Fear can be good when you’re walking past an alley at night or when you need to check the locks on your doors before you go to bed, but it’s not good when you have a goal and you’re fearful of obstacles. We often get trapped by our fears, but anyone who has had success has failed before.
So, I have a thing for murder.
No, not actually murdering people. I, like a lot of America right now, have a fascination for all things serial killers, forensic investigation and true crime.
A love of being in fear.
Television shows that investigate murders such as Dateline, 48 hours, Forensic Files, etc. have been around for decades. But now podcasts like My Favorite Murder, True Crime Garage, and Sword and Scale are popular, thus broadening fandom of the true crime genre. There are even communities on Facebook and other forms of social media for those who share my love of the ghastly stories of passion gone awry. These are closed groups, of course, because no one wants anyone from work knowing that you are obsessed with Charles Manson.
Is being scared to walk my dog at night normal? Some of my good friends, who share my love for the dark stuff, weighed in. Most of the replies came from Millennials, and a few are Generation X. No last names have been included for fear of retaliation from weirdos and murderers.
“The more I listen to stories, the more insight I have in case I find myself in an emergency situation later on,” Alexa, of Cincinnati, Ohio said. “I took a self-defense class last year during the time that I started listening to My Favorite Murder. I learned many cool moves and that it may be a good defense to yell and scream vulgar things at the person to make them think you might be crazy and to throw them off.”
Just this year, Rolling Stone discussed the rise of true crime podcasts and talked to Steven M. Crimando, head of Behavioral Science Applications at Seton Hall University, who said true crime stories appeal to our senses of “vulnerability, susceptibility and plausibility.” Why do I listen, watch and research cases that could easily happen to me at any moment? Probably because of the relatability of the cases; we, especially women, can all identify with being afraid. Crimando states that the most “primal and most powerful instinct we have physiologically is fear.” He speculates that these stories have an addictive quality because of the release of adrenaline in quick bursts during the storytelling of the crime. My eyes dart, for example, after exposure to this type of material, and if I’m driving, I begin to wonder if there’s someone lurking in the backseat.
“I never want to be the girl that didn’t see the signs, so I consider it research,” Sarah from Louisville, Kentucky, said about true crime. “I still hear Oprah telling us to listen to the voice in our heads and respect the red flags, so I figure the more I know about other people’s stories, the more prepared I’ll be to guard myself and help loved ones. I can’t accept that they ‘didn’t see it coming.”
An Atlantic article describes America’s love for my favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder, and the community it has built with more than 100,000 fans who “nurture each other’s enthusiasm” for serial killers and mental-health issues. While it’s unclear how many people in the community of true crime fanatics also struggle with mental health issues, podcaster Georgia Hardstark said in an interview with The Atlantic, “It’s a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you.”
“I think it’s taken the fear away,” Shayna, a probation and parole officer, said about her fascination with crime. “I feel more aware and I honestly just expect everyone to be horrible. But I’m not sure if my love of true crime or my job has had more influence on me being that way.”
In an episode of the Cracked podcast featuring My Favorite Murder podcasters Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, the women talk about their fascination with murder. “And women have, like, fifty percent more fear of being killed than men do.” Women, in my experience, have two reactions to the fear of being murdered: The naïveté of feeling like they can be sweet and helpful and have every reason to believe they would be able to persuade an attacker not to kill. Or, on the other hand, they frequently experience panic and fear of being assaulted and/or killed.
“(True crime) absolutely increases my fear,” Rachel, a writer, said. “When I’m reading a true crime book or watching a TV show I’m more likely to catch myself thinking about crazy make-believe scenarios where I’m kidnapped or murdered… maybe I’m just crazy. I try to watch less of that stuff now because it makes me anxious.”
It’s easy to understand why women fear being hurt more than men and why they are interested in increasing their chances of survival; hence the explosion of crime podcasts. The Atlantic article states that murder isn’t an “instinctively soothing subject matter,” yet my boyfriend and I have both fallen asleep to reruns of Forensic Files.
“I feel a mix of both (fear and comfort),” Kate, a teacher, said. “I know that statistically, most people who murder are people close to the victim, and I don’t generally keep company with anyone I think would murder me.” She can joke about the situation, yet she adds, “As a teacher, though, I do think about school shootings disproportionately to the likelihood that I will actually ever experience one.”
Fryar, whom I roomed with at the University of Kentucky, once appeared on the local news after a man invaded her home on campus.
