How one network sustains itself on true crime alone.
“The worst monsters are real,” Sword & Scale’s host Mike Boudet states over the sinister hum of electronic music. While many point to Serial as the true crime podcast, those in the know listen to Sword & Scale, My Favorite Murder, Criminal, and Generation Why. Each podcast delves into the underbelly of human nature. Their rabid listeners feast upon tales of dismembered flesh, hapless victims, and stalwart police. But podcasts aren’t the only true crime game in town. Television has proven a fruitful bastion of scandal and murder.
HBO’s The Jinx dropped a hot microphone bombshell, Ryan Murphy’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson had murder go meta, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer captured Serial’s complexity. Not to be outdone, A&E recently announced it was reviving its classic hit Cold Case Files. Hosted by reporter Bill Curtis, the series focused on murder cases that remained unsolved after decades. The rebooted version, from the producers of The Jinx, will do much of the same, only now with a glossy finish (the trailer below boasts the arthouse gleam of both The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line). However, despite A&E, FX, HBO, and Netflix’s newly discovered affection for true crime, they cannot outpace the perennial true crime juggernaut: Investigation Discovery.
Investigation Discovery (known as ID) can boast something that few networks can: audiences watch it longer than every other network. In 2015, the network ranked number one among all broadcast and cable networks in getting viewers to tune in and stay tuned in with an average of 50 minutes among adults 25–54 and 54 minutes for women 25–54. ID’s shows have a simple formula: hook, reward, and repeat. Shows catch a viewer’s eyes with bloody details, salacious sexual scandal, and tidy resolutions. Further, the show titles of their daily lineup are hard to forget. There’s Deadly Women, Iced Cold Killers, Murder Comes To Town, Wives with Knives, A Crime to Remember, and Obsession Dark Desires. Each follow’s that same formula to ensnare unsuspecting viewers. The shows are all similar, featuring interviews with suspects, victims, and commentators – like Deadly Women’s Candice DeLong who has it within her to host an actual Hunger Games – with reenactments and archive footage filling things out and providing visual interest.
How can a network sustain itself on murder alone? Scott A. Bonn, an associate professor of Criminology at Drew University, argues that murder, specifically serial murders, trigger in us the primal thrill of fear. And watching programs about serial murders on ID allows us to tap into the fear of death in a controlled context. We know the crimes will get resolved. We know the murderer will be found. There is no danger and no real risk. It’s the same sort of Skinner box of fearful pleasure you get from playing The Evil Within or watching The Exorcist too late at night. A momentary rush of adrenaline in response to a perceived, but not actual, threat.
Basic cable thrills are only half of the draw. As The Cut’s Megan Abbott points out, gender plays a role in the appeal of crime narratives and crime fiction. Abbott posits that women like crime narratives because they discuss the darker aspects of human nature that mainstream narratives ignore. Crime fiction, and some true crime narratives, are unafraid to tackle the moral grey areas of the human experience: the difficulties of navigating motherhood (raised with infanticide); male/female domestic power dynamics (raised with uxoricide); and gendered violence and sexual politics (when discussing serial murder and serial rapists). Women enjoy true crime that little bit more because it takes crimes against women and by women seriously in a way that the larger culture cannot. True crime offers a chance to discuss the ramifications of a culture that boxes women into narrow gendered constructs. It makes much more sense when one realized that ID is the most popular network amongst women 24–54. Lifetime claims to be “television for women” but ID has earned that title.
“People just want to understand the whys. You hear all these stories in the news, and it just gives us kind of a desire to understand, like, ‘How did this person make that wrong turn? They look just like me!’”
Gendered point of view and the thrill of fear are only part of the multifaceted draw of true crime. In an article for Jezebel, Pamela Deutsch, a Senior Executive Producer at ID states that true crime is at its core about people. She says, “People just want to understand the whys. You hear all these stories in the news, and it just gives us kind of a desire to understand, like, ‘How did this person make that wrong turn? They look just like me!’” It’s this idea that the monsters can be real and can be near that underpins the narrative of many shows on ID. The idea that your neighbor, your friend, or your spouse could have it in them to kill.
When ID utilizes its formula the most effectively, it is on a show like Married with Secrets, which focuses on stories of spouses hiding secrets and then killing to keep them. Typically, a Married with Secrets narrative revolves around crimes of passion and desperation. Reporters, and commentators like Candice DeLong, share details of the crime and the married couple’s lives pre-homicide. Smiling photos of the wealthy married couple slide on and off screen. Friends and family utter the familiar refrain of “They just seemed so normal, so happy.” The narrative of the perpetrator as normal melts away. The duality of loving spouse and ruthless killer remains. The general message: murderers are everywhere. People we perceive to be normal, happy, ideal can, in actuality, be something much darker.
As Truman Capote observed in “In Cold Blood,” “Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.” The narrative of the psychopath hiding in plain sight is an enduring one for that reason. It underpins the tension of NBC’s Hannibal, Showtime’s Dexter, and Mary Harron’s film American Psycho. The mundane can be murderous. Part of what makes Psycho’s Norman Bates so unsettling and enduring is that Norman looked like Anthony Perkins. Perkins isn’t some grizzled, obvious villain. He’s unassuming. It’s why the O.J. Simpson trial was must-watch television. America’s wholesome superstar athlete possibly being a brutal killer was a cautionary tale of duality.
The love of true crime is multifaceted. It’s more than the intrigue and scandal, the gender politics, and the primal fear. True crime is a dark mirror with which to reflect the world back to us. A violation of norms that enable us to draw boundaries. It is about the abnormal masquerading as normal. The themes echo those of horror with the personal and visceral taking precedent over the refined and nuanced. True crime is the Id to our Super Ego. The outlet with which to explore the darker parts of our collective soul.