'Making A Murderino: A Feminist Dissection of True Crime' by Aimee Knight


Christmas Eve, 1998. My mum drives me and my little brother around the backstreets of our hometown, looking for front yards garnished with fairy lights and fake snow. It’s hot. It hardly ever rains here, but a patch of road up ahead shines under the headlights. We drive closer and Mum says it’s blood. Craning out the window to get a better look, I see it streaks up onto the footpath. I make a Christmas Wish to know how all that real life blood got on the road.

‘Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered,’ my best friends tell me. Words to live by, literally. I think of them about seven hundred thousand times a week – especially the latter sentiment.

Stay sexy; don’t get murdered. Does this to-do list play on other women’s minds? It sure as heck plays on their iPhones. My best friends (who I’ve never met) host a podcast called My Favorite Murder. At the time of writing, it’s ranked number three on the US comedy podcasts Top 40 chart, and number eleven in Australia. I think hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have lots of best friends, which is nice.

Stay sexy. Don’t get murdered. I’m addicted to stories about death, and I’m not alone in my obsession. True crime juggernauts like Serial, Making A Murderer, The Jinx and O.J.: Made in America have been outrageously popular, particularly with women (despite our being disproportionately represented therein as cadavers).

Why do women like me consume accounts of murder, rape, abduction and torture? Do we, by default, identify with victims of violence? Are we compelled to solve problems, restore peace to the family unit? Am I searching for evidence – to my own mental detriment – that a war on women swells across the world? Or, by memorising the most macabre details of unhinged killer psychology, will I glean some valuable insight that will one day save my own life?

Stay sexy.

I come from South Australia, a state once known as the murder and serial killer ‘capital of the world’. It’s the home of Snowtown, Sundown, Truro, The Family Murders, The Beaumont Children, The Somerton Man (my personal favourite) and then some. These cases, several of which remain unsolved, had a profound, anxiety-inducing impact on my impressionable little head.

With equal parts fear and morbid fascination, I grew up on a diet of Crime Stoppers and Twin Peaks. As an adult Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, True Detective, The Fall and all their ilk have consumed me. But with every pitiful (an ostensibly poetic) murder of a woman and/or child, I’ve become increasingly repulsed by dramatic crime narratives. So many despicable acts already ruin the real world; why sully the sanctity of TV with rape and murder for titillation?

Instead, I devour true crime, but only during daylight hours or if my housemate’s home. Vic, I’m sorry that I used the lounge room for eight hours straight to watch all of O.J.: Made in America in one go. I’m sorry that I walk around with my phone tucked in the elastic waistband of my inactivewear (stay sexy), blasting Someone Knows Something. I’m sorry that you probably now know more about Myra Hindley than you ever cared to (don’t get murdered).

My true crime obsession has become so ferocious that my partner recently asked if I’m researching ways to murder him. I’m not, and this is a tediously common question for murderinos. Granted, men are more likely to be victims of opportunistic homicide and robbery in Australia, but women are at far greater risk of being abducted, raped or assaulted, usually in their own homes by a family member or someone known to them.

Each week one woman (or more) is murdered in Australia. Inflammatory news reports stoke my generalised anxiety disorder. But when I send My Favorite Murder hosts Karen and Georgia direct to my cochlea, I’m compelled to laugh in the face of seemingly inevitable femicide. Ladies, let me soak in that vocal fry until toxic masculinity ruins the party again.

To be clear, nobody here is laughing at murder. I’m a delicate snowflake with clinical depression and subscriptions to multiple literary mags, but I’ve never felt so wholly understood as I did when Karen said, ‘Let’s use our powers of anxiety for good, not evil.’ Jk! It was when she said, ‘I wanna know what happened to those torsos’. See also: ‘Here's the thing: fuck everyone.’

Karen Kilgariff is an Emmy Award-winning comedian who’s written for Portlandia and cult sketch joint Mr. Show. Georgia Hardstark is an author, presenter, and inventor of the viral McNuggetini. As co-hosts of My Favorite Murder they blend horror and humour with that rarest quality of true crime content – empathy.

My Favorite Murder began as an outlet for the hosts’ own forensic fixations. Even now, almost eighteen months in, they still frequently have to remind themselves that they’re not having a private conversation. This audible intimacy, friendship and trust is precisely the appeal, though. As a result, Karen and Georgia have become accidental figureheads of a passionate, international murderino community.

As well as sharing their fears and fascinations for murder narratives, the hosts are reassuringly open about their experiences of anxiety, depression, addiction, disordered eating, medication and counselling. Georgia calls the show ‘exposure therapy’, wherein humour helps defuse and manage her spiralling thoughts. Listening to the two women laugh, spar and sidebar together (this is the only podcast with ads I actually listen to) gives me twice-weekly respite from my fluctuating foniasophobia.

Don’t judge this podcast by its cover art. The title ‘My Favorite Murder’ belies the hosts’ sensitivity, understanding and compassion for those affected by violent crime. Their weekly strides to correct inaccuracies, use inclusive vernacular and, y’know, blame the perpetrator (while acknowledging the cyclical nature of abuse) is far more considerate, admirable behaviour than that often shown in this popular – and populous – genre.

