Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
The boundary between real life crimes and fictional ones has been blurry for a long time. Writers have been using elements of actual murders in their plots as long as crime fiction has existed. I’ve explored some of the most famous instances from history, such as the cases of the Brides in the Bath and the Road Hill House Murder on past episodes of the podcast. There are also plenty of instances where real life murderers have been inspired, in the grimmest possible meaning of that word, by elements that they have read about in books or seen in films. Perhaps the most relevant example to what this show covers were events in the village of Bovingdon, Hertfordshire in 1971, when a real life killer followed the fictional pattern set by Agatha Christie in her novel The Pale Horse.
The interchange between crimes in fact and fiction is made all the more complicated by true crime — a genre unto itself that involves the telling of real life stories about crimes, often murders, as a form of entertainment. As a listener to podcasts, you are probably aware that true crime podcasts in particular have experienced a boom in popularity over the last few years. Where once you might have needed to buy books or magazines to get your true crime fix, there are now thousands of hours of these “ripped from real life” tales waiting to be whispered into your ear at the touch of a button.
But is it a good idea for us to spend so much time immersed in the actions of people who harm others? What are we doing when we consume stories of real murders, with real victims, for fun? Given that I have devoted parts of my own podcast to doing just this, these are questions I’m always interested in considering, and I hope you’ll join me as we dive into them in more detail today.
My guest for this examination of the dark side of true crime is Emma Berquist, a writer from Texas who has published both fiction with a crime element and non-fiction essays and articles about the ethics of true crime. In 2021, she wrote a piece for Gawker titled “True Crime Is Rotting Our Brains” that addressed what happens to our mindset and ideas as we consume these stories, and she’s also written in the past about how being the victim of a violent crime herself affected her views on all of this. We’re not going to go into any details of that attack or her injuries in this episode, by the way, but there’s a link to Emma’s account of it in the description if you’d like to read it. Emma, welcome to the show.
Caroline: So if you were to describe your relationship with true crime now, what would it be?
Emma: I’m still a fan. I think it’s hard sometimes for people to hear criticisms of it and I get it. But I think we should interrogate the things that we like. I think it’s smart to do that and healthy to do that.
And I mean, I would still say that I’m a fan of true crime. I mean, I just finished watching The Gacy Tapes on Netflix, you know, I’m still always going to have a relationship with it because it’s something that I’m interested in. I’m curious about crime. I’m curious about murder and killings and the darker side of human nature.
But I also think that some of the ways that we go about it, and the proliferation of it, isn’t always a positive thing.
So I’d say it’s something that I treat like a guilty pleasure. The way that you would watch reality TV or something. Like, I know this probably isn’t good for me, but I still enjoy it. So I’m gonna do it.
Caroline: And has that changed at all over time? Did you used to be a less critical consumer of it?
Emma: II think so. I think I bought into the idea that “I’m staying informed”. This is maybe not helpful in terms of like giving you tips, but I didn’t necessarily think that there was a downside to it until I sort of started realising that I was thinking about things too much.
And especially after my own attack, I started seeing a lot of my PTSD symptoms being repeated in people who were avid true crime consumers. And it made me start to think a little bit more critically about, especially the amount and the type of true crime that we’re consuming.
Caroline: You mentioned your attack there and this is something you’ve written about a few times. Would you say that was a bit of a turning point in your attitude to the genre becoming a victim of a crime like that yourself?
Emma: I think it wasn’t the actual attack. I think it was the recovery years down the road.
So, I mean the actual attack, getting over it, it’s mostly just a physical process of getting over it and healing. And then it’s that the mental toll it takes on you can last for a very long time. And so I don’t think it was necessarily the attack itself, but it was recognising the lingering symptoms and then seeing them in other people who hadn’t been attacked and wondering, well, why are other people being hyper-vigilant the way that I am when they don’t necessarily have cause to be, because it’s not — hyper-vigilance is not a positive thing. It’s not something you’re supposed to do.
You’re not supposed to always be looking behind you to keep yourself safe. It is a symptom of PTSD. It’s a trauma response because your brain is wired differently now because you’re constantly… because it expects danger. And so it’s not something that you want to live with.
