Content warning: this blog article briefly mentions abuse and a violent attack.
Picture this: I am making myself and my partner spaghetti Bolognese for dinner, as I move between chopping up the garlic, the peppers and the onion, my ears and mind aren’t tuned into what I’m cooking, but to the true crime podcast I’m listening to.
The hosts of the hugely popular, ‘My Favourite Murder’, are discussing a particularly gruesome case about a young boy who was found in a box, embedded into the ground of a rural woodland somewhere in America where two unsuspecting hunters, finishing off their last day of rabbit season, came upon him after hearing his calls for help.
A couple weeks later now, I couldn’t tell you the specificities of where this happened. But, I could tell you about the image of this young boy, found chained in a box, and the story of the man who kidnapped him and put him there.
I have spent many an evening, afternoon, walk to work, lockdown walk along the seafront, five-hour train journey from the South of England up to the North, listening to or watching true crime, and I never considered for one moment that it might be having a negative impact on me or my mental health.
So, what, if any, are the negative effects of watching ‘too much’ true crime?
I started my true crime journey with ‘Serial’, in 2014 after my housemate at university very easily convinced me it was worth my first foray into the, what was then, fairly underground world of podcasts.
Since then, I have had numerous moments of ‘realisation’, so to speak about my own mental health. The first was coming to terms with an instance of abuse that happened in my childhood, the second was realising how that trauma makes me relate to myself and other people, the third and most recent was finding out that there was a name for all of this: complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
One of the instantly recognisable signs of PTSD and C-PTSD is ‘hypervigilance’. Hypervigilance is a general feeling of anxiety, stress, feeling on edge, and existing, on some level in the state of a stress/trauma response: fight, flight, freeze, fawn and flop.
For me, one of the ways this manifests is in an overactive startle response, which is simultaneously sometimes quite amusing (multiple spillages have happened owing to my partner appearing round a corner when I least expect them), and can also be quite exhausting. Going into a state of freeze, heart racing, muscles tight, multiple times a day can take its toll.
So, imagine my dismay when, upon listening to another of my favourite podcasts, ‘You’re Wrong About’, author, Emma Berquist called out the fact that multiple women around her who are similarly obsessed with true crime, were displaying this very symptom, because of over-exposure to the genre. An insight that is made all the more intriguing by the fact that Emma herself, noticed this phenomenon whilst trying to work through her own PTSD in therapy, after being a violently attacked.
I caught up with Emma, to further discuss what might be a growing phenomenon: are women giving themselves PTSD because of their obsession with true crime? Or, is the story slightly more nuanced?
Emma, originally from Austin, Texas now lives in Wellington, New Zealand, loves horror and has written two books, Devils Unto Dust, and Missing, Presumed Dead. As the latter title might suggest, Emma is also a true crime fan.
On December 6th 2019 Emma was walking her dog in a Wellington park, in the morning and was stabbed repeatedly by a young person she didn’t know.
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Emma has written extensively about this experience and the aftermath of it, but what actually brought me to her and convinced me to get in touch was what she had to say on the ‘True Crime’ episode of ‘You’re Wrong About’, which then in turn led me to an article she wrote for Gawker about the idea that drove this article.
“You are more likely to die from heart disease or a car crash than you are from being murdered. And in the U.S., men are far likelier to be homicide victims than women. But listening to true crime podcasts, you would never suspect this. Most of the audience and the hosts themselves are female, and most cases covered by true crime podcasts are about women. It’s making women paranoid.”
I must admit, reading this, my defensiveness turned on almost immediately. But, then I read on. Speaking on how true crime overwhelmingly focuses on violent crimes committed against (mainly white) women, Emma wrote:
“The covers are splashy, sensational, the message clear: danger is all around you. This isn’t new, but what used to be contained mainly on supermarket check-out shelves is now everywhere: on our TVs, on our computers, in our ears. “You’re in danger,” says the new Netflix documentary. “Someone could be outside your door right now,” warns the neighborhood surveillance app. “This dead woman thought she was safe,” chirps the cheerful podcast lady.”
So this is where my questions for Emma started, with this initial feeling of defensiveness over how I, rather strangely, spend a lot of my time.
