: I feel like there was this moment. And Rachel Monroe, who's been on the show a couple times, writes about this and the introduction to her book, Savage Appetites, where she talks about going to CrimeCon in Nashville, which is an amazing sequence. I was born in the late eighties. I feel like we're about the same age. Millennial women and lots of other women, but that's the only generation I can speak for. I grew up consuming a lot of true crime and also the nineties, I think we're kind of this explosion in true crime media, because cable really got its legs under it in that time. And we had Court TV and we had the Lifetime channel, which is not explicitly a true crime channel, but like half of Lifetime movies are about women murdering and women getting murdered. Which is like all we do.
Emma: Yeah. That's our jam. We also had these sort of really big cases that hooked us on this national level, and then we had the televised OJ trial, and the JonBenet case. These huge, national cases that I don’t know, I guess maybe imprinted on us in some way.
Sarah: There was this idea in the nineties of what's happening to these kids who are watching all this TV, but simultaneously this idea of if you're consuming something that teaches you to be safer, even if through extreme scare tactics, that's healthy in some way. Which seems like an antecedent to where we are. And then there was this moment, and I feel like it was with first season of Serial, when it was men who hadn't noticed this before and were in charge of programming in some significant way. They looked up and we're like, oh, women are the market for true crime. And I feel like, yeah, we knew that, did anyone not know that?
Emma: We always have been. It's such a big sort of explosion, and it really went mainstream in a way that I think it hadn't been before. It became, you know, really marketable, really financially lucrative for a lot of people.
Sarah: And that's such a funny thing, because I feel like there was always plenty of money in it, or else we wouldn't have such a plethora of amazing Oxygen titles. All over cable TV there are just incredibly specific, true crime shows, and my favorite is Swamp Murders. It's always been a big pie, but like what changed about that? What world are we living in that didn't exist before 2014 maybe?
Emma: Part of it is podcasts. You had to seek it out, if not on television, then in a book. Podcasts really helped the boom. It became prestige. There was this real legitimacy to it that I think we maybe hadn't seen before. I mean, probably for true crime books, if you look at like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song. There were very well-written books, you know, that were well received. But again, investigation Discovery shows were not probably considered great. You know, watching something on HBO, it was like, oh, well this is like a prestige drama, true crime type thing. It lent an air of legitimacy that hadn't been there before.
Sarah: I felt at the time and continue to feel conflicted about this because it's like on the one hand there was people kind of coming out from under the covers. Because I have always been on the shameless side about my interests. People have always known that I'm a big fan of Newsies. I'm not embarrassed, that's like a formative text for me. Why would I be, it's an amazing film. And similarly, I was always pretty open about the fact that I grew up, especially reading Ann Rule books. Which I think is kind of, as a Mr. Spock would say in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, one of the giants of 20th century literature. And those books were one of the ways that I kind of, as I was coming into adolescence and growing into womanhood, I tried to figure out how to be a woman in the world. What were the limitations that were placed on me?
On another level, just the roteness of how these stories fall into a template and are often told basically the same way every time, I think is comforting to me the same horror movies are. Because there's the predictability of the unpredictable can feel calming and I think of that as like a teenage coping method.
Emma: Yeah. Like a way of asserting control over things that feel uncontrollable. I always consumed true crime. I felt some guilt about it, but it was like a guilty pleasure. And that's why we have guilty pleasures because I mean, they're not really supposed to be good for you. Now there's a sense where people are really trying to defend their interest in this. They seem to feel an amount of guilt about it a nd so sort of overcompensate by saying that they're learning something from it or that it has a lot of use for them. I don't think that that's good. I think it's okay to like things that aren't good for you.
I see this a lot in generally immediate criticism now this idea that like characters have to be noble and make good decisions or that you cannot like flawed characters. Or that somehow if you write or direct a movie with a character that does bad things, you are somehow endorsing them. And I just don't think that's a good way of looking at art, and I don't think it's a good way of looking at your hobbies. It's ok to like something, that doesn't mean it has to have virtue in it. You can just like it for entertainment.
