As I write this, I am watching one of the approximately 40 true crime shows I watch every week, the result of a nearly lifelong obsession with true crime and horror movies. As a kid, I feverishly read and re-read Helter Skelter and watched every more-psychologically-jarring-than-gory horror movie I could find until I couldn’t even sleep anymore. Instead, I would just lie awake, staring at my open closet doors with all the lights on. I loved it so much.
Now that I am Technically An Adult, I watch (and subsequently tell everyone I meet about) every TV show on the Investigation Discovery channel, which basically consists of a ton of true crime stories told in salacious detail. Before you can even say it, no you are not the first person I’ve encountered who thinks it’s weird and potentially unhealthy to watch like 90 percent “murder shows” and only 10 percent comedy shows, but for me, it’s often weirdly soothing. That isn’t to say that I don’t frequently watch episodes and feel shaken for days or overwhelmed with empathy for my narrow assumptions of what these surviving family members must have gone through, or that I don’t go down rabbit holes of what it would be like if this happened to someone I loved, because I very, very often do.
It’s soothing because it feels familiar, and even realistic.
Most reality shows I was raised on, and the ones we see now, were based on the idea of safety, hilarious amounts of wealth, and some manner of innocence. That’s not the world I knew as a kid, and now in 2017, when every TV news channel is a parody of itself—so much so that you’re practically waiting for a fire-breathing dragon to break down the news set and eat everyone alive because, surprise! We’re all dead and this is hell and dragons rule—it’s definitely not indicative of modern-day reality either.
One layer of our current reality is that people are scared, violence surrounds us, and many violent crimes go un-pursued, unsolved, and unpunished. Many people treat survivors of violence like they’re liars because surely something so awful would never happen; they must have been confused or somehow secretly consented to violence, because this is not our world, no!, thereby leaving them feeling gaslighted. Shit, maybe they did make it up! But they didn’t.
True crime shows validate all of that for me. That yes, evil DOES exist in the world. Some people ARE just that cruel. That woman WAS just trying to get some fucking gas in her car when some psycho stopped to “help” her and instead strangled her and left her body in the woods. It happened. It can’t be erased. You can’t say “things like that don’t happen” in the world and you can’t say they don’t happen in towns like yours, because in so many of these shows, that’s exactly what those people thought.
Don’t get me wrong; when it comes down to it, I’m still a doe-eyed optimist who wants to believe that most people are truly good and trying their best even when they’re being cruel, that a lot of times cruelty is just pain people don’t know how to deal with. I do. And I don’t WANT that kind of evil to exist and I don’t seek it out in hopes of retaining a worldview that endorses being fucking terrified of everyone I meet. Not even close. If anything, I often watch these shows, sometimes with a microscope, looking for the reasons why.
There HAD to be a reason he did these horrible things, there just HAD to be, right? And most of the time, even if there was a “reason,” it was usually related to some kind of abuse, similar to the abuse endured by plenty of people I know, who did not proceed to go off and kill 12 women and leave them in sheds. So, nope, the “reason” is not relevant.
But there is something soothing about watching the twisted, messed-up stories, because for some of us, they mirror our own. The ones we’re too terrified to tell, the ones we’ve told that weren’t believed. Maybe, through the telling of other people’s horror stories, we’re that much more equipped to digest our own beyond-belief stories and our “wait, seriously, what the fuck is happening right now” reality.
If nothing else, this time in the world has brought a lot of the ugliness everyone long tried to deny to the surface, where it can’t be swept into a corner somewhere. And yet, of course, there will still be people telling you that the Titanic is fine, that it’s just some rough water, and to have a seat because you’re being paranoid. And even if it is fine, and I hope every day, ultimately, that it is, there is solace in acknowledging that, yes, terrifying, horrible things happen and have always happened. Here are their faces. Here is the aftermath. Here are the people who are still not OK, maybe in the same ways you are not OK. And you are not alone.