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Confessions of a True Crime Fanatic

Crime-scene-tapeGuilty as charged- I am an avid reader of books about murder and serial killers. At the moment, I can’t put down Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker, about the homicides of five women who advertised as escorts on Craigslist. While most know John Grisham for his novels, I preferred his foray into non-fiction with The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, the account of the exoneration of a death row inmate wrongfully convicted of murder.

I finally read Ann Rule’s classic, The Stranger Beside Me, a chronicle of a crime spree involving the homicide of at least 30 women. In an utterly remarkable coincidence, the true crime author landed the contract to write a book about a serial killer on the loose in the 1970s, only to find out that the murderer was her friend and former coworker, Ted Bundy. Rule later wrote Green River Running Red, about the “Green River Killer” in the Pacific Northwest. After finishing that one I checked out Green River Killer: A True Detective Story, a graphic novel about the same subject.

When not reading books about true crime, I spend my free time watching shows and movies and listening to podcasts in the same genre. To anyone else who binge-watched The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, or Making a Murderer, I recommend the series The Staircase, about Michael Peterson, the crime author accused of murdering his wife.

In the feature length category, I enjoyed both the documentary Team Foxcatcher, and movie Foxcatcher, about John du Pont’s murder of wrestler Dave Schultz. Recently released, the film My Friend Dahmer, based on a graphic novel by the same name, chronicles the young life of the cannibal killer, before he began taking lives.

During my daily commute I listen to Casefile, with its mesmerizing and anonymous Australian host, and Criminal, which extends to crimes including Venus flytrap theft and the abuse of the Tennessee Walking Horse. For lighter fare, My Favorite Murder combines true crime and comedy, as the hosts chat about real-life horrors not as experts but as fellow true crime fans. They end each episode with their catch phrase, “stay sexy and don’t get murdered!” Real Crime Profile digs deep into cases in the media spotlight thanks to TV series such as The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, looking at them through the lens of behavioral analysts and FBI criminal profilers.

Please do not judge me or accuse me of voyeurism or gawking at others’ tragedy! It turns out I am not alone in this fascination with the macabre. The true crime genre is extremely popular, among women in particular. Prolific crime writer Ann Rule estimated that 85% of her readers were female, according to an article about this phenomenon in Cosmopolitan.

Why, though, do women gravitate toward the sick and twisted? These are some reasons, I suspect, behind our guilty pleasure:

Relatability: Margaret Atwood once said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” With some exceptions like Aileen Wuornos, whose crimes are recounted in the movie Monster, women are the victims of male serial killers. Men simply can’t identify with these stories the same way that women can.

Cautionary tales: Given that some risks disproportionally impact women, true crime tales teach us what to do and what not to do in the face of an attack, and how to protect ourselves. Memorize license plates. Preserve DNA evidence. Notify others about where you are going, and with whom. Don’t get into cars with strangers. Never hitchhike.

History: I mainly read non-fiction. I love constantly learning about historical events, and thinking about how they inform the future. The serial murders recounted in true crime narratives really happened. I feel it is important to know about the “summer of Sam” and Pogo the Clown, should things like this come up. The history of scientific progress encompasses the evolution of forensic investigation, including fingerprint, ballistics, and DNA analysis.

Justice: Although some perpetrators elude capture, most true crime stories follow a similar arc in which a reign of terror and frustrating hunt for a killer culminate in the discovery and apprehension of a “bad guy.” Usually evidence abounds and the murderer goes to trial, gets convicted, and ends up behind bars, or even sentenced to death. This “happy ending” provides comfort, sending the message that bad guys get punished, and justice prevails.

Lydia Sampson is the Technical Services department head at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Lydia’s column in the May 3, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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