There is a glut of true crime storytelling on YouTube, Netflix, Audible, iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Remarkable titles like Serial, S-Town (debatable but that’s another essay, don’t @ me) and Casting JonBenet have raised critical expectations by leveraging complex narratives, high production values, and the creators’ seemingly sincere interest in the real life humans reliving trauma on tape. Despite their rampant popularity, these prestigious examples are but a few trees in the foggy, black and white forest – stamped with an obligatory bright red title – of on-demand true crime content.

Currently topping the domestic News and Politics podcast ranks is Australian True Crime, produced by the Mamamia Podcast Network. Scroll down the chart to see a splatter pattern that includes Casefile, Convicted, Accused, Up and Vanished, Little Girl Lost and Someone Knows Something. The latter title is an investigative documentary series from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Its two seasons to date have examined the distressing cold cases of five-year-old Adrien McNaughton, and 29-year-old Sheryl Sheppard. I unsubscribed about forty minutes into the second season because director and host David Ridgen seemed intent on hijacking other people’s tragedies.

Ridgen is a filmmaker who ‘specializes in hard-hitting, character-driven stories’ (his words). He also has a tendency to editorialise, often inserting his personal thoughts and feelings into the harrowing narratives of his characters. The vulnerable families letting him prod at their lingering wounds probably don’t care about the ‘boxes and boxes of documents that line the walls of [his] Toronto semi-detached, like a kind of desperate insulation’. If your podcast needs a prologue titled ‘Do it, David. Do it.’ … don’t do it.

As a writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker, I have felt the emotional connection that forges between director and subject. Care of my murderino mindset, I also know how cold cases vivify the FBI Special Agent in the best of us. (FYI, my personal X File is The Tamam Shud.) But I don’t believe it’s ethical to muscle in on an interviewee’s lived experience just because you lived near them, nor to appropriate their trauma even as a show of solidarity. To me, a eulogising voice suggests: a lack of authentic empathy; overcompensation from one who doesn’t sit with daily trepidation; someone who hasn’t been conditioned to habitually mitigate the risks of waiting for a bus, walking some place, wearing a dress, going solo to a gig, eating a banana in public, entering a suburban front bar, etcetera, etcetera.

But I’ll give David the benefit of the doubt, as I’ve been trained to do with Good Dudes. Truth is, his conduct pales in comparison to the salacious stylings of Sword and Scale’s Mike Boudet. Sword and Scale was one of the first true crime podcasts I subscribed to after the thrill of Serial’s first season in 2014.

In contrast to Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder’s fastidious long-form reportage for Serial, Sword and Scale seemed more of a one man, one mic operation. While Boudet partnered with podcast network Wondery in 2016, and is supported by a small team of contributors, his episodes largely remain cobbled together from other people’s IP. Archival use ranges from innocuous YouTube interviews with authors and experts, through to more shocking content such as 911 calls (along with the caller’s full name and address), interrogation tapes, witness testimony, trial recordings, animal torture videos and snuff films.

When your source material is already charged with the utmost horror, there’s hardly cause for narration like:

Russell Yates, the children’s father and devoted husband, tried to elicit sympathy for his sick wife, Andrea. He claimed she had suffered from severe post-partum depression, which, if true, makes you wonder, why would you then have six children? – Episode 23, on filicide.

There are people all around us suffering from serious mental health issues. There’s literally nothing stopping any of them from taking your life. – Episode 31, on the “2.2 million schizophrenics in the United States.”

Police would later reveal that Christy [Sheats] had applied for a license to carry a handgun in the weeks leading up to the murder… It wouldn’t have mattered though… She didn’t need a license to kill in her own home. – Episode 71, on “women committing horrible acts against the one person they swore to love for the rest of their lives.”

For brevity’s sake, I won’t mention Mike's off-air behaviour. There are Facebook groups and subreddits for that (incidentally, he’s banned from reddit due to trolling, harassing, and threatening to dox users who voice concerns about his show).

Murder is, unsurprisingly, a divisive topic to tackle. For every understated Phoebe Judge (Criminal) and diligent Madeleine Baran (In the Dark), there are beer-swilling bros like Nic and The Captain (True Crime Garage), and the palpably competitive Ben Kissel, Henry Zebrowski and Marcus Parks (Last Podcast on the Left). I won’t argue that disparity in tone is inherently gendered – again, Mamamia has a true crime podcast. But I do believe that if you’ve grown up internalising violence as a real and imminent danger, you’d never want nor need to exploit other people’s real pain.

Some weekday afternoon, 1995. I’m playing in the cubby at my brother’s kindy, waiting for Mum or Nanna to collect us. A boy called Kane climbs in. I know him; he’s in Year 2, like me. He has a white blonde mullet, freckles, an under-bite. Maybe we talk for a minute before he says I’ll rape you. I tell Mum about this six years later, after Kane is buried alive while digging up old bottles with his dad.

On My Favorite Murder’s maiden episode, Karen and Georgia discuss the infamous JonBenét Ramsey case. Twenty years have passed since that sweet baby angel departed, but the idea of JonBenét – and her unknown killer – still plays on the popular consciousness.