Sarah: Right. There's something too about the idea that true crime isn't just something that you engage in for fun or to deal with your anxieties, it's like the consumer is potentially solving murders. Again, I think that has been described as kind of a virtuous thing, but like, I don't know. What do you think about that?
Emma: I don't think that it's a good way to consume something, to think that you can only consume things that are good for you, or to think that just because you're trying to find control through listening to something that means you exert that control in your own life. Because uncertainty is a part of life. I think this mentality that like, well, if I just listened to enough true crime, or if I just figure out what this woman did wrong - which I think is sort of the subtext and a lot of this - then I can prevent that from happening to me. And the truth is, we can't prevent these things from happening to us. That's not how life works. Thinking that you can is in a way just like a way of victim blaming, because what you're saying is that these women should have known better or should have figured out how to avoid what happened to them.
Sarah: Yeah. You talk about this in your article. And I love in this the moment, because this real kind of hit me like a lightning bolt, when you talk about the idea that when we deconstruct famous murder or missing women cases there's lately this undercurrent of ‘’if only she had read more true crime.
Emma: Right. Oh, if she had known this and she would have known not to do this. And it's like, well, I don't understand how that's different than saying, why was she out so late? Why was she dressed like that? I mean, it's just a way of again blaming a woman for something that is not her fault in any way, shape or form. You never know what you're going to do in that scenario. You never know whether you're going to freeze up, whether they're going be able to fight back, you just don't know. Judging people that have been murdered is not a good thing to do.
Sarah: Not a good pastime. And I mean it even reminds me of the comforting nature of Slasher movies and how you have like the Scream model of don't have sex, do not go to different parts of the house, don't drink, don't do drugs.
Emma: The virtuous all the time always on the off chance that there might be a killer out there.
Sarah: Yeah, and that's such a strange thing to have this migration from horror movies into now this idea that we should know what story we're living inside of. It is not a story. It's just it's stuff and it's happening.
Emma: I think part of that is because a lot of true crime now you know, when it started it was just very factual reporting done by journalists, which were usually just reports taken from the police. With In Cold Blood, you have this sort of narrative true crime now. And while I think it's good that we are not just taking cops with their word anymore about what crimes happened, turning it into a narrative does make it a story. And when you have a story, people are going to look for morals and they're going to have that sense that it's a fiction. Because as a writer, even if you're writing about true crime, you are always going to put your own subjective views into it. You can't write a book without like a beginning, middle and end. It has to have a story and it has to have like an overarching theme. I think podcasts do the same thing. Each episode is like a chapter. You are forcing a narrative onto something that really isn't a story. It's not fiction. It's something different.
Sarah: As a writer, how do you see true crime or people who consume true crime? Do you see them trying to impose the laws of fiction onto real life?
Emma: Yeah. There is this sense that there's going to be a happy ending or the good guys going to go free or the bad guy's going to get caught and that's just not how life works. One argument that I hear a lot is that true crime reveals a lot of sorts of the failures of the police and the failures of the justice system. I agree with that, but it is often a case-by-case basis. That's not really a way to fix things and there's this sense that like, well, the story will be over when we get this guy out of prison who was wrongly convicted of a crime. And like maybe or maybe not, they get out. It depends on the story, but that's not the end. That's not the end of the story. It shouldn't stop there because all of the things that put this person in prison undeservedly are still there. The entire structure is still there. Taking this as a narrative with a beginning and an end, it's a way to say, okay, well that was done, justice is served. I can put that out of my thinking now and not sort of look at the system and say like, oh, this system is working exactly as intended.
Sarah: Right. It's a different kind of catharsis I feel like, because you're like, oh no, shit's fucked up. Then you're like, we found the guilty guy and we figured it out this other guy's innocent.
