How true crime media has captured the young

Stay sexy, don’t get murdered,” says one of the hosts of the My Favourite Murder podcast, her voice heavy with the lazy, sizzling vocal fry that drags vowels out and trivialises everything she says. It’s the end of another frothy episode in which she and her co-host discuss the gory details and murky circumstances of famous murders with a lightness and playfulness one associates with a recap of last night’s episode of Bachelor in Paradise.

It can be a little disarming to hear people gleefully discuss tragedies such as the gruesome Black Dahlia murder, Ted Bundy’s killing spree, or the chilling mystery of JonBenét Ramsey’s death, but for some women, it’s little more than brunch talk.

People have always loved scary stories, and an element of truth only makes them more exhilarating. Whether we’re telling folktales around a campfire, staying up late gripping the pages of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or recounting a harrowing documentary we’ve seen as we eat shakshuka and sip Bloody Marys, sharing tales of horror has long been a cultural practice.

In recent years, though, with the development of new mediums and the ease with which we can access content, the true crime genre has gone from strength to strength. Maybe it was the success of the podcast Serial, the 12-part series that worked to solve the mystery of American teenager Hae Min Lee’s murder, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and much later cleared, thanks in large part to the podcast, that took this genre from niche interest to entertainment staple. (Syed’s conviction was reinstated on a technicality last week, but this is expected to be temporary.)

Clockwise from main: Young women are hooked on true crime podcasts; Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen; Golden State killer Joseph James DeAngelo; a coded message from the Zodiac Killer; a collage of photographs of Hai Min Lee and her friends.

Clockwise from main: Young women are hooked on true crime podcasts; Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen; Golden State killer Joseph James DeAngelo; a coded message from the Zodiac Killer; a collage of photographs of Hai Min Lee and her friends.Credit:iStock

It’s now easier than ever to find these stories across any number of media: deep-diving podcasts, tantalising documentaries, YouTube series, nonfiction books, and curiously, a TikTok phenomenon wherein narrators tell chilling tales of little-known murders while applying makeup. User @literallylizzi blends her concealer and discusses the deaths of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997. With eerie tinkling music in the background, @megmegmegitsmeg paints her eyelids with pink glitter and details a triple homicide that became known as the Oklahoma Girl Scout murders in 1977.

Lose yourself in the details while you walk your dog, unwind after work, or even as you fall asleep.

Although many of us relish the thrill of true crime stories, young women appear to be the most enthusiastic fans: 61 per cent of listeners of the top 25 true crime podcasts are women at an average age of 29.6 years; a 2010 study found that 70 per cent of reviews of true crime books on Amazon are written by women.

‘It’s helped me think, if I was in that situation, what would I do?’

Mona Platini, true crime fan

At first this seems strange, given that the victims at the centre of so many of these cases are very often young women themselves. What, exactly, do we find engrossing about someone just like us being preyed on, attacked, brutalised?

Is it a training exercise? The way our mothers taught us to hold our keys between our fingers when we’re walking alone at night, or the way we now drop a pin in our maps app and share it with our friends before meeting someone from the internet, are we consuming these stories and learning from these victims: what not to do?

“I’m really cautious when I’m alone,” says true crime fan Mona Platini, 27. “I make sure that I call someone so they know where I am at all times. I pay attention to my surroundings, the people around me, what they’re wearing … I take note of how some women have escaped, throwing dirt in people’s eyes, going for their knees. It’s helped me think, if I was in that situation, what would I do?”

Georgia Hardstark (left) and Karen Kilgariff of the podcast My Favourite Murder.

Georgia Hardstark (left) and Karen Kilgariff of the podcast My Favourite Murder.

“Generally women are empathetic,” says Josephine Rozenberg-Clarke, co-host of the podcast All Aussie Mystery Hour, head of editorial at Pedestrian.TV, and a fervent fan of the genre. Speaking of the time when Ted Bundy lured a woman to his car by asking for her help, she says, “We want to help the harmless-looking man with the broken arm; 99.9 per cent of the time, it’s going to be fine, but you never know.” Another catchphrase from My Favourite Murder is, “F— politeness.”

The Crime Junkie podcast says something similar: “Be weird. Be rude. Stay alive.”

“Just because society tells women that they have to be nice to everyone doesn’t mean they should,” Rozenberg-Clarke says. “These phrases have helped women feel empowered to go with their gut and stay out of situations that make them uncomfortable. It’s about listening to women and trusting your intuition.”

‘There is a level of desensitisation and almost craving more messed-up stories.’