It’s not something that is a normal way to interact with the world.
Caroline: So, I mean, true crime, partly in podcast form, but also TV and books, seems more popular than ever yet real crime in lots of the places where this stuff gets consumed is historically lower than it’s ever been.
Emma: Yeah. And I mean, we’ve seen a little bit of rise in the past couple years, but that’s mostly due to Covid and just economic stressors.
But yeah, things are a lot safer now than they were in the eighties, nineties. It’s strange because you wouldn’t know that from the amount of true crime and the amount of news coverage of these crimes. It certainly is creating this atmosphere of heightened awareness that there’s crime “everywhere”.
And you read these articles and you see like, oh, we’re gonna recall politicians because they’re being soft on crime. And it’s like, well, but there really isn’t a lot of crime. It’s a perception. We are being told that there is crime and we believe it because it’s reinforced by the stories that we listen to.
Caroline: And sort of feeding into that, I often see true crime podcasts, especially the more salacious or speculative ones, referred to as a guilty pleasure. I’ve got a friend who calls them her silly murder shows.
Caroline: Do you think listening or consuming true crime is something that we should feel guilty about?
Emma: I mean, I don’t love the phrase “guilty pleasure” — I mean, I use it — but I don’t think we need to feel guilt about it because I don’t really think that helps anything. I would put it more… I feel like there’s a comfort in it. The same way that you would watch a procedural show where there’s a bad guy and a good guy. And in the end everything’s gonna wrap up.
So it’s more like a comfort thing for a lot of people. I think, instead of feeling guilt, we should be more aware of the response that it’s having on our brain. Check in on yourself — am I starting to get paranoid about the neighbour being, you know, a serial killer?
Am I starting to think that I can’t trust people? Am I starting to think that crime rates are at an all time high? If that’s the kind of thing that you’re starting to suspect and feel, then you need to take a step away and say, okay, let’s come back to reality. But I don’t think guilt is necessarily the right word for it, because I think that just makes you just feel bad for no reason.
You don’t have to really feel guilty. I mean, it’s being produced. Like we’re- people are gonna watch it, whether you feel guilty or not. So, I think just maintain a level of awareness as you’re watching it and just know that it’s not good for you. Everything in moderation. Potato chips, you know, they’re not good for you. You don’t have to feel guilty eating them. Just don’t do it all day, every day.
Caroline: Yes. As part of a balanced media diet.
Emma: Exactly. Yeah. Maybe watch some climbing documentaries. I don’t know, just space it out.
Caroline: And now this is where I’m gonna be a bit anecdotal for which I apologise because I just couldn’t find reliable data on this. But based on what I see online and how these shows seem to be made, I feel fairly confident in saying that a large proportion of the audience for true crime podcasts at least is made up of women. And very often the stories that they tell are about horrific things being done to women as victims of crime. How do you think gender plays into this cycle of production and consumption?
Emma: I think when people imagine a victim, they think of a woman. Because we are seen as more vulnerable, when people think of the perfect victim, that’s what they think of. Even though men are murdered at a higher rate than women, I still think that we are the image of, you know, the helpless. It’s the damsel and distress classic trope.
And so I think those are the kind of stories that have always been the most sensational. People tend to gravitate towards those stories, like young, beautiful, innocent girl. Big, bad guy, you know? And that sort of dichotomy is just a very classic story. And I don’t know if the- it’s a chicken and egg thing.
I don’t know if true crime focuses on women because women are the primary consumers or that because women are the primary consumers, they think it’s smart to focus on women. But either way, here we are. It’s just always, even starting with Jack the Ripper, that is sort of our classic beginnings of true crime tabloid journalism. And you have, yes, a bad guy with a knife and female victims.
Caroline: And it is interesting, isn’t it, the way in which you can get that frisson from consuming things that are essentially aimed at making you feel unsafe.
Emma: Yeah, it’s a cycle. You think you’re getting, it’s like, oh yeah, this will give me tips to stay alive. When in fact you’re just getting yourself into the mindset of “I need to be afraid all the time”.
Caroline: After the break — is true crime inherently conservative?
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Caroline: In the article that you referred to, “True Crime is Rotting Our Brains,” which is a great headline and a great piece.