Emma: Done. Now we fixed it. It's like you fixed it for one person. There's a lot of people that are probably in prison that shouldn't be, and it is really kind of sad that we just have to hope that enough podcasts are made to free them all. And that doesn't seem like a good long-term solution.
Sarah: Podcasts are great. God knows I love them, but they're not going to cure all of society's ills. And also, we need time to talk about Buffy. I mean, it makes me think of, if you're an art restorer and you're working on a tapestry and you fix this little bit of embroidering and you're like, oh, I did it, it's great. Then you look up and the tapestry is of something horrible. It's like, should we be fixing this tapestry or making a new improved tapestry? I think part of the prestige moment in true crime is that the exoneration narrative has become front and center in the past six, seven years, which I think is wonderful.
But again, it's a narrative and any narrative have limitations. There are so many people in this country who either were convicted of something that they did but were given far too much time for it, or one could argue, I argue that prison doesn't help anybody. Or are probably wrongfully convicted of something, but also like suck. But like people who suck can be innocent also, but they might not be a compelling figure for a narrative.
Emma: Right. Rachel Monroe talked about one of the side-effects of true crime is the rise of the victims’ rights movement. Which at first glance seems like a really good thing, except that it ended up creating more severe punishments and led to the rights of defendants being restricted. We know that a longer prison sentence it's not a deterrent, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country. So if it were a deterrent, we would have like no crime at all. It's that kind of thing where it's these unintended consequences. And that's what happens when you focus on the victim, you end up making things worse for perpetrators. If you focus on the perpetrators, the victims get hurt. It's really a hard sort of balance to strike.
Sarah: Yeah. There's something really difficult, but also very rewarding I think, about accepting that narrative is wonderful and we learn from narrative. We understand our world by telling ourselves and each other stories about it, but like that there are just things that it can't do. There are times when we have to walk out of the story and just into this disorganized expanse. What do you think narratives limitations are, as someone who works with it and respects it and knows it really well?
Emma: I think it can be a really wonderful tool to escape reality, but I think that can also have the unintended effect of not focusing on reality and things that like we should be focusing on. For me, books and fantasy and things like that were always a great way for me to just get away and get out of my own head for a while. But it does create this sense that you don't have to engage with the real world. You can just sort of live in this narrative. And we create narratives for ourselves as well, and I think that can be harmful. Because we do often think of ourselves as sort of the protagonists in our own story. There needs to be more recognition that we need to connect with one another.
Because another thing that I think true crime does is, when creating that fear of other people in strangers, it can sever the bonds between you and your neighbor or strangers around you that you could talk to. That's really been sad is sort of seeing this loss of community in general, and even in my own life, it's just harder to connect to people. Things like fear and things like having so many ways to detach ourselves from the outside world can be a driver of that.
Sarah: Yeah. I feel like we are living in this time, at least in the United States, of like epidemic loneliness. Which certainly has not been helped by the past couple of years.
Emma: I mean, we are already so sort of distrustful of one another and I think that true crime is making us even more distrustful. I think that's like really harmful, particularly at this time when we need to be depending on our neighbors, and reaching out to one another, and building that sense of community so that people will feel like they are responsible for one another.
Because I think Americans have this very strong individuality. Which is good in some ways, but in another way, it means that people don't feel responsible for one another. We are supposed to be a community, we're supposed to be a country full of people, and we're supposed to share this place with one another. If you don't feel responsible for taking care of the elderly or taking care of the children in your community, I think that's a really negative thing. It's bad for us as a country, bad for us as individuals.
Sarah: There are these weird moments where different movements feel like they crash into each other. And something I've noticed as a trend and talked about on the show before in the past, is like the current ongoing panic over human trafficking. Which it spreads out its tentacles in many different directions and one is putting masks on children as a way to make it so the traffickers can get them more easily. Because then their parents won't be able to recognize them and it's like, can’t you pick out what your kid's hair look like? I mean, I don't know.