Josephine Rozenberg-Clarke, All Aussie Mystery Hour co-host

So maybe that explains it: young women are taking back control. It’s natural to fear these stories. To learn that BTK (the Bind, Torture, Kill) killer Dennis Rader seemed like any ordinary friend of your dad’s, to digest that you never really know the people around you, and allow this fear to paralyse you, change your behaviour, and control your life. It’s something more, then, to stand up and reject this fear. If we decide to take true crime as entertainment, then we’re saying to the perpetrators of violence: “This doesn’t scare us, and neither do you.”


It’s certainly interesting to watch our tolerance grow as we spend longer and longer between the beats of these stories. Not so long ago, we were children petrified of imaginary monsters under our beds, and now I’m not the only woman I know who indulges in the dulcet drone of Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, in which serial killer Dennis Nilsen (who was played by David Tennant in the mini-series Des) discusses his crimes, like some kind of bedtime story. We’re no longer sated by Wikipedia entries about Jack the Ripper; we need weirder, grittier, more horrifying content as we chase the ever-elusive high of that first exposure. Troubling, isn’t it, how familiar that sounds?

“There is a level of desensitisation,” says Rozenberg-Clarke, “and almost craving more messed-up stories.”

She has taken a break from it, but true crime was once a constant source of entertainment. “It used to be, every Saturday, ‘New Casefile just dropped!’ and every Thursday, My Favourite Murder. I would look forward to Saturday so an anonymous host could tell me a story about a horrific crime. I got to a point where I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”

There are jokes all over the internet about women consuming distressing content while undertaking any number of passive activities. Washing the dishes, eating chips, all while delving ever-deeper into the most monstrous behaviour on human record. So then, does the medium through which we consume this content change the way we feel about it? Rozenberg-Clarke prefers podcasts. Platini finds that the visuals of documentaries help draw her deeper into the story. For whatever reason, books get under my skin the most.

“On-screen true crime dramas are often very compelling,” says Dr Brianna Chesser, associate professor in criminology and justice at RMIT. “They pull the viewer into the world of a suspect and can sensationalise them and their crimes. By comparison, podcasts rely on the imagination of the listener and can be more immersive.”

Top 3 bogeymen: from left, the Golden State Killer, an identikit image of the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy in court.

Top 3 bogeymen: from left, the Golden State Killer, an identikit image of the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy in court.Credit:

I wonder, then, why my peers and I keep going back for more. Is it “fear tourism”? The same way some people enjoy roller coasters, bungee jumping and haunted houses, I wonder if women like me feel so safe in our lives that we seek out the thrill of real-world horror stories to shake up the monotony, to feel death’s exhale on our necks without ever having to expose ourselves to real danger. A psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, Dr Brock Kirwan, says of true crime podcasts: “You can trick your brain into thinking this is dangerous, even though you’re in a relatively safe environment.”

One study found that although men and women react with fear at certain points of a true crime podcast, female listeners experience higher levels of anxiety, but will continue to listen, undeterred. In fact, for some, the closer to home, the better.

“There was a case in Newcastle when I was growing up, Gordana Kotevski, who was abducted when she was 16,” says Rozenberg-Clarke of a still-unsolved 1994 disappearance. “She was relatively close to my age, and she lived two suburbs away from where I lived, and I think about her family to this day. So for me it comes from a place of empathy … but then there is that sick fascination with it.”

In Rockhampton, journalist Michelle Gately was just four when nine-year-old local girl Keyra Steinhardt was murdered in 1999, and vividly remembers seeing the countless flowers people left in the place she was last seen.

Twenty years later, she created and launched the podcast Predator to give Keyra’s family a platform on which to discuss their experience. She’s still affected by the case, and still in touch with the family today.

“My audience prefers the stories that are local to them,” says the host of Shadow Matter, a YouTube and TikTok channel with a largely Australian audience. “If it’s something they grew up hearing or reading about in the newspapers… They connect to it. It’s a very weird, sort of nostalgic feeling for them. [True crime] is a safe place to indulge in these stories. From the comfort of your couch, bed, wherever you are, you can explore the dark psyche of someone who could do this.”

This is another argument: our desire to understand. “It appeals to human psychology. The need to figure out a puzzle.”

Certainly it’s compelling: what, exactly, makes someone become a murderer? We ask the question in the hope that if we’re lucky, if we can spot the warning signs early enough, maybe we can escape with our lives. As though there’s a perfect formula, such as a troubled childhood, adolescent rejection, ingrained misogyny, an unnatural affinity for violence or control, that can help us identify where it all went wrong.

Adnan Syed (centre) leaves court after his conviction was overturned in September 2022.

Adnan Syed (centre) leaves court after his conviction was overturned in September 2022.Credit:AP

“I hate that,” says Platini. “It’s always ‘mummy issues’, but that takes the responsibility off the murderer and gives it to his mother. I’m interested in the puzzle, yes, but of how the case was solved. That’s why I keep coming back to Adnan Syed [subject of the Serial podcast], The Zodiac Killer case, or the Golden State Killer, he was caught via his niece’s DNA from an ancestry site.”

