In the United States, white people have long told both overt and veiled narratives of the purported danger and criminality of people of color. Sometimes known as ‘danger narratives,’ these gruesome accounts often depict the kidnapping, assault, and murder of white women at the hands of men of color. These narratives have been used to promote and justify enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, and a host of other methods and institutions of white supremacy and racial control.
While white people have been creating and consuming danger narratives, they have also been telling other stories about crime. Like danger narratives, these stories, known as ‘true crime,’ have existed for centuries, purport to be based on actual criminal acts, and largely focus on violence against white women. Like danger narratives, true crime stories are intended to invoke feelings of horror and shock among their audiences and suggest specific methods—arrest, incarceration, or death of the perpetrator—by which social order may be restored. Unlike danger narratives, however, true crime stories focus almost exclusively on white-on-white crime.
Scholars and others often characterize danger narratives as violence-focused stories with explicit racial and racist intent and outcomes, while true crime is generally treated in the media as entertainment, in which crime and punishment are explored largely as if people of color do not exist. This Article challenges this disparate treatment, arguing that true crime narratives serve to justify and support institutions of racial control while claiming racial impartiality. The study of these stories may nevertheless contribute to abolitionist and anti-racist revisioning of our criminal system, as the focus on justice in true crime narratives can inform and inspire alternative visions of justice which are in service to racial equity rather than in support of racial subjugation.
Stories about crime in the United States are stories about race. White people have been telling tales about the violence and depravity of people of color since the first Europeans arrived in North America. Sometimes known as ‘danger narratives,’ these gruesome accounts often depict the kidnapping, assault, and murder of white women at the hands of men of color. These narratives have been used by white people and institutions to promote and justify enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, and a whole host of other methods and institutions of white supremacy and racial control.
Running alongside these explicitly race-focused crime narratives is another genre of crime-based storytelling, also largely created – and, it appears, consumed by – white people. Like danger narratives, these stories, known as ‘true crime,’ have existed for centuries, purport to be based on actual criminal acts, and largely focus on violence against white women. Like danger narratives, true crime stories are intended to invoke feelings of horror and shock among their audiences and suggest specific methods, such as law enforcement, vigilantism, incarceration, or death of the perpetrator, by which social order may be restored. Unlike danger narratives, however, true crime stories focus almost exclusively on white-on-white crime.
True crime and danger narratives thus appear to occupy parallel tracks in white American culture. Scholars and others often characterize danger narratives as violence-focused stories with explicit racial and racist intent and outcomes,1 while true crime is generally treated in the media as entertainment, in which crime and punishment are explored largely as if people of color do not exist.2 The year in which this Article is written—2020—provides a stark illustration of these different frames. We are encouraged by magazines and other media to turn to true crime shows for entertainment and comfort during pandemic isolation (“10 True Crime Films to Binge While You’re Social Distancing”)3 while the United States simultaneously seethes with protests focused on ongoing law enforcement violence against Black people and its connection to the “enduring myth of Black criminality.”4 The work of activists, scholars, journalists, and others have raised awareness of the ways in which societal associations of people of color with danger and violence underpin the racial disparities of our criminal system. Meanwhile, the flood of true crime narratives continues to rise, featuring tales of crime and punishment in a seemingly all-white world.
This Article will challenge the disparate treatment of danger narratives and true crime, and instead argue that true crime, while differing in some ways from danger narratives, similarly serves to justify and support institutions of racial control. By looking specifically at the modern era of true crime narratives, this Article will build on the work of the small but growing number of critics who argue that the true crime genre contributes to and supports the racial inequities of our criminal system despite frequently representing itself as victim-centered, progressive, and feminist. This Article will then consider whether, despite this troubling role, the study of true crime narratives can be of use to those pursuing abolitionist and anti-racist re-visioning of our criminal system.
Part I will provide a brief review of danger narratives in U.S. history, including their role in defending and furthering white supremacist actions and institutions. Part II will discuss the definition and tropes of true crime and review the history of true crime narratives in the United States. Part III will look for meaning in the gender and racial norms of the true crime genre, including consideration of the similarities and differences between true crime and danger narratives. This Part will then argue that white-authored and white-themed crime narratives serve to support institutional racial inequities in our current criminal system. Part IV will conclude by reflecting on whether or how discussions of “justice” in true crime narratives can inform our understanding of how we might advance racial equity in the U.S. criminal system.
II. A Brief History of American Danger Narratives
In the United States, white people and white-controlled power structures have long told both overt and veiled narratives of the purported danger and criminality of people of color to justify and promote racist practices and institutions.5 Such stories, termed by some as “danger narratives,” serve to “justify state-sanctioned and vigilante forms of violence against oppressed communities while also implicitly functioning to assert the ‘rightful’ place of [w]hite men in positions of power.”6 These explicitly racial—and racist—narratives have appeared in the press, been spread by word of mouth, and been central to legislative sessions and political campaigns for hundreds of years.7 Further, these stories have often explicitly linked the supposed menace inherent to men of color to the victimization of white women.8 Even a cursory review of two examples of this genre, captivity narratives and rape narratives, gives insight to their pervasiveness and impact.
“Captivity narratives”—stories, often authored by white men, of the experiences of white women who were captured by Native American people—fascinated white audiences from the 17th to the 20th centuries9 with their tales of disruption, violence, and horror followed by the resolution of the protagonist’s rescue or escape (or, at times, assimilation into the tribe and rejection of white culture).10 These stories, while certainly embellished, exaggerated, and at times entirely fictionalized, were often “true” in which they represented, or claimed to represent, the actual experiences of captured women.11 One modern anthology of these narratives describes them as “arguably the first American literary form dominated by the experiences of women,”12 specifically, white women’s stories of victimization at the hands of non-white people.