And then another one that I find really troubling is that you'll see these Facebook posts that are, as far as I can tell, very often by a white woman who noticed usually a black man and felt some degree of discomfort for some reason and interpreted that as this person was going to traffic me. He was on a Bluetooth headset, that's a sign of trafficking or something like that. Or he was following me around Best Buy, and it's like, maybe you were going to the same departments at Best Buy. I don't know.
But like the way we see true crime is like a very virtuous, very utilitarian genre right now. Can we encourage this worldview of something made me uncomfortable and because I felt discomfort, that means that this person had evil intent toward me? I feel that needle is so hard to thread because there's this trend in recent true crime as well, which I think is necessary if the pendulum doesn't swing all the way in the other direction of women are socialized. I certainly recognize this in myself to just be like, oh, ha-ha, that's fine, this feels weird but like, whatever, it's just me. And to minimize yourself into a bad situation.
Emma: Right. Yeah, there's a lot of trust your instincts. Don't be afraid to say, ‘no’, you don't have to be nice. But that also leads to white women in the suburbs calling the cops because they saw a black UPS driver. I mean, you need to take responsibility for that. You need to understand that it's like, that's not you being safe, that's you actually putting someone else's life in danger because you know what happens when you call the cops in this country on a black person?
There is no way you can, in 2021, not know that there is a certain possible outcome that can happen there. And that's really dangerous. That's something that true crime needs to reckon with. I think that when things like Ring or home security systems are advertising on true crime, that's a pretty clear sort of sign that they are making people more paranoid. Someone posted they were doing human trafficking in a Target parking lot. I was like, I don't think that's true.
Sarah: Right. It's like if I were a human trafficker, which I am not, but if I were, I don't think that I would go to the parking lot of any kind of a large chain store where there are security cameras and a lot of witnesses. I mean, I don't even know what my business model is. I don't know what kind of turnover I need. But I'm sure I've said this before, because I don't have that many things to say about the world, but I'll say it again. There is something very resonant to me about white women spreading a story specifically about how white women just like them are actually being kidnapped and placed in shipping containers and sent across the ocean. Well, what does that sound like? For fear of that, I must call the police on this black UPS driver.
Emma: We also grew up with stranger danger.
Sarah: We sure did.
Emma: One of the most failed campaigns ever, because it really did make people focus on the wrong things. But in regard to child abductions or human trafficking, this is not a thing where there's like a roving gang of strangers out to get you. Most of these crimes are going to be done by someone that you know, someone close to you. So telling kids that danger is going to come from the outside, it's going to be a guy in a dark coat, you're making them afraid of the wrong thing. And what that means is that they're not going to be looking in the right direction.
Sarah: I mean, something about you're writing on the subject that I think is a question that you can directly address, that is kind of the hypothetical that's constantly posed as like, well, random attacks by strangers do exist. So, certainly as long as that threat exists somewhere, then this vigilance must be necessary. And what do you say to that?
Emma: There is no amount of vigilance that would have protected me. I'll get like, “Oh, would you wear a gun? What if you had had a gun?” It's like, if I had a gun, I would've been shot dead. That is what would have happened. I was walking my dog, it was 11:00 AM in a park where there is a playground, where there were other people, and I was blitz attacked from behind. There is no way I could have responded in time, to see my attacker in time, to fight off my attacker. There's no way I could have gotten to gun in time. So there's no amount of preparation or amount of vigilance that would have saved me. And that's really scary for a lot of people to hear. It's scary for me to think about, because I am incredibly lucky to be alive. If things had been different, if the knife had hit a few inches over, it could have hit my spine. If I hadn't gotten medical help. There are a lot of what-ifs that I think about.
But you have to understand that there are just things in life that you cannot control, and we accept that risk when we do things like drive a car. When we cross a busy intersection, like there are a lot of things we do that are dangerous and we just accept them because that is just part of living your life. If we really wanted to stay safe, we would never get in a car, we would never have a romantic relationship. But we have to do those things to survive. So, you just have to kind of accept the risk that like, yeah, it could happen, but the risk is so minimal and when it does happen, it's so rare, so out there that it does become a true crime story. I mean, that's not really something that you need to be spending your time worrying about it. That'll make you sick.