Maybe it’s the puzzle, but maybe it’s empathy. Not for the killer, but for the victims and survivors themselves.

“This is likely to be one of the things that pulls people into true crime,” says Alyssa Sigamoney, associate lecturer in criminology and justice at RMIT. “The outline of an incident that did actually occur and the need for justice to be addressed.”

In a weird way, says Rozenberg-Clarke, it’s relief. “I’d feel anxious and then I’d listen to a true crime podcast. It should have made me more anxious, but often the mystery was solved and the man was thrown in jail, or the woman fought back and survived. It just made me feel safer.”

It makes you wonder how we have come to find entertainment in the very worst moments of people’s lives.

“Early on, there was one comment that really got to me,” says Shadow Matter’s host. “They said that I didn’t care about the victims I was writing about, and that really struck a chord with me. I know what it’s like to have a newspaper article written about someone I love. I had to take a step back there.”

“If [survivors] want to tell their story, they should be able to,” says Gately. “The question is, at what point do other people telling that story, exploiting it, cross a line? That’s something every individual has to consider when they listen to true crime.”

An active fan of the genre for many years, she’s now much more selective with the podcasts she listens to. “I’ve identified a few that treat the victims with empathy, and I stick with those … Gratuitous inclusions of what happened, it doesn’t sit well with me.”

Aligning with this, it’s suddenly difficult to watch the true crime/makeup tutorial videos on TikTok, in which creators casually discuss stories they’ve come across in their own top-level research. “What are you doing?” I want to ask them. “Have some respect.”

In this I am, of course, a hypocrite.

When I was 21, I was on a roadtrip through rural South Australia with a friend. Both fascinated with true crime and bored of hours of endless highway, we followed the signs for Snowtown.

On the road to Snowtown.

On the road to Snowtown.Credit:

I’m not sure what we expected. Perhaps to feel like we had been immersed, however briefly, in a story we had read so much about; that fear tourism again, the thrill of proximity to horror without any personal risk. Maybe it was intrigue, curiosity, or simply the millennial urge to be at the centre of everything. As we turned left into this reluctantly infamous town, what we felt instead was mingled dread and immense sadness. The hairs on our arms stood on end as locals tracked our arrival from the skate park, their front yards, the main street in town. We were mutually aware and suspicious of one another’s presence: us apprehensive, them resentful.

We were hungry and needed a bathroom, but I couldn’t bring myself to press into the brake. A little bit of it was fear: a sense of evil has never truly evaporated from this place. Truthfully, it was shame that kept my foot on the accelerator. The locals knew why we were there: to gawk. We were treating their trauma as a novelty, and I couldn’t bring myself to look them in the eye.

I pulled a U-turn, and as we hit the highway we both exhaled.

The Snowtown murders don’t re-enter the conversation much any more, but when they do, I no longer engage. Without so much as winding down my window, I was able to peek in at the devastating legacy of what was once a riveting folk story, and now it’s difficult to see anything else.

Reality is sobering, and that might not be a bad thing.

Aware of how grotesque it is to have a “favourite” serial killer, although morbidly curious and happy to accept criticism for my hypocrisy, I posted a poll on my Instagram story and asked my followers, overwhelmingly 20-something women, which stories they are drawn to time and time again. I wanted to see if mine lined up with anyone else’s, if we all had the same bogeyman.


The Golden State Killer came out on top: people were both fascinated and horrified by how long he successfully evaded capture, and the role that sheer luck played in his eventual arrest. Infamous cult icons the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy tied for second. John Wayne Gacy came in third, and there was little interest in Dennis Nilsen, The Night Stalker, or BTK. There’s one thing we can all agree on: there are too many of these monsters to keep score.

For a while I’ve worried about my ever-rising threshold for discomfort, and wondered if I need to go cold turkey in an effort to claw my way back to being adequately upset by tales of straightforward murders. But the moon is out while I’m writing this, and I’m too absorbed in the job to get up and turn on my lamp. There is only the light of my laptop screen, the tapping of keys, my dog’s breathing, and I’m thrilled by the tingle of fear that grips me when I notice all the dark shadows of my apartment. Thank goodness. I can still be scared.

Maybe it has all been a training exercise, and I’ll know instinctively what to do to survive a life-or-death struggle. If anyone could ever be equipped to face a psychopathic intruder with a weapon and unquenchable blood thirst, it’s me: she who has seen every show, listened to every podcast, travelled down every rabbit hole and crawled out again, ready for more. I’ll fight back, and live to host the podcast myself.

Staying sexy.

Not getting murdered.

Genevieve Novak is a contemporary fiction author and columnist for The Saturday Age’s Spectrum section. Her second novel, Crushing, is out now.

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Jaclyn Diaz

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