Mary Rowlandson’s famous account of her capture by members of the Nipmuck, Wampanoag, and Narragansett13 tribes begins with a description of a brutal attack:
On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster . . . several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house; the father, and the mother and a sucking child, they knocked on the head . . . another there was who running along was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life . . . but they would not hearken to him . . . .14
Rowlandson’s experience is filled with other harrowing details of violence and grief. Her six-year-old child dies while in captivity, following days of injury and starvation, and Rowlandson is forced to lie next her child’s dead body all night.15 She describes the case of another white woman who was stripped naked by Native American people, killed with her child, and then their bodies burned.16 Rowlandson also recounts times in which she was shown kindness by Native American people, but when she returns home she celebrates that she “was not before so much hemmed in with the merciless and cruel heathen, but now as much with pitiful, tender-hearted and compassionate Christians.”17
Another highly influential captivity account, written by Cotton Mather, featured the story of Hannah Duston.18 A group of Native American people, assumed members of the Abenaki tribe, attacked Duston’s Massachusetts community in 1697 and kidnapped both her and her week-old daughter.19 In Mather’s recounting:
About nineteen or twenty Indians now led these away, with about half a score other English captives; but ere they had gone many steps, they dash'd out the brains of the infant against a tree; and several of the other captives, as they began to tire in the sad journey, were soon sent unto their long home; the salvages [sic] would presently bury their hatchets in their brains, and leave their carcases [sic] on the ground for birds and beasts to feed upon.20
Duston, along with another white woman and a white boy, later slaughtered ten of the Native American people, six of whom were children, with an axe as they slept.21 She then scalped all of the corpses and returned to Massachusetts to present the scalps to the legislature.22 This act was highly praised—a statute of Dunston holding an axe and a fistful of scalps is thought to be the first statute of a woman erected in North America and still stands23—and her story was re-told in history books, children’s books, articles, and other sources for decades after the event.24
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of published captivity narratives like these; the genre was “immensely, even phenomenally, popular” from the 1600s through the 1900s, and these stories are still read today.25 Not all captivity narratives villainized Native American people; some sought to humanize and contextualize the people among whom the authors lived.26 But many narratives, accompanied at times by “[l]urid illustrations of young white women about to be scalped or captured,”27 emphasized the gruesome physical violence (and sometimes, but not always, sexual violence), emotional and mental anguish, and deprivation inflicted upon white women captives by Native American people. White audiences certainly consumed these grisly tales of beatings, cannibalism, hangings, infanticide, and starvation as entertainment,28 but the stories also served to vilify Native people, and thus support and justify westward expansion; forced removal of Native American people from their native lands, including the Trail of Tears; the massacre of Native American people; and other means of racial control and subjugation.29
Similar tropes can be found in white-created crime narratives which depict African American men as inherently violent and sexually aggressive, with many such narratives “perpetuat[ing] the deadly stereotype of African American men as hypersexual threats to white womanhood.”30 These narratives grew more pervasive after slavery was abolished, when white fear of the possibility of growing Black political and economic power was “met with a shift from Black people being viewed as compliant and submissive servants to savages and brute monsters.”31 Allegations of criminal activity were then used by white people to justify the lynching and beating of African American people, and accusations of sexual assault were prevalent; “[n]early 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault.”32 These stories, while almost entirely false, were presented as true by those telling them. Indeed, in the Jim Crow era, “[o]ne of the greatest victories of white supremacy . . . was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women.”33
These stories portray Black men as destroying the tranquility and safety of white women’s lives through disruptive acts of sexual and physical violence. A May 17, 1892 Memphis Daily Commercial editorial (quoted by Ida B. Wells in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,34) is representative:
In each case [of rape] the crime was deliberately planned and perpetrated by several Negroes. They watched for an opportunity when the women were left without a protector. It was not a sudden yielding to a fit of passion, but the consummation of a devilish purpose which has been seeking and waiting for the opportunity. . . No man can leave his family at night without the dread that some roving Negro ruffian is watching and waiting for this opportunity.35
George T. Winston, in his 1901 article, The Relation of the Whites to the Negroes, wrote ominously that, “[W]hen a knock is heard at the door [a white woman] shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust.”36 A 1956 Look magazine article about the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till explained that “in the Delta, no white woman ever travels country roads after dark unattended by a man[;]” and one of the white murderers later justified his act by stating that “when a [******] gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I’m likely to kill him.”37
These tropes are alive in the modern era as well. Examples are legion. In 1989, five Black teenage boys—now known as the “Exonerated Five”38 —were wrongfully arrested and later convicted for the beating and rape of a white woman in New York City, an event which received an enormous amount of national press coverage describing the boys as “wilding,” “rampaging in wolf packs,” and “driven by a collective fury . . . they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape.”39 In 1995, Professor John Dilulio wrote that kids in “[B]lack inner-city neighborhoods” were “super-predators,” characterized by
The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes . . . for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.40
A white man who massacred nine African American people in a Charleston prayer group in 2015 said he did so because African American people were “raping our women and are taking over our country.”41 In 2016, a viral meme titled “Interracial Rape,” illustrated by a photo of a battered and bruised white woman next to an image of a smiling and unharmed Black woman, falsely claimed that interracial rape occurs solely with Black men as perpetrators and white women as victims.42
Danger narratives are not limited to stories about Native American and African American people. In the 1800s, for example, white-controlled newspapers stoked fears about Chinese and Japanese men raping white women;43 in the pre-World War II era of the 20th century, “popular culture depicted dark-skinned caricatures of Japanese men attacking or abducting White women.”44 In 2015, President Donald Trump stated in a speech that when Mexican people come to the United States, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”45 Nor are these stories focused solely on violence against white women; danger narratives portray people of color as being more devious, less trustworthy, and more violent than white people—indeed, more inherently criminal in almost every way. These narratives arise in different eras and in different political settings, but traffic in the same fear-based tropes in which people of color commit disruptive and terrifying acts of criminality and violence, and order must be restored by white-imposed punishment and control.