Sarah: My personal true crime fixation began when my mom, who I think also grew up in an attitude of great fear and told me the story of Kitty Genovese when I was 11, bought me Ann Rule’s, The Stranger Beside Me when I was 15 or 16. And that really started me down this sense of this is the wisdom passed between mothers and daughters. What do I do with it? It's like, you can't really do anything with it. You know, the kinds of stories that are very easy moneymakers and true crime media then and now, which I feel like are sexually motivated, serial murderers or serial murder with a murder that has a sexual component. That's always going to perform well on cable. It's always going to sell paperbacks.
Being kind of fixated on that as a teenager and thinking later on about what was that fixation about? What was I trying to figure out? That there's this way of trying, without looking directly at it, to figure out not what's wrong with serial killers, because there's obviously something extremely wrong or many extremely wrong things, but what's wrong with men who pass as normal?
To me, there was always something fascinating about the rhetoric that we talk about sexually motivated. Or I don't know if you can call sex a motive there. It's not sex, it's something else. But like murder with a component of sexual domination. The way that mass media looks at that and positions it, a mass media kind of made by men talking about other men that there's some sense of recognition there. I've always felt like there is an idea of, we live in a culture where domination of women is normal, but like that's clearly taking it too far.
Emma: I wonder also if there isn't sort of an element of telling yourself that you're an okay guy and the things that you do are okay, because you're not doing that at least. For me I was always like very interested in death, just as a little goth kid. My mom likes to remind me of when I was a kid, I made a list of ways for people to die. I think I was always just very interested in what happened when you die? Why do people die? And what made these people do the things that they do? I was always interested in darker things, but I never wanted to hurt anybody. So, what was it about them? Am I like them or am I not like them? Or are these just normal people and one bad thing happened to them and they changed? These are the worst that humanity has to offer. So you look at them and it makes you feel better about yourself as a person, and then you're also sort of drawn to that because there's, a lot of us are drawn to darkness, pretty much all the time. People have been interested in death and murder and we used to go to public hangings and people used to watch people fight to the death. So, I guess it's always just been like a human fascination.
But true crime, murder really isn't even that large percentage of overall crime. I don't know what the statistic is, but I know it's a small percentage. And I think the last time I checked it is something like 40% of true crime focuses on serial killers. That's like one of the most rare things of all. And so it is making it seem like it's a lot more prevalent than it is, looking at it that way. Looking at the most horrific crime. That's not what crime is. That is just like a very, very small percentage of crime, and it's something that's quite rare.
Sarah: I was a kid who was fascinated by death, and also deeply terrified of it, because it's scary and there's something about morbidity, at least as I've experienced it. Which is like a way of drawing what scares you most close to you in a way that puts it in a little outfit or something like that. Especially in a country like the U.S., which I think we're really in denial of the concept of death. I wonder if our fixation on murder is a way of looking at death without looking at directly in the face.
Emma: The way that we sort of as a culture just immediately shut ourselves away from any like dead body. Oh, someone's dead, come get the body, take the body away. We never really sit with it. We don't sit with the fact that death is real and that is a dead body that's next to us. What does that mean? Maybe the only way we can really sort of understand it is to see what other people do with sort of presence of death and how they react to that or why they would seek it.
Sarah: Yeah. I feel like if you're talking about serial killers, especially like you get to talk about dead bodies in a way that maybe you wanted to do that anyway, but it feels like there's no space for that culturally. But if you're talking about a murderer or if you're talking about forensics, it's like, you're allowed to be interested in death and what happens to us when we die. Again, because it has this theoretical utility to it.
Emma: Right. Which is again sort of this way putting something that could just be an interest that you have and trying to make it good virtue or try to make it something useful or helpful. When it's okay to be interested in what happens when we die. It's okay to wonder about the bugs and the maggots and all the gross stuff. It's normal. I've kind of always wanted to go to one of those body farms.
