The Rise of Murder Media: Why Watch?

Maggie Harvey


The idea of crime and mystery as a genre of entertainment has been in the public eye for some time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle captivated the world with the detective stories of Sherlock Holmes, and the character remains popular to this day. Law and Order and the resulting spin-offs captivated viewers in the mid-2000s. To this day, people still sit at home in their living rooms, and turn on their chosen detective show. 

But recently, there has been a rise of “true crime” media: murder and serial killers. These topics have been discussed in fictional crime shows before. Police officers solve the murder, and detectives catch the killer. But this new media that has quickly grown in popularity takes a new perspective and focuses on the before rather than the after: who did the crime, why did they do the crime, and how did they do it? People who consume this new murder media relish in the details — ­that’s what podcasts like My Favorite Murder, by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, and the new Netflix original series Mindhunter, staring Jonathon Groff, give us. 

My  Favorite  Murder is a weekly podcast started by Hardstark and Kilgariff in January of 2016, with the first episode aired on Jan 16. Originally, each episode had a theme such as “Weird Ways to Die,” and “Hiding in Plain Sight.” They also ask listeners to send in their “hometown murders” that others may not know about. 

Both women are experienced in entertainment. Hardstark  was originally was a cooking show personality, and Kilgariff was a writer for comedy shows such as Portlandia, so their experience provides a fresh and almost light hearted take on the dark topics that they discuss. As I listen, I find myself laughing at an inappropriate joke to tell to polite company, but I desperately want to tell it to everyone I see. Described as a “murder-comedy podcast,” My Favorite Murder is a frequent and well deserving resident of the iTunes Top 10 podcasts list.

On the darker side of the coin resides Mindhunter, rated 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. This film is a dark exploration into the minds of serial killers from the view of Special Agent Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff, as he and his partner expand the Behavioral Science unit of the FBI. They also interview well-known serial killers in order to greater understand these new types of criminals after the cultural revolution of the seventies. These FBI agents are inspired by real agents, but are given fictional names. However, the serial killers that they interview represent real serial killers in name and image. The actor who plays Ed Kemper, one of the first killers that Holden interviews, looks almost exactly like the original man himself. To emphasize how amazing this is, Kemper was a borderline 300-pound man who was nearly seven feet tall. If Netflix had an option to tip the casting department, I would do so merely because this show’s casting is done superbly. 

So, what is so fascinating about these shows? What purpose do they serve? And why are they so widely popular? The way that Hardstark and Kilgariff put it is that it’s good to face the experiences that you fear, which I agree with. I find that the more mainstream crime shows ­­— like NCIS or Law and Order  —  are for the people who want to experience crime from a distance. Hardstark and Kilgariff even speak on how they sometimes need a break from the content they present. People who listen to My Favorite Murder and watch Mindhunter seek the truth in the crime. We want to see it solved, but we also want to see why it needs to be solved in the first place. Like Holden Ford in Mindhunter, we want to see what made the killer snap. Listeners and viewers find it fascinating that these people, who commit these horrible crimes, exist. As any sane person would ask when faced with people like Kemper, “How could someone do this?”  These shows decide that they’re going to figure out why.

Living in a constant state of questioning is scary, and these shows lessen that fear by answering our questions. Sure, we still feel the fear. It is scary to know how these killers were raised in abusive homes, and it is scary to know how they chose their victims. But, we like the certainty of knowing, and I know that I, personally, almost feel safer. Think of it this way: You’re in your room and you see a shadow in the corner. 

Logically, you know that it’s not a person, but the fear is there. So, you can toss and turn, heart racing, until you drift off to a fitful night of sleep. Or, you can turn on the light, see the empty corner, and go to sleep in peace.