The association of people of color with criminality has been a fundamental tenet of white supremacy, and an underpinning of the creation and expansion of policies and institutions with significant negative impacts on non-white racial groups.46 These stories have been used to justify violence against people of color, often under the guise of protecting white women, while providing absolution to the criminal wrongdoing of white men (and women). They have been the impetus or justification for laws and policies ranging from westward expansion to the separation of immigrant parents from their children at the border.47 They have given white people a distorted understanding of how many crimes people of color, particularly African-American and Latino48 people, commit, and have fueled a punitive response to lawbreaking in white culture that exceeds that of people of other races.49 They have been directly linked to law enforcement violence against Black people,50 and to the destruction of entire Black communities by white mobs.51 Stories that white people and white power structures have told about the criminality and violence inherent to people of color have impacted every aspect of our system of law enforcement and punishment—from kindergarten suspensions52 to self-defense claims,53 mass incarceration,54 sentencing,55 and beyond. The impact of danger narratives on people of color is clear. But does the parallel criminal narrative tradition in white America—true crime narratives focused on white-on-white crime—play the same role? A closer look at the true crime genre may help us better understand the role of white-authored crime narratives in the creation and expansion of our systems of law enforcement, trial, and punishment.
III. A Brief History of American True Crime Narratives
True crime is a hugely popular and growing media genre, one which tells emotional and provocative stories about violence, loss, investigation, justice, revenge, and punishment. It appeals to deep fascinations with deviancy, mystery, and horror, is available in multiple forms, and is widely disseminated. True crime media thus leads and prompts a wide-ranging cultural conversation about crime and punishment—aspects of our society which are steeped in racial inequity—through a lens of whiteness. In order to explore whether and how stories about white-on-white crime might contribute to that racial inequity in ways similar to overtly racist danger narratives, it is first necessary to understand the parameters of the true crime genre and its long history in the United States.
A. True Crime Defined
True crime media is not the same as journalism,56 nor is it the same as a detective story or other fictionalized accounts of the resolution and fallout of criminal acts, although the boundaries between journalism, fiction, and true crime are at times blurry.57 Descriptions differ, but all definitions of true crime58 include both storytelling and an allegiance to truth-telling as essential aspects of the genre.59 In the words of Professor Mark Selzer, “true crime is crime fact that looks like crime fiction.”60
The primary characteristics of true crime media—storytelling and fidelity to reality—have their own complexities. Dr. Jean Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture, defines true crime as “a murder narrative whose truth-claims are unchallenged by its audience and taken as ‘real,’” noting, however, that in the process of storytelling “true crime always fictionalizes, emphasizes, exaggerates, interprets, constructs, and creates ‘truth.’”61 In Toward a Theory of True Crime Narratives, Dr. Ian Case Punnett developed a two-step theory for defining whether a narrative about crime is a “true crime” narrative.62 He first asks whether a particular crime narrative is “striving to be as true as possible.”63 He then asks whether the narrative includes a majority of the themes intrinsic to the genre, including seeking justice for a victim, raising awareness of systemic injustices, emphasizing the importance of forensic science, and serving as modern “folk tales” that “explain a truth to the public.”64 Under Punnett’s analysis, narratives which meet these requirements constitute true crime, which Punnett, like Seltzer, observes “tell a story that is true—but in the manner of one that is not.”65
While true crime stories do involve the reoccurring themes of the type identified by Punnett and others, the draw of the genre is in the storytelling—how those themes are presented and the ways in which the tales are told. True crime stories are traditionally about murder, often murder accompanied by other crimes such as kidnapping or sexual assault.66 Although there are times that the genre focuses on non-fatal crimes,67 the emphasis in true crime is on sensational, unusual, traumatic, and violent acts,68 usually inflicted upon white women.69 Like horror or detective novels, true crimes stories emphasize mystery, images and descriptions of horrific acts, unexpected and tragic disruption of conventional lives and routines, and the specialized investigative tools and techniques of law enforcement.70 A look at the introductions to several true crime narratives, pulled from a television program, a book, and a podcast, reveal some of these narrative tools at work:
She was a young woman who devoted her whole life to making music. An accomplished musician who played several instruments, acted, even wrote her own songs . . . So who could have predicted that on July 14, 2013, the music and a young girl’s dreams would end so suddenly? . . . A small town was faced with a mystery, with police asking what was real, and what was a performance.71
On the side of a four-lane road, obscured by snowdrifts five feet high, sat a small coffee kiosk, its bright teal paint vibrant against the asphalt and gray big-box stores. Drivers passing by could see the familiar top peeking above the piles of snow, this cheerful but lonely little shack. The night before, eighteen-year-old Samantha Koenig had been working this kiosk alone. Now she had vanished. She had been on the job for less than a month.72
Patsy Bolton Wright was a beautiful, vibrant, and wealthy woman who seemed to have everything going for her . . . She was a popular socialite, a vivacious woman who seemingly had no enemies. Her death in 1987 was shocking . . . Years of investigations, sifting through red herrings, a messy divorce, and family secrets would not turn up her killer.73
The themes of true crime tales—disruption, shock, mystery, resolution—are furthered and intensified by the inclusion of “real life” artifacts within the story.74 Books and articles feature photos of the perpetrator, the victim, and the crime scene.75 Television shows and documentaries interview family members and detectives, recreate investigations, and pan cameras past courthouses and cemeteries; podcasts play hysterical 911 calls and post links to photos and other coverage of the crime.76 As author Rachel Monroe notes, and the short excerpts above indicate, all these aspects of true crime stories call upon strong emotions: the desire to find answers to unresolved questions; the “strangely soothing” promise that horrific crimes can be explained, or at least solved, through competent investigation and forensic science; the draw of dark and forbidden topics inherent to an interest in violence and its aftermath.77
B. The History of American True Crime Narratives