“I do quadruple check that all my doors are locked everywhere I go because I did actually wake up to someone in my bedroom who I thought was gonna kill me, but he just stole my purse and my tablet,” she said.
On the commute to my first job, a fifty-minute drive each way, I plugged in my iPhone and listened to my favorite comedic personalities relaying stories about killers and stalkers. Comedy and murder? Yeah, it seems a bit cruel, but a recent story in The New York Times talked about the influx of comedy murder podcasts:
“At first blush, this approach to covering murder can seem a little tactless. I mean: People died! But especially for women, humor has emerged as an easy coping mechanism for relentlessly being told by pop culture that they’re probably going to be raped and murdered by a stranger, as ludicrous as that is,” the article said.
In 2015, more than 1,800 women or girls were murdered in homicides involving a single victim and single offender, New York Times reported in the 2017 series Women’s Lives, Cut Short. The youngest victims were just a few days old. The oldest was 96. More than 90 percent of the women and girls were killed by men. In cases where the relationship could be determined, 93 percent of the women were killed by someone they knew, according to an analysis of F.B.I. data, according to the Times. At least 395 wives were killed by their husbands in 2015, and 45 percent were killed during an argument.
“(True crime) makes people more aware of their surroundings in public and even in personal relationships,” Amanda, a newspaper editor, said.
“I’m not sure that I feel more fear (by engrossing myself in true crime), but I am more aware of the world around me when I am alone,” Holly, a writer, said. “I also don’t pick up hitchhikers or help men struggling with furniture and will not go anywhere near a parked van.”
“I think my love of true crime keeps me aware of my surroundings,” Morgan, a hairstylist, said. “I now know what signs to look for in the profile of people and situations. I also feel like I would know more of what to do in a situation like that than I did before.”
Women must deal with things daily that straight, white men will never understand. There are the different ways fear manifests in the ordinary women, than in men, who are socially or professionally in higher positions.
For some, fear may start with someone close to them, like a father. The root of my fear of men comes from of my father upset with me. In school, I would get all A’s, but, there was always one B – in math. Always on the cusp of an A. Because of this, my dad pushed me to get a tutor.
“A tutor? But it was so close to an A, Dad,” I said almost every nine weeks.
“It’s not an A, though,” he said.
When I got in trouble with my dad, it was something as trivial as a misplaced item of clothing on my bedroom floor, he wouldn’t spank me – he didn’t believe in that. He was constructive, or so I thought at that age. Now, I realize his ways could be viewed in some circles, as emotional abuse.
I will be good. I will be smart. I wrote, over and over as punishment.
“When can I stop, Dad?” I would whine, my hand cramping.
“When I say so,” he said.
After twenty pages and hundreds of lines, he would tell me I could get up from my desk.
When I started high school, I was the same rule-abiding girl I was in past years, hearing my dad’s words in my ear before every test.
“Every answer matters. Don’t you want to get into college?”
It was all about being smart, graduating college and making something of myself. I know now, after intense therapy for my “daddy issues,” that he did these things because of the goals he never fulfilled. He had only an associate degree and worked as a manager at a roofing business, which was less than satisfying to him. When I was twenty, he was laid off – at least that’s what he told me. My mother, who divorced him nearly twelve years prior, told me it was probably due to his alcoholism, which so disappointed me. His substance abuse had broken up our family years ago, hindered his productivity in life, and by that time, had distanced his only daughter from him. Being fairly self-aware and observant of reasons for others’ actions, I knew that my dad had projected his failures onto me in a way that came across as pushing me to make my life something that he never had. But, that fear of making him mad at me stayed with me long beyond my school years.
It kept me afraid of making any male upset, because what would he do? Would he assault me? Would he undermine me? Would he fire me?
My boyfriend, Heath, and I recently had a conversation that––quite frankly––pissed me off. I was working at a metro newspaper at the time. I felt worthless and was told so by two male bosses. One caused me to rethink my career. It was when I got therapy for my feelings of hopelessness in a career that I wanted since I was five, that I finally felt my self-esteem had leveled out enough to leave my abuser, AKA my boss.
When I asked Heath for advice about possibly leaving my job without having secured another job first, he replied: “Can’t you just stick it out?”