Emma: You know, just trying to get some eyes on it!
Caroline: You wrote in there a quote that I found really intriguing. You said crime stories are a fundamentally conservative way of looking at the world. I wonder if you could unpack that a bit for us?
Emma: Well, when we tell crime stories, what is the purpose of these stories? It’s usually followed by a response or a call to fund the police, to protect yourself more, to increase surveillance — all of these things that are reactionary. And Whether or not that has basis in reality, that is just the end result of telling crime stories, that there’s going to be responses that are reactionary and conservative in nature. And that’s the reason that we have stations like Fox News, that play a lot of these sort of things, it plays on that heightened fear and that heightened emotion and an emotional response, like there’s always something wrong with the world.
There’s always something wrong with the country. Like we need to be doing this and this and this and those things are usually reactionary responses because it’s a primal instinct. When you hear about someone getting hurt, you want to punish them. You want to save them. No one wants to hear “oh, well this is a societal issue where we should be more lenient on crime”. It’s not a nuanced conversation. Usually when we’re talking about crime, it’s a very visceral response.
Caroline: Yes, no one ever tells a story about horrific crime and goes, you know what? We should have more of this.
Emma: Yes, exactly. It’s like, oh, we need to rethink long sentences or the three strike law. Like these crime stories are ways to sort of- they’re just often used as propaganda for the things that are already in place, but we wanna continue them. We already put a lot of people in prison. That’s obviously not the solution. We would have absolutely no crime if putting people in prison, soft law crime, because we incarcerate- America incarcerates more than any other country. So that’s clearly not the solution, but that is what crime stories tell us. The bad guy goes to prison, belongs in prison and stays in prison. End of story.
Caroline: I used to cover the podcast industry for an industry newsletter and one story that I did once, which still haunts me — speaking to what you say about propaganda — was there was a police department that started making their own true crime style podcast as a… I think probably from good motives. It was a missing person’s appeal, essentially. But just the way that they’d very deliberately formatted, it really — I found that odd.
Emma: There’s definitely some ethical issues with something like that. Their motives are probably crystal clear. We don’t really know a lot of the motives of other people who are telling these true crime stories. And the thing is, you can say, “oh, I’m just reporting the facts”, but you are always putting a narrative spin on something because when you’re reporting something, the way that you choose to report it matters whether you’re focusing on the victim or whether you’re focusing on the perpetrator. All of these things are choices that the reporter or podcast host is making. They are shaping the narrative, and they are shaping it in a way that they want to; they’re in control of it.
Caroline: How do you think true crime affects or interacts with our understanding of narrative? Does it always push us towards expecting a neat ending to a crime story?
Emma: I think for the most part, because it, it is again, a procedural kind of thing, especially when you’re doing like a podcast or a series. On television where you have a case per episode, you’re expecting a conclusion. And unless it’s something unsolved, you know, mysteries, people expect for there to be some sort of closure.
And I think that is somewhat of a strange way to look at it because we think of the closure as being they catch the bad guy, bad guy goes to prison or bad guy gets killed. But there’s a lot that happens after that. We are ending it at a point where the case ends, but not necessarily where these people’s lives end.
There are a lot of things that happen years down the road and we’re constantly learning new information about forensics and how a lot of this is subjective. Some of the podcasts I like are the ones that look at cases where someone has been wrongfully convicted and they’re re-looking at the evidence — things like that, exposing some of the problems in the criminal justice system and looking at how a lot of this is really subjective things, things that I didn’t know about until recently, things like bite prints, footprints. A lot of these things, there’s no person in charge of this. There’s no database system that does it. It’s just somebody looking at two samples in a lab and being like, “yeah, these look this thing to me”. So we’re sending people to prison or convicting people based on what could be very subjective.
And we’ve seen a lot of mistakes being made and other than DNA, there’s really not a ton of hard evidence that you can use. And I’m always curious about when does a case end? Are we assured of this person’s guilt? What happens to the victim after their attacker goes away? They still have to deal with the fallout of that.
And I think that trying to tell a story that’s very tidy isn’t really possible when you’re dealing with someone’s real life. This isn’t scripted.