White people have been telling true crime stories as long as they have been recounting danger narratives.78 In his 2008 anthology of American true crime writing, Professor Harold Schechter begins with a 1651 account of a hanging in Plymouth Plantation and an early example of an execution sermon—an excerpt from Cotton Mather’s 1699 Pillars of Salt.79 Schechter describes execution sermons, which were orally delivered before a public execution and sold in print form afterwards, as the first popular form of true crime.80 Meant, as Mather notes, “to Correct and Reform,” these homilies were primarily focused on the moral improvement of the audience,81 but could at times include all the gory details any modern true crime fan might desire.82 In Pillars of Salt, for example, Mather writes of a woman who killed her infant child:
[s]he denied it Impudently. A further Search confuted her Denial. She then said, The Child was Dead Born, and she had Burnt it to Ashes . . . At Last it was found in her Chest; & when she Touch’d the Face of it before the Jury, the Blood came fresh into it. So She confessed the whole Truth concerning it.83
As time went on, these overtly spiritually-minded accounts of wrongdoing gave way to more graphic tales distributed in the 19th century through “[c]heap crime pamphlets,84 trial reports,85 and the lurid accounts in the ‘penny press’ . . . along with such widely distributed compendiums as The Record of Crimes in the United States (1834).”86 These narratives were often characterized as relying on “a set of ‘Gothic horror’ conventions,” such as focusing on the bloody details of the crimes, and often fixated on the moral reprehensibility of the perpetrator.87 In The Record of Crimes in the United States, for example, a chapter on Daniel Davis Farmer, a “respectable husbandman of Goffstown in New-Hampshire” with “a wife, four children, and an aged mother,” paints a vivid scene of his violent attack on his lover and her daughter:
[s]uddenly, Farmer snatched his club, and said, “Mrs. Ayer, I’ll kill you first, and then you may kill me.” With that, he struck the woman on the head as she was rising from her chair, and she fell to the floor. The child screamed and ran toward the door, but before she reached it, Farmer overtook, and struck her down, senseless. He gave both mother and daughter so many blows that he believed them dead, and then set about burning the house.88
In the same vein, the “penny press” of the 1800s89 kicked off a wider trend towards extensive true crime coverage with their relentless attention to the 1836 axe-murder of glamorous sex worker Helen Jewett in New York City.90 Ms. Jewett, the New York Herald lamented, was in death “a beautiful female corpse . . . that surpassed the finest statue of antiquity,” apart of course from “the dreadful bloody gashes on the right temple.”91 Thus started the true beginning of decades of true crime coverage in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ media sources.92
The early 1900s featured the birth of magazines devoted to true crime coverage, such as the infamous True Detective,93 which recounted crime stories from around the country, often based on accounts by the police officers who investigated the cases.94 At their most popular, six million copies of True Detective and the two hundred or so other copycat crime magazines were sold in the United States each month.95 The covers of these magazines consistently featured women, generally in scenes of peril and distress, illustrating articles such as “A California Homicide Puzzle: Who Would Kill the Lady Preacher?”96 and “Brutal Rape-Slaying of the Blue-Eyed Blonde!,”97 as the content morphed over time from a focus on police work and crimes scenes to increasingly sexualized images and cases.98 “The ‘golden age’ of true-crime magazine publishing and circulation was between the 1930s and the 1960s,”99 and while True Detective survived until 1996,100 interest in true crime magazines was largely supplanted by books and television programs in the latter half of the 1900s and beyond.
The 1960s marked the beginning of an upswing in the volume of books about true crime, but the genre existed before the mid-twentieth century in America. Apart from fiction based on or inspired by real criminal cases,101 there were true crime books such as 1927’s Ruth Snyder's Own True Story: Written by Herself in the Death Cell,102 the extensive publications of “murder fancier” Edmund Lester Pearson, including 1924’s Studies in Murder,103 and law enforcement memoirs such as 1871’s Knots Untied: or, Ways and By-Ways in Hidden Life of American Detectives, by police officer George S. McWatters.104 But, in the words of Ian Case Punnett, the “blood gates opened” following the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in 1966.105In Cold Blood, Capote’s bestselling book about the murder of a Kansas family, while perhaps owing more to established true crime traditions than Capote would acknowledge,106 is often noted as the beginning of a long era of avid cultural consumption of books about true crime. After In Cold Blood, American audiences could begin to choose among an abundance of books about both individual murderers and serial killers, from Helter Skelter’s prosecutor’s-eye-view of the Manson family murders to Ann Rule’s meditation on her unknowing friendship with a serial killer in The Stranger Beside Me.107
While the popularity of true crime books has waxed and waned over the years, we are in a time of massive renewed attention to the genre. Publication numbers have increased: 976,000 books about true crime were sold between January and November 2016; in 2018, 1.6 million true crime books were sold in the same time frame.108 In the modern era, publications as diverse as Oprah Magazine,109 Reader’s Digest,110 Cosmopolitan,111 The New York Times,112 Women’s Health,113 and the AARP website114 promote true crime books in upbeat articles115 with titles such as “25 Best True Crime Books That’ll Make You Want to Sleep With the Lights On.”116 These and other sources reveal an ongoing cultural interest both in true crime “classics,” like the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song,117 and more recent publications, such as the bestselling118I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.119
In addition to print narratives, modern audiences have consumed tales of true crime in radio and television form since those media became available. The radio show Crime Classics, for example, presented episodes on historic crimes—with titles such as Coyle and Richardson: Why They Hung in a Spanking Breeze and Widow Magee and the Three Gypsies; A Vermont Fandango120—in 1953 and 1954,121 and shows focused on apprehending criminals, solving crimes, and imposing punishment, such as Forensic Files, America’s Most Wanted, and Dateline NBC, have flourished from the 1980s to the present day.122 Now, however, newer sources such as Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime regularly create and present high-profile true crime shows and documentaries,123 and entire cable networks such as Investigation Discovery and Oxygen are now devoted solely to true crime programming,124 while others like Lifetime heavily feature the genre.125 Even the Weather Channel has introduced a true crime show, Storm of Suspicion, which focuses on how “forensic meteorologists” can help solve crimes,126 and ESPN’s programming includes both podcasts and documentaries about sports-related crimes.127 With the added proliferation of YouTube channels devoted to true crime,128 the magnitude of true crime visual media is at a historic high.