Sarah: I was talking to my mom last night and I was like, “When I die, and I don't expect you to have anything to do with this because I will outlive you by many decades, so don't worry about it. But when I die, I might want to be donated to a body farm.” I think we had this conversation about 16 hours ago.
Emma: I just think they’re so cool. There are things about death that are beautiful in a way, and a very gross way. This idea that we are worm food in the end and how that can kind of be comforting that we are just a body and it's providing nutrients to something else and sort of living on in that way.
Sarah: Being star dust and worm food, and the worms are also star dust. So we're just like star dust eaten by more star dust. It’s a little bit slimier. Talking about murder allows us to think about death without feeling creepy.
Emma: Yeah. I think maybe as we became more secular, there's sort of a question of what happens after you die? We don't have an answer for that. Like there isn't a reassuring, well, you go to heaven. And I know there are people who are religious who are our generation, but certainly not as much as people who are older than us probably. As we become a more secular country, I think there's interest in death in this sort of fascination with that is because we don't have an answer provided by a church or something like that.
Sarah: There is this funny thing too, where I feel like, where have all the serial killers gone? Are people who would have been serial killers mass shooters? There has to be some amount of transference there. I wonder a lot about the economics of serial killing and how a lot of serial killers, at least who we talk about owned property, or had a basement.
Emma: You need a place to like kill people if you're going to kill people, usually.
Sarah: Right. Or at least if you're going to have your weird MO. And again, we are all paradoxes. I feel very sqwicky about the ethical justifications we're setting up for true crime and our ideas about it being kind of virtuous to consume. And also, I love Criminal Minds.
Emma: That was part of my recovery process was watching as many seasons of Criminal Minds as I could find. And it's such nonsense and I love it.
Sarah: I do feel like Criminal Minds is like some kind of an apex of American serial killer media. What is it about that show?
Emma: They always get there in the nick of time with the last victim, and they come up with just the most ridiculous profiles for the reasons people do things. I know profiling is like a pseudoscience, I know that. Yet I'm still like, oh no, it's because he has issues with his mother.
Sarah: Yeah. I know vampires aren't real either probably, but like I still love vampire shows and I love how they always catch the killer. He's like about to kill someone at that second.
Emma: They always catch them in the act for the last victim, always.
Sarah: I don't know. It's like revealing what the fantasy of the serial killer lets us have. Because if there are all these over-the-top evils, extravagant, flamboyantly, destructive people running around, then they get to also be these people who can track them down in 45 minutes of TV time.
Emma: Right. There's no shades there. It's all black and white. Serial killers are bad. They're the worst humanity has to offer. And if that's true, then that must mean the cops are the good guys and they're always right. They're always going to get there in the nick of time, and they're not corrupt, and they don't hurt people. The justice system works, and everything will work out and you'll get saved. It's a fantasy, but it's also a narrative. It's a way of looking at the world that allows you to escape and pretend that things are okay.
Sarah: Yeah, we have these needs from narrative. We have these needs about the world that we want to fantasize about living in. Criminal Minds feels like as long as you remember this is fiction, Paget Brewster doesn't really do this for a living, you can take those needs to this show and not force a story that is purporting to be factual and to meeting those for you.
Emma: I think you can do the same with true crime. You can watch it, but you do have to remember that this isn't really reality. It's a skewed version of reality. It's extremely rare. It's selected because it's something that is unique and sensational. There is a way to manage it and still enjoy it.
Sarah: I definitely grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries whenever I could find it on cable. And then at some point in the pandemic, I was like, oh my God, I get an Unsolved Mysteries channel on my free Samsung TV. It's the same invitation that we're getting now from this prestige world of true crime is just like Robert Stack standing with some artificial fog around him and a trench coat going, “Perhaps you can help solve a mystery.”
