No More Murder, She Wrote

This confession is going to get me kicked out of the zeitgeist and probably disinvited to somebody’s book club wine party, but I don’t enjoy murder as cocktail conversation.   

Unearthed body parts, swamp-dwelling suspects, shocked neighbors who shake their heads and tsktsk “but he was such a quiet man”—none of it interests me. I spend a lot of time trying to ignore life’s inescapable horrors, and sleeping during perimenopause is already a challenge without extra meditation on human creepiness. Forgive me if diving into the blood-spattered rabbit holes of grisly death mysteries just isn’t that relaxing. 

Clearly, I’m a freak, because everyone else on earth appears to have a favorite murder and a medium dedicated to dissecting its terrible details. I simply don’t understand why anyone would want to listen to some FBI stooge in khakis yammer about DNA analysis when RuPaul’s Drag Race has all the drama a person could possibly stomach, plus fabulously sick lewks

I’ll never be Mare of Midtown, but it doesn’t take a sleuth to figure out that true crime obsession is the new black. Serial killers and abusive sickos dominate the airwaves and interwebs, their victims subjected to scrutiny. The crime-as-entertainment industrial media complex—including streaming series, documentaries, podcasts, books, conventions, and Youtube beauty influencers telling lurid tales as they expertly blend highlighter into fierce cheekbones—represents billions in revenue. 

America’s on a murder binge, and it seems like everyone’s jumping into the bloodbath. New series and podcasts are being announced every week, and last year true crime surpassed science as the most-demanded documentary subgenre—which considering that people are still treating their COVID-19 symptoms with horse dewormer, should surprise no one. 

As if this city didn’t have enough of its own true crime to stay occupied, some of us want more: Last Saturday, the downtown Marriott hosted The Savannah Crime Expo, where hundreds of local enthusiasts took deep dives with forensic genealogist Anthony Redgrave and heard the terrifying tale of Kathy Kleiner-Rubin, who escaped from the clutches of Ted Bundy in 1978. I wasn’t able to attend, but I’m told they killed it (whomp whomp). 

I’m not saying loving murder is wrong—listen, I could watch The Muppet Show 24/7 for the rest of my life, and some people think that’s some seriously deviant shit. I think the investigative elements of some crime podcasts are admirable, holding law enforcement accountable and even serving to reopen investigations that exonerate the innocent, as in the case of In the Dark’s Curtis Flowers

And while there is still a problematic amount of attention focused on the mysterious disappearances of pretty white straight women like Gabby Petito, the spotlight is beginning to shift towards the previously invisible stories of indigenous women—who are murdered at ten times the rate of any other ethnicity—and the unsolved killings of countless transwomen. If the craze for crime leads to more and better justice for all, I’m all for it. As long as I can close my eyes and sing lalalala under my breath during the gory parts. 

It’s just that I’m a fierce protector of my mental health, and maybe my psyche is more fragile than most. I definitely notice an uptick in anxiety when I watch too much violent TV or listen to hideous descriptions of gaping head wounds. Keeping my media diet as bloodless as possible helps dispel the perspective that the world is a cold, hostile hellhole full of murderous zombies. I don’t need to be reminded that people do abominable, cruel, awful things; Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Scooby Doo meme is scary enough.

Experts say that gruesome entertainment isn’t necessarily unhealthy, though steeping in the bloody tea too much can be toxic.

“You may find yourself worrying whether the person you’re chatting with at the grocery store isn’t actually as nice as they seem. When you start asking yourself questions like, ‘What if they have dead bodies in their basement?’ you probably need to take a step back and consider your crime intake,” counsels Dr. Chivonna Childs in her recent article, “Is Your Love of True Crime Impacting Your Mental Health?”

“When you’re constantly consuming stories that reveal the worst parts of humanity, you can start to doubt the humanity of the people around you.” 

Dr. Childs also assures that true crime lovers (probably) aren’t psychopathic monsters themselves, which is a huge relief, since I feel like that’s most of y’all? 

An informal survey of my women friends—83 percent of true crime audiences are female, assuming dudes listen to sportgame recaps—about why they love murder shows and podcasts revealed some interesting inklings. (Names are redacted for their protection, y’know, to be legit.) 

Some enjoy the armchair adventure aspect. “It’s like an interactive video game—you get to play along, hunting for clues,” mused Michelle S., adding wryly, “It’s like QAnon, without the sedition.”

For others, there is an empowering element to advocate for their own safety and trust their instincts.

“There’s this idea that it can prepare you in case you encounter a dangerous situation,” said Jennifer L., who clarified that she does not think she is going to be murdered every time she leaves her house, mostly.

I hadn’t considered murder podcasts as feminist dialectic, but further discourse revealed a dismantling of sexist cultural expectations beneath the shocking carnage.

“They’re coming from a perspective of situational awareness and how women are conditioned not to be rude, which men take advantage of,” mused Rubi M. of My Favorite Murder’s “Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered” messaging. “I don’t listen to the other murder podcasts; I’m in it for the sisterhood.”

For Carey F., true crime rehashments are simple cautionary tales. “To be honest, it just makes me feel good about my life choices.” 

Of course, every one of these chats led to the True Crime Sensation right in our own Lowcountry backyard. I’ve been trying to dismiss the murders of South Carolina’s Paul and Maggie Murdaugh for months now, because trashy white rich people behaving badly are also not my thing. 

In fact, when I started writing this column, I knew almost nothing about the hot labyrinthine mess involving a boat accident, another dead man found in the middle of a deserted road, a dead housekeeper, a faked shooting, and how over a century of white privilege in a rural Southern county enriched a family and allowed them to mutilate the law for their own advantage. 

National news outlets have covered this dramatic saga aplenty, but I figured if I was going to write about it, I would go to the definitive source: Hilton Head journalist Mandy Matney of FITSNews.com has been covering the Murdaughs since the 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach (the 911 call is pretty damning, though because of his family’s power it may or may not have resulted in the conviction of Paul Murdaugh if he wasn’t now dead himself.) Mandy has been chasing down every dastardly detail of the double homicide and its connecting horrors, producing a podcast at her kitchen table that has garnered a massive following for her succinct reporting and self-aware sudden celebrity—you’ve gotta love a gal who can laugh at her own vocal fry.

I expected to listen to a few snippets, but I tripped and fell straight down the rabbit warren to eat up every single episode. Now I’m as invested as the rest of y’all: What did the police find in the swamp? What really happened to Gloria Satterfield? Who names their kid Buster and where the hell is he? What progressive candidate is going to wrest away power and rescue Hampton County from its longtime status as a judicial hellhole

Maybe it’s because the Murdaugh Murders hit so close to home, but the schadenfreude is real, y’all. There’s a certain pleasure in witnessing the downfall of those who have gotten away with so much for so long, though none of us can know whether it feels like justice for the families of Mallory Beach, Stephen Smith, and Gloria Satterfield—or anyone else who has suffered as part of the terrible stories that are now fodder for entertainment.

“Every true crime story is actually true for someone,” reminds Steve Martin’s character in the latest episode of Only Murders in the Building, the charming HULU show lampooning the true crime obsession. 

I’m still no fan of the genre, but I guess I can finally hold up my end of the murder conversation in between viewings of the new Muppet movie trailer. I’ll need to stay vigilant of my mental health as the rest of this case unravels, so maybe I’ll have to listen with the covers over my head?

Send me your whodunit theories ~ JLL