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Bodies, everywhere. Strangled, found in a wooded area. Shot, slumped against a front door. Missing, but suspected dead.
Often, the bodies belong to women. Often, the atrocities are unsolved.
The genre is true crime, and its following is gigantic.
The podcast’s first season, which investigated the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, was downloaded millions of times. Season 3 debuts Sept. 20 and explores an array of cases in Cleveland.
The HBO documentary miniseries examines real estate heir Robert Durst and the disappearance of his wife, the killing of his female friend and the dismemberment of his neighbor. An inadvertent confession during filming led to his arrest.
And there are more coming.
Like “The Act.” Hulu recently ordered this true-crime anthology series, according to Deadline. The first season, starring Patricia Arquette, is drawn from a 2016 Buzzfeed article by Michelle Dean, titled “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered.” The crime is also at the center of 2017 HBO documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”
Or Oxygen’s “Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers.” This ongoing series investigates Chambers’s death. In December 2014, the Mississippi teen was burned alive.
There’s even an entire true-crime festival. “Death Becomes Us” will descend on Washington, D.C., this fall. Speakers range from a retired homicide detective to podcasters and cold-case experts.
Undoubtedly, the genre is beloved, with new offerings doled out to match consumer appetites. But on some level, is our collective fascination cruel to victims, particularly women?
Questions like this tugged at novelist Courtney Summers and informed the writing in her new young adult book, “Sadie.” Summers began the story, about a girl who disappears while hunting her sister’s murderer and the true-crime podcast dedicated to finding her, as “Serial” wrapped up its first season.
“One of the things that I wanted to do with ‘Sadie’ was to remind people that at the heart of these stories about brutalized women, about missing girls, is a girl,” she says.
“As soon as you turn a story like this into a consumable, binge-able form of entertainment, you run the risk of objectifying the women at the heart of it — and as soon as you do that, you turn them almost into objects that are disposable. Once they stop entertaining us, what happens to those girls? What is our responsibility to them?”
It’s crucial that we stay in touch with a victim’s humanity, Summers warns. “It’s a life,” she says, and often, “we don’t see it as such. We see it as a plot point.”
If you think Summers is anti-true-crime, she isn’t. In fact, she’s a fan. She likes the podcast “Criminal," which she calls thoughtful: “It demands the questions I want true crime to ask.”
Unpacking our thirst for crime narratives and identifying what’s behind the appeal is tricky.
“Why do we like to watch that? It’s a complicated question,” says feminist sociologist, criminologist and author Lynn Chancer, who teaches at Hunter College and the Graduate Center in New York.
In part, we’re seduced by delving into the minds of criminals and murderers.
“So many of us, including myself and my husband, are constantly into the latest crime series. There’s something fascinating, I think, about how and why someone does something that you can’t imagine yourself doing.”
Our exploration of crime, though, is narrow. “We don’t necessarily look at the larger social questions of: why is this so common? What does that have to say about violence in American society and particularly violence against women?”
Chancer also points to the concept of recreational terror, coined by fellow sociologist Isabel Pinedo. Imagine you’re watching a horror film: “You’re watching these awful things happen,” Chancer says, but “you know you’re going to leave the movie theater.” You aren’t the victim. “So you’re almost working through your own anxiety.”
In other words, viewers get a sense of “voyeuristic involvement” without actually being vulnerable. The same goes for true crime, Chancer says. It can be “oddly scary and reassuring at the same time.”
When the perpetrator of a crime is a woman — a la Oxygen’s “Snapped” series, which profiles women accused of murder — our interest can deepen.
“People are both repulsed and fascinated by crime generally and the more macabre the crime, the greater the fascination,” says Karen Corteen, a senior lecturer in criminal justice at Liverpool John Moores University School of Law in England. “This is especially the case if the perpetrator is a woman.
By committing a crime, Corteen notes, a woman has both broken the law and gone against her expected gender role.
Moral or ethical quandaries aside, many of us will continue tuning into such stories.
“I’m going to be honest,” says Summers. “I’m always going to be a fan of the category and I’m always going to listen to those podcasts, but I think we should always be conscious of what we’re consuming, why we’re consuming.”
Illustrations by Amy Cavenaile / The Lily