It's all okay as long as we agree that we're thinking that we might help solve a mystery, because that's a fun thing to believe that you might do in the next hour. But not necessarily because you actually are going to, or because you're going to find some guy on Facebook and stalk him through social media and decide he's a murderer.
Emma: The sense that you're being included, and you can become part of the case or part of the story. I think we saw that a lot with Gabby Petito case, which was just really weird, over the line stuff. Just people going through every bit of her social media and pictures and with the fiancé too. It is the idea that we're helping, we're solving the case, we're friends of Gabby's. And it's like this isn't a person that you know, this is a real person who was missing or that is someone's daughter, and you're not a part of this, we're not a part of this. I think that that sort of invitation to like become part of it can be really dangerous.
Sarah: You know, the pleasure of fiction and the thing that it offers to us safely is I can read The Hunger Games and feel like I know Katniss Everdeen, and she is my friend, and I understand her, and I can speak for her in some way. I'm not hurting anybody because she's fictional and I grew up writing fan fiction and I feel like the outlets that fictional characters offer us, I guess. The Newsies were based on real people, but they're also like very dead at this point. Those outlets are so meaningful, and clearly we have this need for connection that we bring to fictional characters, nd it just gets so weird so fast. When you're telling yourself that you're doing something helpful for this person who has a grieving family and you're bringing to them some of the needs that maybe would be better met by a fictional person.
Emma: What happens when you know this person you're treating as a character doesn't respond the way that you want? Then it becomes a situation where these are real people. They're not going to respond to you the way that you want them to all the time, and that you need to recognize that they have their own motivations. They have their own ways of doing things. And most people who become stalkers, they start off thinking that they're friends with someone who is not their friend. We're seeing that sort of mirror large scale now.
Sarah: I think the idea of a guilty pleasure is like a little bit, not quite right already because we don't have to feel guilty for the things that we enjoy. I don't have to feel guilty for the fact that I've watched Legally Blonde 45 times. There could be some better language that doesn't convey the idea of guilt onto the things that we consume because we need them, but also tells us it doesn't make you bad, but it doesn't make you good either. It's just something that you need.
Emma: As a writer, people will always ask, what are your guilty pleasure books? I don't call them guilty pleasure books, I call them my comfort reads. I think that to me is sort of what true crime can be. It's like, you don't have to feel guilt for enjoying it, because we enjoy all sorts of things that are not good for us. It's okay to reread the books about dragons that you read when you were 13. It's fine and I feel guilt, but you also do not have to defend it as the right and moral thing to do, or that you are getting something from it more than just your own pleasure.
Sarah: Yeah. Or swaging your anxiety or giving yourself a sense of control, even if fleetingly. And watching all those episodes of Unsolved Mysteries during a pandemic, and also really falling back on my love of horror movies. I'm like watching more horror movies in the past year and a half than I probably have since high school. I know that was meeting a need for me that had something to do with the fact of the world feels really scary and I don't know where the bad thing is going to come in, and I'm just like stressed about everything all the time. So, wouldn't it be nice to go to a world where you can just focus on being scared of Jigsaw for 90 minutes, as opposed to everything. That doesn't mean that I'm going to learn how to be a better person, it doesn't mean I'm going to be safer. It just, I need that.
Emma: When you're reading a horror book, you know that there's an end coming, you know, that there's going to be that final third act showdown where you fight the bad guy. And it's like going on a roller coaster, you're doing it because it's fun and exhilarating. There's an end coming, there's going to be a big climb up to the top and you're going to drop, you're going to get that feeling in your stomach. Some people love it, and some people hate it, but it does come to an end though, and then you can get off.
Sarah: I also was attracted to true crime as a kid because I was like ,I feel different. I feel like there's something wrong with me. I don't know how to socialize correctly. Does that mean that if I'm broken, then how far away am I from these really broken people who are doing all these things in these books I'm reading? The questions of like, by what grace have I been able to grow up into someone who has certain traumas and has baggage and various areas, but violence is not one of them. I don't direct aggression or violent impulses at other people, and I feel very lucky about that.