Caroline: I think anyone who’s ever been involved in a real case, or even been adjacent to it, knows that it doesn’t feel linear while you’re in it.
Emma: Yeah, not at all, it just comes in waves. There’s different phases of it, but it’s really hard to pick a point where it ends, but that’s what the producer or director is doing. They are creating the story. They’re creating the arc. They are building up the dynamics.
They choose what the climax is and they choose what the ending is. So we’re getting a story that’s really just that: it’s a story. It’s not necessarily just the facts because just the facts would be boring. That would just be someone reading a bullet list of “and then this happened and then this happened”. People want a narrative. But a narrative is always subjective. It’s produced by someone.
Caroline: And I suppose that comes back to your earlier point about being critical and keeping your eyes open that as long as you are thinking about who’s telling this story and why are they making these decisions? Then you are — I guess we could call it — you’re an ethical consumer of true crime.
Emma: At least a more aware consumer.
Caroline: Yes. And you are a writer of fiction that has a crime or mystery element to it. I’m thinking particular if your book, Missing Presumed Dead, which I really enjoyed.
Emma: Oh, thank you.
Caroline: In case listeners haven’t read it yet, it features a woman with a kind of second sight who teams up with the ghost of a murdered woman to hunt down her killer. Do your interactions with true crime inform your writing about fictional ones, do you think?
Emma: Oh, yeah, absolutely. When you’re trying to think of crimes, when you’re trying to think of bad things that you can do to people, it does help to have an awareness of some of the cases that have gone on.
And particularly when you are setting a book in a certain location, you wanna be aware of the local myths and legends. And a lot of that is based on local crimes. So, I recently set a book in Austin and there was a serial killer, way, way back in the 1800s called “the Servant Girl Annihilator”, which we don’t really talk about much, but that’s one of America’s first serial killers.
I think either a contemporary to or might even predate Jack the Ripper. But there are these things that add local colour to a story or to a book. Things that make it feel more authentic. And sometimes that is learning about some of the crimes in the area.
Caroline: And you see it as well with, I think, the way like you were saying about hyper-vigilance. People react to the things that they remember. So you know, it might be that stranger danger was a big thing when you were a child or going out after dark or whatever the particular thing you were told will be an interaction with true crime in some way.
Emma: Yeah. I watched like a special on Baby Jessica, which was this case in Texas. I was too young when it happened, but I saw a 10 year retrospective or something. And it was about this little girl who — she was, I think, one and a half and she fell into a well, and they couldn’t get her out.
And it was this huge media spectacle to try. They spent like two days trying to get her out of the well, and it gave me nightmares and it gave me like an extreme phobia of falling into the earth for a very long time. And it’s because my mom watched this dude’s special on TV that I happened to be watching with her. Those things shape you and they shape your fears too.
Caroline: Something that comes up a lot in the crime fiction, in the period that I cover on the podcast, is this idea of taking a real life crime story or the paranoia that results from it and putting it immediately in fiction.
So there are examples from the twenties. There was a famous case for instance, of this woman called Edith Thompson, who was hanged for the murder of her husband by her lover. And within a couple of years, there was a popular novel out about this. Obviously looking back at it with a vantage point of a hundred years, you can be like, oh, this is an interesting novel, et cetera.
But I like to imagine, how did it feel at the time? For, say, her family. Or to be like, wow, okay, now people are just consuming this for fun.
Emma: Yeah. And I mean, we’re seeing that now. Like this Gabby Petito case. So now there’s already a documentary. I don’t know if it’s all fiction or if there’s some sort of… I’m assuming at some point they’re gonna make a lifetime movie or something about it.
And it’s like, these are real people, and they have family that is still very much alive and watching this. And I think about how that must affect them. And, yeah, I don’t know. Once a story’s out there, it’s out there, though. You can’t retract it and that’s where a lot of people get inspiration from, is looking at these cases.
And writing is how I work through a lot of things and work through fears. And you know, who’s to say that that’s the wrong way to process that? But you are also selling something. Writing is a business, so you are making money off of it. And that strikes me as a little unethical. To be profiting off of something like that.