The 2016 documentary The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey assembled a crack team of investigators to examine forensic evidence from this protracted cold case. The procedural miniseries pointed fingers at JonBenét’s brother, Burke. Trial by (social) media ensued, withering just as quickly as it had begun. But most people, the ‘everyday experts’ like myself, still reckon they know whodunit.

Australian director Kitty Green uses such everyday experts in her hybrid docu-fiction Casting JonBenet (2017). She invites the townspeople of Boulder, Colorado (the Ramsey’s native soil) to audition and perform as Patsy, John and Burke Ramsey, coroners, police officers, false confessor John Mark Karr, Santa Claus, and JonBenét herself.

After premiering at Sundance, this nonconformist true crime coup screened at Berlinale and True/False Film Fest, before dropping on Netflix in late April. Like the platform’s previous forensic forays Amanda Knox and Making A Murderer, Green’s feature is an exercise in armchair accusation. It’s also an astonishing work of art: highly stylised, tonally jarring, and packed with ‘village mob virtue’ signalling that is hauntingly familiar.

Just as Karen and Georgia invite listeners to submit their ‘Hometown Murder Stories’ for MFM minisodes, Green creates a space for the Boulder community to proselytise theirs. In doing so, the Middle American mums and dads – most with little to no experience on camera – incriminate themselves more than the ransom letter did the Ramseys. Give ’em enough rope and they’ll tie a garrotte.

Initially Green plays this lack of self-awareness for laughs. Sharp cuts between talking-head audition tapes juxtapose comments on spiral stairways and pineapple chunks; notepads and pens against BDSM. Crude delivery from untrained actors draws giggles of sympathy, or worse. But the farcical conceit of performance soon gives way to intimate revelations. Casting JonBenet becomes a mirror, not a portrait, of society’s expectations (and exploitation) of women and children.

The late Patsy Ramsey endures predictable crucifixion. Claims of filicide have not relented since 1996, and probably never will. The cast suggests her possible motives, so quickly it’s uncomfortable, exposing their own dark propensities in the process. The vitriolic judgement levelled at Patsy by other women is particularly visceral, disappointing, but unsurprising. Here, she is a stand-in for all public mothers. The clue was in her name this whole time.

Casting JonBenet is yet to receive the rabid audience response of other prominent true crime titles. Perhaps the high-concept premise seems convoluted – Forensic Files it is not. Green subverts the typical true crime gaze. There’s no tabloid-esque title nudging the viewer to blame the victim. Without sensationalist narration (a hallmark of homemade true crime content), there’s no one to sanction our curiosity for violence and its sexualisation.

Instead, Green has created an exquisite corpse from social anxiety, systemic misogyny, sex negativity and smalltown paranoia. This is an artful addition to the true crime canon because it pinpricks the genre’s very reason to exist. Watching Boulder’s chorus of unqualified opinions, I no longer felt vulnerable to violence. I felt complicit.

The time my housemate let the UberEats guy in to use our toilet. The time another housemate and I locked ourselves in the bathroom with a cricket bat because a guy outside was screaming at us. The time someone tried to break into my hostel room and my only weapon was a hair straightener. The time (last week) I heard someone outside my window in the middle of the night but decided it was a pigeon. The many times men told me to get in their cars. The many times men spat on me because I didn’t give them what they felt entitled to. The time I found my pruning saw outside and thought girl, you’re asking to get murdered.

In the past few years I’ve soaked up several hundred hours of true crime stories, searching for my self-defence eureka. In all that time, I have not been murdered. But sometimes I think I lost sight of the goal posts, just past the gender-fear paradox.

Statistically, women have a greater fear – yet less experience – of violent crime, compared to men. This is likely because women are subject to a surfeit of less visible violence and aggression, which often goes unreported. Do we turn to true crime to steel ourselves against future victimisation? Or do we live in fear thanks to the narratives we impute? I choose to believe the former.

Either way, I’ve now outlived the primary and secondary age brackets in which women are more likely to be abducted and/or sexually assaulted. For this, I’m relieved. For its implications, I’m sickened.

And what if I only made it this far on account of my hyper-vigilance? The day I don’t take note of the nearest exit could be my undoing. So I’ll continue eyeing every room for the closest weapon to hand. If pushed, I will pepper spray first, apologise later.

To invert Margaret Atwood’s maxim: Women are afraid that men will kill them. Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. I am afraid of many things. I mean, clearly. But my second biggest fear is that women will stop laughing – with each other.

Karen and Georgia spark communal laughter. It’s a fire-blanket thrust over my fear, guilt and anxiety for a few hours each week. While I feel infinite empathy for the victims (and survivors) of the stories on My Favorite Murder, I can’t let myself absorb the trauma, or responsibility. I need true crime to be a locked window, not an open door. And though laughter might not save my life, it helps me stay sexy in the mean time.

Aimee Knight’s words appear on and in The Big Issue, Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings and more. She digs gender equality, sexual diversity, intersectionality and good mental health.

Source: www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/