I feel like one of the positive things that kind of trying to sit uncomfortably with and think about stories of people who harm or kill other people, is this feeling of we don't love each other because it is nice, we love each other because we can and because it's better to do that than to not. I'm convinced that anyone who can do that does, and if you can't then maybe I feel scared of you, but I definitely feel bad for you.
Emma: Especially with reading something like In Cold Blood, when you see how deep Truman Capote went, how much sort of empathy he had for this man who couldn't even articulate why he did what he did. They're just people, they're just people who made really bad decisions. And it can be really scary to think that like, oh, that could have happened to me. I also think that there is a point where you would say, no, I'm not going to do that or no, I'm not going to hurt people just because someone else's is going along with it. Most of us won't be tested that way. Especially for the people who write about it, you know, maybe one of the positives is just bring a little bit of humanity to people that seem inhumane.
Sarah: That's something that studying real people can do. And there's this tension between we need certain narratives for comfort, for a sense of control. Yet, we also existentially in this idea of like we're living in a community, we're living in a society is another. True crime, all the things that genre can be, I feel like it's capable of both bringing us together and driving us apart. And I think just kind of expanding being thoughtful about what could this genre come to encompass? That feels exciting to me.
And I'm an evangelist for horror and quite a lot I find myself explaining what I get out of it. I feel like at least some of the people who I talk to who could never imagine liking horror, are true crime consumers. And I wonder if they're meeting the needs that horror would give them, and they just maybe don't necessarily realize that.
Emma: You tell them to talk to me, I'll get them some they will like.
Sarah: What are your hopes for the future of this genre that has had such a busy few years?
Emma: I would just like for people to sort of understand that they're not at risk of a lot of these things happening to them, and to sort of take a step back and evaluate what it's doing to their psyche. We know that things like Fox News are not good for our parents and that it makes them paranoid. We don't think the same thing about the kind of media that we consume. I just would hope that people would take a look and see what they're consuming, and do a sort of a self-check-in and is this affecting my view of the world? Is it affecting how I view my neighbors or people that I see and meet? Is it affecting how I interact with people in this world? And try and fight back against that if it is?
And I would hope that it continues to expand, to include more victims that aren't white women, and more stories about crimes that aren't just murder. I'm hopeful that we're heading in that direction. I mean, I think there's always going to be some of those sensationalized murder/rape kind of thing, but hopefully that will just be one aspect of a wider genre.
Sarah: Yeah, and expanding in American society our idea of, what is crime, which feels underway.
Emma: I mean, there's a lot of things that we think of as being perfectly fine that aren't. When you talk about theft, people think of shoplifting, they don't think about wage theft. And that's a much bigger issue. We just don't think about crimes from that perspective.
Sarah: Right and when we talk about human trafficking, we're thinking about white women being abducted from Best Buy and not about someone who doesn't have the correct papers being essentially indentured to their boss.
Emma: Right. Yeah. Or separated from their family and don't know where to go. There are things that we can look at through this lens of what is a crime and things that people would think of as just sort of basic reporting or journalism, that can be sort of umbrellaed under true crime.
Sarah: To me the question is, what do I need right now? Like, am I curious about the world? Do I want to learn, or am I in the mood where I want to be told to stay indoors and not trust anyone? If I'm in that kind of mood, how can I not ask reality to confirm my anxiety in a way that will comfort me but impair my abilities as a citizen who's aware of what my resources are and maybe that I have more chance to help them to be harmed in my day-to-day life.
Emma: Yeah, and that was the really big thing with me. A stranger attacked me, and then a stranger helped me, called the police and stayed with me until the paramedics got there. You have to weigh those against one another. If you're afraid of a stranger, because they might stab you, one could also help you. I choose to believe that they're more of the latter than the former.
Sarah: Where can we find you? Where can we find more of your wonderful work?
Sarah: It's got to be at least some good stuff on Twitter, so I'm happy that you're doing it.