Caroline: I used to have this very clear cut line in my mind where I thought: as long as everyone involved is gone. So if it’s long enough ago-
Emma: Yeah. It’s certainly easier when you’re not affecting people who are out there living it.
Caroline: But even then I had my mind a little bit changed or became a little bit less certain about that when, a few years ago, there was a case I think it was in the fifties in Britain, one of the last people to be hanged for murder, called James Hanratty. There’s always been this big question over whether he actually did the murder at all, or whether it was just a case of a mistaken identification and it was actually someone totally else.
Apparently there was still DNA evidence held that could be examined, and there was a campaign to get this done. And I heard a radio interview, I think, with his great nephew talking about why they were pushing for this to happen. And maybe he could be posthumously pardoned, et cetera.
And I thought, wow, so this guy wasn’t even born when this happened. He wasn’t there for any of it, but he’s clearly very emotionally invested in this. It’s lived in his family for all these decades. So like you were saying, like, where does it end? I don’t think I could comfortably say that that story — everyone involved is gone because they’re not.
Emma: Yeah, no. And when it becomes sort of part of your family legacy, I think there’s gonna be a lot of emotions still mixed up in that. It’s like if you have someone in your family who’s a famous criminal, that’s part of growing up with that last name, with the burden of that information.
That’s got to be difficult for a family. There was a case in Australia about the two girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers because they were going to be sent to different schools. They were concerned about how close the girls were, and they made it into a movie, the Peter Jackson movie, Heavenly Creatures. So it was sort of a very famous case in- oh, I think it happened in New Zealand. That’s that’s why I know it. I lived there for a while.
It was a very famous case and the girls both went to prison and then when they got out, they were not allowed to have contact with one another. And one of them changed her name and moved to England and actually became a fairly successful crime writer. And I always thought that was kind of weird. It’s like, you were making money off of something that you did… I mean, obviously she should be able to work and do that, but it always struck me as kind of odd that she had been involved with a murder and then sort of turned that into a career of writing about murder.
Caroline: Yeah, it is. It’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s a bit uncomfortable because- and I think what I’ve, I’ve ended up with a lot of this is that you can try and make rules for yourself about how you consume it, and then you just end up breaking them. And every time there’s always an instance like that, where you might feel confident in saying that she absolutely should not be allowed to do that. She should not be allowed to sort of profit from her crime in that dramatic sense. But then also, you know — she hasn’t got anything else.
Emma: Yeah. She served her time. Like, why shouldn’t she get to do what she wants to do? But it’s also just kind of wild to me. I would not want to think about murder at all if I had murdered someone.
Caroline: Yeah, I suppose that’s the part that’s hard to empathise with. Willingly walking back into that world.
Emma: But I mean, again, maybe that’s how she processes it and I mean, maybe that’s true for a lot of true crime, is that that’s how people make sense of things.
And I mean, that’s how I got into it was like wanting to understand why people do the things that they do. I think part of what started my fascination with it was reading In Cold Blood, which I still think is the high watermark of great true crime books. Truman Capote wrote that book because he didn’t understand why these men had killed this family.
And the truth was, neither did they. And it’s such an interesting and empathetic book. But he’s telling the side of Perry, the man who committed the murders. And it’s very empathetic and he really does identify with him because he’s spending all this time with him and talking to him.
And I wonder if he had also had the chance to speak with the family, if he would’ve felt differently, you know? Because again, it was just this one side of it. We don’t have the family’s side because they were gone, but I just always think that it’s easy to empathise with people who have done bad things. And it’s easy to empathise with people who have had bad things happen to them, but it’s hard to do both at once.
Caroline: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point that it’s a rare true crime story that manages to hold both perspectives at the same time.
Emma: Yeah. And so people usually pick a side. And that again, that’s a choice.
They make the choice. Like, are we going to focus on the victims or are we going to focus on the perpetrator?
Caroline: As you will have gathered from my conversation with Emma, there’s no clear lines to be drawn here with true crime. We can enjoy it, relax into it by all means if that’s your thing, but we should be critical of it too. Don’t let it seep in and change how you see the world without you realising.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thedarksideoftruecrime. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Thanks to my guest, Emma Berquist. Find all the details about her books and articles at emmaberquist.com.
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith and Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.