Audio true crime entertainment plays a significant and growing role in the genre as well. Podcasts, which are digitally recorded audio files published online that have the feel of radio programming, have been a particularly popular platform for true crime narratives since the explosive interest in the podcast Serial in 2014.129Serial’s first season focused on the murder of a high school girl purportedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, and its wild popularity ushered in the podcasting era in earnest. Podcasting hosts like Stitcher, iTunes, and Spotify are platforms for an ever-increasing body of true crime programming, and as of April 2021 now over two million podcasts, with 48 million episodes, worldwide,130 with true crime identified as the third-most popular genre in October 2020.131 There were more than 200 true crime podcasts as of August 2019;132 in May 2021, true crime podcasts made up 50% of the top ten podcasts on iTunes.133 As with the proliferation of true crime magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, some have called this time the “golden age” of podcasting,134 in which the most popular of the true crime podcasts––episodic shows like My Favorite Murder135 and Crime Junkie,136 as well as those devoting a season to one case like Bear Brook and Dirty John––are downloaded millions of times each month.137
The current upsurge in interest in true crime extends beyond media consumption. Podcast hosts with large followings go on live tours, presenting tales of true crime in venues in the United States and around the globe, and offering merchandise featuring their logos and catch phrases, such as “Be Weird, Be Rude, Stay Alive”138 shirts and “Lock the F**king Door” doormats.139 A search for “true crime” items on the Etsy website in April 2021 yields 21,263 results,140 including a cutting board featuring the face of Jeffrey Dahmer, who cannibalized some of the men and boys he killed in his apartment, along with the phrase “start eating at home more.”141 Fans of the genre can choose to attend the popular annual CrimeCon convention,142 embark on true-crime themed tours,143 such as the Helter Skelter tour of the Manson family murders in Los Angeles, 144 stay overnight in homes where famous murders occurred,145 subscribe to “Hunt a Killer” subscription boxes filled with clues to a faux murder,146 or even take a CrimeCruise to the Bahamas which features “hot sun” and “cold cases.”147
As this truncated history148 of true crime narratives in America makes clear, the current fervor for true crime entertainment is a continuation of a long history of true crime storytelling in the United States. The modern era of true crime differs from other periods, among other reasons, because of the unprecedented variety of true crime media, its predominantly female audience, and the significant cultural attention to the genre. But modern era true crime narratives also retain many of the traditional tropes and structure of the narrative tradition, including, as has been made clear, its primary focus on violent crimes involving white people.
IV. The Racial Implications of Stories about White-on-White Crime
True crime narratives are sometimes framed as morality or cautionary tales, sometimes as reactions to social change, sometimes viewed as low-brow entertainment and sometimes as high-minded investigations into the science and psychology of crime.149 In the modern era, the variety of media options—including “literary” narratives in the spirit of In Cold Blood, public radio podcasts like Serial and Criminal, and an increased call for audiences to actively assist in solving crimes150—have contributed to the sense, for some, that an interest in true crime is socially and personally valuable151 or, in any case, not shameful. But however, no matter how we may view the genre—as exploitative or healing, feminist or frivolous, compelling or repugnant—what has remained consistent is its almost relentless focus on white-on-white crime.
A. The Whiteness of True Crime
True crime narratives, from the age of execution sermons to the present day, have been characterized by “white creators focusing on white victims and white perpetrators,”152 and, as one reporter observed, “[t]he stories that are well-known, that get rehashed over and over again, are largely about white male perpetrators and white, middle-class, female victims.”153 A review of the genre makes this racial reality clear. In Harold Schechter’s Anthology of True Crime, which includes stories from the 1600s to the modern era, a review by this author noted that almost every narrative presented is about white-on-white crime. In an analysis of the podcast My Favorite Murder conducted by this author, approximately 2/3 of the first 150 episodes were about white-on-white crime. Whether considering bestselling true crime books, most popular true crime podcasts, the most widely watched true crime shows on Netflix, the results are the same: the vast majority of these narratives are about white-on-white crime.
This is not to say that there are no true crime narratives created by, and about, people of color. In the seminal first season of Serial, which was downloaded 175 million times,154 the accused was Pakistani-American, the victim was Korean-American, and significant witnesses were African American.155 There are true crime podcasts focused on people of color156 such as Atlanta Monster (investigating the serial killing of African American children in Atlanta in the 1970s);157 Affirmative Murder (a “true crime comedy podcast . . . [telling] murder stories from marginalized communities”);158 Crime in Color (focused on “people of color in true crime”);159 Fruit Loops (a podcast about serial killers of color);160 and The Fall Line (examining cases of marginalized communities in the Southeast).161 Books like Professor Kali Nicole Gross’s Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America162and Christine Pelisek’s The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central163 focus on murders in which both the victim(s) and the perpetrator are Black. Further, those who study and consume true crime may formally or informally classify some stories involving people of color as civil rights or racial justice stories rather than as true crime narratives164—meaning that such stories exist but may fall outside of audience expectations of the genre.