It wasn’t his fault for expressing himself. He didn’t understand. He had never felt the fear of walking into a job everyday expecting to be humiliated like I had been each previous day. My worst days began with a look of disgust shot my way as I walked past my boss’s cubicle. It often progressed to the point where he made a fool of me in front of the newsroom. Each time, after a brief pause when I thought someone among my peers might have my back, but then they all turned their backs on me and in silence went back to their computers. I was shamed. I knew what he said to me each day was wrong. He was trying to demean me. I’ve always questioned myself and my intelligence. Was I smart? Was I meant to be a journalist? Was I good enough for this job? And every day… my own worst thoughts that consumed me every day were being said aloud, by someone else. My biggest fear.
“You are dumb.”
“You won’t succeed.”
“You were never capable.”
The fear of being humiliated by this man struck me every day, but I know some women have had it much worse in the workplace. I’ve never been sexually harassed at work, but many millennial women have been, including friends of mine. According to an article in USA TODAY, many women don’t even recognize when they are being harassed.
“While millennial woman may expect equality and may be more likely to speak out against perceived sexual harassment, many also don’t recognize certain behaviors as sexual harassment. According to a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as many as 75 percent of women of all ages surveyed said they experienced sex-based harassment in their workplace but only after specific behaviors, such as unwanted sexual attention, were described to them by interviewers.
The #MeToo movement took off after allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein came out in the New York Times in 2017. The article detailed decades of allegations from many actresses including Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd. The accusations were that Weinstein forced women to massage him and watch him masturbate, according to the BBC. He also promised to advance their careers in return for sexual favors. And eventually, more women came out saying Weinstein raped them.
But, what if they didn’t do what he asked or spoke out against him? I hate to throw Heath under the bus once again, but he is one of the many men in America that asked after such allegations were broadcast, Why now?
The reason these women never came forward before is that they were afraid. Abused actress Annabella Sciorra told The New Yorker, she was still living in fear of him, and slept with a baseball bat by her bed. Weinstein, had violently raped her in the early nineteen-nineties, and, over the next several years, sexually harassed her repeatedly, she told Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker. Even now, actresses are afraid to speak out against Weinstein, because they say they fear career damage to “life-altering consequences of being marked as sexual-assault victims.”
It’s true that a lot of women, like me, live in fear of many possible horrors. The fear of being assaulted or killed is even more prevalent among most women than men, which according to statistics, is something maybe we should be afraid of.
I get that. I’m scared every day of my life that I’m going to get attacked. It’s not fair that I must worry about this, especially in a democratic country that is supposed to keep me safe. But, that’s the way it is. Women, and people in general, must be aware and realistic about violence hope things will change, violence against women and men will fade. Until then, I need to look over my shoulder wherever I go and learn how to use a gun and pepper spray for protection. I’m Millennial woman with a lot of life to live and need to be smart to prevent assault and homicide.
“I watch a lot of true crime and I may not think about it in my day-to-day life, but I definitely feel like the fear is settled in my subconscious,” Kayla, a physician’s assistant. said. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that I adopted a 90-pound dog the day after watching a documentary on Charles Manson.”
It’s true, for me, that even walking my dog late at night gives me an intense fear of being watched, stalked and perhaps assaulted in my dimly-lit neighborhood. The community of My Favorite Murder fans share stories each week that young and old females can relate to, including ones about being stalked by creepy men in dark parking garages and nearly missed connections to assaults.
“When I travel alone I have caught strange men staring at me before in the airport,” Alexa, a retail salesperson, said. “Before I listened to MFM, I was not as aware. We can always learn more on how to be aware. It could be as simple as knowing the nearest exit at all times and knowing that anything can be used as a weapon if need be. If you are out at the bar and a guy wants to talk to you, but you get weird vibes and don’t want to, don’t humor him and trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ or ‘I’m not interested’ or ‘I have to get back to my friends.’ You are certainly not obligated to talk to him. You don’t need to apologize to this fool either. Don’t ‘play nice’ with these creepos. I have had to do that before. It’s okay to be ‘not nice’ in situations which concern your safety. We need to listen to our instincts.”
As Karen and Georgia from My Favorite Murder say, “Stay Sexy. Don’t Get Murdered.” For me, this is a constant reminder to look behind me everywhere I go. I’m living my daily life, but being safe, because it’s a crazy world out there, and by being safe, I’m staying alive.
Taylor Riley is a freelance journalist and creative nonfiction writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. She has been published in USA TODAY, Refinery29 and many other local and regional publications. She received her MFA in the spring from Spalding University and is hoping to soon publish her book of essays on her love—but complete fear of—true crime, “Fearful Female.“ When she is not writing, she can be found teaching English courses at three universities, practicing yoga or barre or playing with her two black lab mixes.