When/if you have confronted the women around you who are responding to true crime in this way, that they are, as you say in the Gawker piece, are ‘choosing to live the way I’m fighting to overcome’ what has been the response? Has there been pushback?
"I was surprised that most of the responses to my article were fairly positive, or at least understanding of the points I was attempting to make. Maybe it helped that I've been clear about also being a fan of true crime, which is why I wanted to interrogate my feelings about it to begin with. I did get some pushback, mostly on Twitter, from women who felt that I was attempting to diminish violence against women. Despite being a victim of violence, I can understand their perspective, but I don't think it diminishes violence against women to point out the statistics on murder in regard to gender. Of course, with a crime like domestic violence it's going to be different, but my issue with that is true crime doesn't focus much on domestic violence; most of the focus is on "flashier" cases like murder."
Following on from that, what would you say to people – namely women – who do expose themselves to true crime regularly, as a kind of salve to a reality that they perceive as a fact with or without true crime? That women do feel more at risk, that ever since we were young, we’ve been exchanging the ‘text me when you’re home’ messages because that fear was already there before we ever engaged with true crime?
"Like you said, as women we've lived most of our lives with a kind of awareness that becomes second nature."
"I think a lot of women listen to true crime because it centres women, and there's a sense of community and solidarity there."
"But I also think that constant exposure to these kinds of stories has an effect on our psyche, and that it's very easy to cross the line from awareness to hypervigilance. The media we consume does alter our perspective, and if we're always hearing stories about women being hurt, I think we need to ask ourselves what that's doing to our view of the world."
Many women might argue that watching true crime, gives them an opportunity to take back control, to prepare, to be aware, in a world where they feel out of control and victimised, what perspective has being attacked given you on this experience?
"Being in control is something that I struggle with a lot after having been attacked, and it's one of the things that got me thinking about the true crime piece to begin with. I spent a lot of time thinking about what-ifs, which I think many women do when considering true crime."
"We think about what we do in certain scenarios, or what someone else did wrong. That's normal, of course, but it's also a form of victim blaming, to think that someone could have avoided being murdered if they only made different choices. And I think for me, a bigger problem was that I was so focused on taking back control that when life inevitably threw something uncontrollable in my direction, it sent me into a spiral."
"An uncomfortable part of PTSD therapy is having to accept that some things are outside of your control - that's just part of life. I think true crime gives us the illusion of control, and I think that can be comforting, but it's also just that - a comfort, and not a reality. And I think that's fine, as long as we recognize it."
A study from 2010, published on Sage found that women are not only the primary audience for true crime, but that they do in fact use it as an educational tool, that they feel it helps them to detect potential danger, avoid abusive people and even how they might trick someone to get out of a potentially life endangering situation.
As Emma said, it is not as black and white as ‘men are more likely to be harmed so women don’t have anything to be scared of’, women and marginalised genders are, overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence and there is a culturally pervasive sense, as a woman that you do not have power.
You do often not have power over who touches you, over your own body and what you choose to do with it, and so it is understandable then, when a case like that of Sarah Everard, is in the news, that it confirms all those fears we carry that are so entangled in the experience of living in a systemically patriarchal, sexist, misogynist society.
And so, what do we do? We turn to true crime, as Emma said, to convince ourselves we have control and that we would make “different choices”. But, ultimately, is this exposure actually hindering us? What happens when the hypervigilance, the distrust doesn’t protect us but only serves to hide us away and not experience life fully.
Last week we reported on new Royal College of Psychiatrists research that projects an exponential increase in instances of PTSD as a result of the pandemic. Not only frontline workers and those who have been seriously ill have felt the strain of the past 18 months though, from financial instability to the general stress, trauma and the unfamiliar landscape of a worldwide pandemic, not to mention huge cultural moments like the murder of George Floyd, our mental resilience has been tested in a way unseen for many decades.
Maybe, it’s time us and true crime took a break? Maybe the relationship has become toxic, and it has started controlling us instead of us controlling it.
In preparation for writing this article, I haven’t listened to any true crime podcasts or watched any true crime TV for three weeks. I’ve found (probably unsurprisingly to Emma) that, I don’t miss it. With Christmas coming up, I plan to continue this streak, perhaps I’ll check back in, in four months to try and convince you all to do the same.