Despite these examples, white people create the vast majority of true crime media, and the vast majority of the true crime stories told are about white people.165 Further, whatever the gender makeup of the genre’s fan base may have been in the past, women166 are far and away the most significant consumers of true crime in the modern era.167 According to one recent study, women make up 73% of the true crime podcast audience;168 another study revealed that women wrote 70% of the reviews of true crime books on Amazon and, when given a choice between reading a book about true crime versus a book about war, 77% of women selected the book about true crime.169 Women constituted the majority or vast majority of the audience for all but one of twelve popular true crime podcasts in 2018170 and women make up 80% of the attendees at CrimeCon.171 In the words of author Rachel Monroe, “[t]elevision executives and writers, forensic scientists and activists and exonerees all agree: true crime is a genre which overwhelmingly appeals to women.”172
While the gendered nature of true crime consumption is widely analyzed and discussed,173 scholars and commentators generally either entirely ignore the racial composition of true crime audiences or mention it in passing or anecdotally.174 There does seem to be general acknowledgement that the modern audience is primarily white; typical observations include “women who fixate on the victims of crimes tend to pick women like themselves: typically white and middle-class”175 and “white women . . . seem especially drawn to true crime, perhaps because white female victims get so much airtime in the media.”176 In 2019, the Washington Post reported that CrimeCon attendees are “largely white” and observed that, “[t]he CrimeCon line was dominated by white women: white women in large, laughing groups, white women tugging a husband or boyfriend by the hand, white women in ‘Stressed, Blessed and True Crime Obsessed’ or ‘Talk Murder to Me’ or ‘It’s Always the Husband’ T-shirts.”177 But historical racial demographics are hard to track; there is no contemporaneous data regarding, for example, the racial makeup of readers of crime pamphlets of the 1700s or the “penny press” of the 1800s, although an understanding of racial and class history in the United States can provide insight as to who had the funds and the access to education that would aid consumption of these narratives. Even demographic audience data for modern true crime media, such as podcasts and books, is difficult to discover–although, overall, podcast listeners are 59% white, 12% African-American, 11% Hispanic/Latino, and 7% Asian-American,178 those numbers are not true crime-specific—and viewership data is purposefully kept private by some media providers such as Netflix.179 Anecdotal and observational evidence thus indicates that true crime is largely consumed by white people, but more study would be needed to verify audience demographics.
We have, then, a centuries-old narrative tradition in the United States in which an audience of (it appears) primarily white people (now, primarily white women) are entertained by stories written by white people, which feature violence and other criminal acts perpetrated by white people against other white people (again, primarily white women). The question remains, however, whether the true crime genre, like danger narratives which explicitly focus on interracial crimes of violence, similarly contributes to racial inequity. A review of the focus and impact of true crime stories can help us identify the commonalities between the genres, and, in particular, the ways in which they both serve to reify criminal systems that are steeped in racial disparity and critiqued as engines of racial control.
B. True Crime as Force for Social Change
True crime shares many of the characteristics of danger narratives: white authorship; a focus on the victimization of white women; attention to the lurid details of violence acts; and a call for vindication for who have been wronged. But while stories about white-on-white crime have existed alongside danger narratives throughout U.S. history, there seems to be an assumption by those who produce and study the genre that the two strains of storytelling are distinct. Danger narratives featuring people of color as perpetrators and white people as victims are not included in true crime anthologies or marketed as true crime in Netflix series or podcasts. The scholarly books about the history and meaning of American true crime cited throughout this article do not include danger narratives in their analysis.
To be sure, true crime stories are different in many ways from danger narratives. True crimes stories do not focus on vilifying men of color (men of color are almost entirely absent) or reifying white men (white men are usually featured as the perpetrators of horrendous crimes—although, as will be discussed below, white male law enforcement officers often take on heroic roles in the narrative). True crime does not explicitly call for white people to wage war or commit other acts of violence against people of color. Indeed, while there is extensive academic and cultural debate about many aspects of the true crime genre, including the ethics of viewing violent crime as entertainment180 and the reasons that women are drawn to narratives in which women are often horrifically victimized, modern true crime has also been characterized or self-described as feminist, justice-oriented, and progressive.181
One of the complexities of the modern true crime genre, as established above, is that the stories of white female victimization are often being created by, and primarily being consumed by, white women. Contemporary true crime is not catering to men buying True Detective magazines with bondage photos on the cover or reading “penny press” articles rhapsodizing over the beauty of a female corpse. Indeed, modern readers and producers of true crime often characterize the focus on women as victims as a feminist choice. An article about two women who founded a “non-sensationalist” true crime magazine is representative of this viewpoint:
Though historically the genre was associated with the exploitation and sexualisation [sic] of women, according to Harrison “that’s not the case anymore.” She explains: “There are so many brilliant true crime podcasts and books being created by women that I think women feel a lot more catered for. There has been a real shift, and women are reclaiming the narrative.”182
Certainly, there are many, including fans of true crime, who dispute whether the fact that the genre appeals to women means it is, in fact, feminist, but there seems to be widespread agreement that women are drawn to these violent tales for reasons deeply influenced by gender.
Contemporary consumers of true crime contend that reading, watching, and listening to true crime stories is an outlet for women’s anxiety about criminal victimization. They describe the genre as “a source of comfort . . . during times of extreme anxiety”183 and as “somehow relaxing[—]almost calming;”184 online videos combining ASMR (whispered voices)185 and true crime cases are used by viewers “to fall asleep—though the content is actually horrifying.”186 True crime stories are also lauded as helping women share their own experiences, educate themselves about staying safe, and fight for other women who have been harmed.187 The podcast My Favorite Murder has been described as “empower[ing] listeners by offering practical advice for survival and self-care and by using comedy to deflate the scariness of these topics.”188 For women, one author suggests, these “stories can be a mental dress rehearsal of sorts, a way of unpacking and understanding dangerous situations that haven’t yet happened to them.”189 While white women are still the primary victims in these tales, white women’s consumption of the stories is now framed by many as liberating, justice-centered, and mentally healthy.
Further, commentators and others have applauded modern true crime stories for raising attention to police misconduct and crimes involving vulnerable and often overlooked populations such as sex workers.190 True crime narratives can serve to educate audiences about factors that contribute to unjust convictions and sentences, such as false confessions, flawed forensic science, the impact of juvenile brain development on behavior and decision-making, and the problems associated with eyewitness identification. Some have even hailed true crime narratives as an affirmative source of social change; the co-directors of Making a Murderer, a widely viewed Netflix documentary about the potentially wrongful prosecution of two white men for the murder of a white woman,191 “prefer to call [the film] a ‘social justice’ series, rather than a true crime one.”192 Not only can these stories raise cultural awareness of flaws in the criminal system, but true crime audiences are sometimes moved or called to action beyond the limits of the narrative, such as undertaking online investigations, working to change laws, or lobbying authorities to reconsider unsolved or mishandled cases. Some such work has led to renewed investigations, arrests, and even the exposure of wrongful convictions.193
Mainstream true crime narratives in the modern era thus seem aimed to sell, to thrill, and perhaps to educate and advocate, but not to advance a racial agenda. Threading through these stories, however, though not always explicitly acknowledged or addressed, is the recognition that true crime’s purported desire to center victims, empower women, and raise awareness of systemic flaws is distorted by its predominant focus on white-on-white crime. The association between modern era true crime stories and the validation of institutions of racial hierarchy may be less obvious than in a study of danger narratives, but a closer look can help make those connections clear.
C. True Crime as Danger Narrative
Telling stories about white men who do terrible things to white women, stories which root for those men to be caught, tried, and punished, may feel compelling, even cathartic. But these stories are not racially neutral. In part, this is because crime media’s myopic focus on white-on-white offenses distorts the racial realities of crime and our criminal system. True crime consumers may therefore perceive themselves as being more educated about crime, criminal investigations, trials, and punishments than the average person, while simultaneously operating with misperceptions of those topics that can deeply impact their views on the purpose and power of our criminal system.
True crime narratives can, for example, shape inaccurate perceptions of crime rates, crime risks, and crime demographics. Studies have shown that people who regularly consume true crime narratives may believe that crime rates are higher than they actually are, overestimate their personal risk of victimization, and misjudge the frequency of violent crime.194 Further, true crime stories portray white women as the primary victims of violent crime, although Black women are killed at a higher rate than any other group of women,195 and the “murder victimization rate for Black men is consistently higher than the rates for men of all other racial and ethnic groups have ever been,”196 and certainly higher than the rates for white women. The statistics for Native American and Latino women are similarly distressing; for Native American women, for example, “[m]ore than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence.”197 And despite true crime’s general focus on straight women, LGBTQ* people are disproportionately likely to experience sexual and other forms of violence.198 The failure of true crime to focus on victims of color or otherwise marginalized people is representative of and furthers our society’s consistent discounting or ignoring of such victims, both in the media and in the criminal system itself.199
The traditional arc of a true crime story also has racial implications. In the words of true crime director Joe Berlinger, “[c]rime stories . . . have perfect dramatic structure . . . Something horrific occurs, there is a search for the guilty person, a conclusion to the legal proceeding, and then hopefully justice is served."200 The focus on locating, prosecuting, and punishing the violent perpetrator means police and prosecutors play a starring role in many true crime narratives. Entire shows, such as Forensic Files, are focused on the technical work of police officers and law enforcement experts—“pathologists, medical examiners, police officers, attorneys, blood spatter analysts, or even forensic artists and linguists”—as they collect and analyze evidence in order to apprehend the perpetrators of horrendous acts.201 Crime conventions feature detectives and forensic investigators as headlining speakers;202 Paul Holes, a detective who played a significant role in apprehending the Golden State Killer, is now a full-fledged celebrity with a crowd-sourced crime solving podcast called The Murder Squad, as well as a #HotForHoles hashtag and associated fan-created merchandise.203 Police departments have launched their own podcasts focused on true crime cases,204 and the podcasts like Small Town Dicks, which “features the detectives who broke the case in their small town, and includes assets like jailhouse phone calls, suspect interviews and 9-1-1 calls,”205 tell stories specifically about police work.
To be sure, there are true crime narratives in which the police are portrayed as corrupt, inept, or disinterested in solving crimes involving marginalized victims, and others in which police investigative techniques are revealed to be flawed or entirely inaccurate. But in many true crime narratives, after the story has been told of the victim’s life and the circumstances of her death, the police become the real protagonists. They are the mystery solvers, using science and intuition and investigation to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. In the words of one commentator:
The narrative of policing and courts allows us to pretend there is order in our world: There are clear good guys, clear bad guys, and, hopefully, a tidy resolution—the bad guy gets caught; the victim, whether dead or alive, gets some semblance of justice. True crime, for the most part, does not challenge this narrative. . . the vast majority treat the police as undeniable heroes, and frame punishment and imprisonment as a form of feminism: If only more men were behind bars, women could begin to thrive. Evil is out there. It’s okay to call the police.206
It is little wonder that true crime conventions and podcast merchandise include t-shirts reading “Basically a Detective”207 or “I think I was supposed to be a detective in real life.”208 And, indeed, women’s interest in studying criminology209 and forensic science210 has surged during the modern true crime renaissance.
But while modern true crime stories generally steer well clear of the racist tropes of danger narratives, they rarely work to address or even acknowledge the racial inequities inherent to our system of prosecution and punishment. These narratives do not frequently grapple with police officer killings of African American men, women, and children, with the under-under policing and over-over policing of neighborhoods of color, with stop-and-frisk policies and racially disparate drug arrests and deaths in police custody. One critic has accused true crime creators as playing a role “in the glorification of the so-called good vs. the so-called bad, the benevolent crime-fighting detective, and their blind trust in what police present as facts;”211 another has labeled true crime “cop propaganda.”212 As journalist Andrea DenHoed has noted, true crime stories are “often as much about maintaining fantasies of social order as it is about implementing real justice.”213
True crime traffics in fear, particularly the fear of violence against white women, and advocates for the expansion of legal oversight and increased systems of punishment as a remedy. Megan’s Law,214 the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act,215 and the Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act216 are just a few examples of statutes passed in the wake of white-on-white crimes that increased the power of the law and law enforcement.217 True crime narratives frequently feature the truly horrifying cases underlying these laws, and celebrate the creation of the laws themselves, although the racially disparate ways in which the laws are enforced are rarely if ever remarked upon.218
Further, true crime’s focus on “justice” for victims looks for that justice in existing institutions—criminal courts, jails, prisons—that in practice are steeped in racial disparity. True crime narratives frequently bemoan short sentences and celebrate long ones; audiences at live podcast recordings break into approving shouts and applause when the story culminates with the imposition of a death sentence. Some true crime storytellers express approval at the idea of perpetrators suffering harm, even death, at the hands of other prisoners. Some suggest that vigilante justice is sometimes appropriate and necessary. However, punishment is discussed in these stories, the message is clear: in order for justice to be done, the perpetrator of these crimes must be caught and incarcerated or killed. And because most true narratives focus on white men harming white women and are thus calling for the punishment of white men, the racial implications of celebrating prisons and death chambers is muted or ignored.
True crime stories thus do not encourage fear of people of color, but they do encourage fear of crime. True crime stories do not frame men of color as the sources of danger for white women, but they do center white women as the most endangered. True crime stories do not advocate for violence against people of color, but they do advocate for institutions that commit such violence. And it is these tropes—the focus on fear, on danger to white women, on institutions of social control such as the police and imprisonment—that demonstrate true crime’s commonalities with danger narratives. Like a race-neutral law with disparate racial impacts, true crime narratives have hidden racial consequences while claiming racial impartiality. True crime thus serves as a white-washed danger narrative; the overt racial agenda and even intent has been removed, but the racial implications remain.
V. True Crime Narratives and the Meaning of Justice
True crime thus arguably falls within a long tradition of narratives in which harrowing tales of violence against white people are used to justify the creation and expansion of institutions that cause harm to communities and people of color. Modern true crime stories, as with true crime stories throughout history, exist alongside entrenched systems of racial control, including a criminal system that arrests, assaults, convicts, incarcerates, and monitors Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people in wildly disproportionate ways.219 But the current true crime renaissance is different, perhaps, in that it is also taking place within an era of increased awareness of the racial inequities in our criminal system. Indeed, contemporary true crime has flourished at the same time as the rise of nationwide movements calling for the reform of police, prosecution, and punishment, including demands for the complete abolition of prisons and jails and the defunding of law enforcement.
The last decade alone has seen the creation of organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Law for Black Lives; the publication of Professor Michelle Alexander’s best-selling The New Jim Crow, which outlined the ways in which mass incarceration serves as a new system of racial control; and the production of widely-viewed documentaries such as 13th, in which director Ava DuVernay explored the connections between the 13th Amendment, mass incarceration, and race.220 Our streets, news, and social media have been filled with outrage over the murder of Black people—children, young people, fathers, mothers, women sleeping in their own beds in their own homes—at the hands of the police.221 Beginning in May 2020, massive and sustained nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have focused public attention on the racialized violence inflicted by law enforcement on Black people.222 Arguments for de-incarceration and police accountability, for eradicating prisons and policing, have appeared in mainstream news sources across the country.223
Amidst this turmoil and change, true crime keeps plugging away in its traditional format: a focus on white-on-white crime, an allegiance to the disruption-mystery-investigation-punishment storytelling arc, a celebration of policing and punishment. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule, along with public calls for true crime to recognize and remedy its singular attention to the suffering of white people, the centering of policing, and the support for carceral solutions to violence. The protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd spurred many high-profile true crime podcasts to proclaim support for Black lives, and even to switch their coverage (perhaps temporarily) to cases involving people of color,224 including the murder of George Floyd himself.225 True crime provides insights into what may unfold when those who have been subjugated by systems of power seek justice within those same systems. The U.S. legal system has injured white women in a multitude of ways, including condoning or ignoring men’s violence against them. Women have fought hard to change laws that protected and condoned male violence against women and to change law enforcement and justice systems that treated that violence as a joke or a lie. True crime narratives in which white men are convicted and punished for their violent acts against white women are perhaps satisfying, even comforting, in part for the white women in their audience because the criminal system has so often excused or ignored or even celebrated those acts. In true crime narratives, white women are still victimized by men, but now at least the criminal system is on their side; the stories “serve a purpose other than salaciousness . . . They show that the justice system can work. . . . in most cases, the court system does produce justice.”226
True crime stories have power, a draw that is described by some as “addictive,”227 and part of that power may be the satisfaction of watching a system work for those it so often has wronged. This change feels like progress, and surely it is progress to eradicate laws that allow men to assault and control women with impunity, and to demand accountability when such crimes occur. But, as scholars who have critiqued white women’s role in expanding U.S. reliance on incarceration and state power have stated, there are consequences to seeking that justice narrowly.228 This moment, in which true crime and racial justice movements both play significant roles in our national conversations about our criminal system, lays those consequences bare. White women have an opportunity to recognize that, by seeking justice in systems that harm people of color, their liberation stories turn to danger narratives. This is a moment to focus, yet again, on the truth in the words of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”229
True crime narratives are thus cautionary tales. They warn us that seeking justice for some in institutions that oppress others perpetuates rather than eradicates inequity. But these narratives can also help us reflect on the fact that, in the face of chaos and pain, there is a deep human desire for resolution, a need for those who have caused harm to be held accountable and those who have been harmed to be protected and provided for. The work of racial justice activists, organizers, scholars, and others has revealed that the institutions we have created to meet these needs—police, courts, prisons—have inextricably intertwined accountability and safety with racial fear and control. If we wish to untangle those strands, we must envision a narrative in which those who have been harmed and wronged, whoever they may be, obtain justice in ways that do not perpetuate systems of racial or other forms of subjugation. We have the opportunity to ask what justice looks like if it is not the justice of the danger narrative or the true crime story. And we can consider how to create a world in which these new tales of justice can be told.
Danger narratives and true crime narratives constitute significant and protracted cultural conversations about the cause of crime and the nature of justice. They are also, either explicitly or implicitly, stories about race. Studying these primarily white-authored and white-focused narratives exposes many of the beliefs and values that have shaped systems of law enforcement and punishment in the United States. We can recognize the ways in which these tales of violence, vulnerability, and revenge have contributed to the creation of systems steeped in racial fear and control. And, we can imagine radically different tales, ones that retain and recognize the power of human experience and emotion, but which do not center justice in institutions of racial inequity.