You Never Think It Could Happen to You: A Reckoning with True Crime
Reader discretion is advised.
What if witness is not a thing you bear, but something you give birth to? A living thing that looks back at you. The opposite of dead in a ditch.
There comes a moment in every episode of every true crime show when a different sort of fourth wall is broken, when the witnesses break from their first- or third-person retellings and they are suddenly, without warning, speaking to “you.” The first time I noticed this startling narrative shift, it was so jarring that I thought it must be some mistake, some quirk of speech that has no use for consistent point of view. The unscripted nature of the witness interview format followed by most true crime shows makes these odd manners-of-speech an inevitability, of course. It bothered the grammar snob in me, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond this.
There was no relief for a long time, and you’d have nightmares …. You get up screaming and fighting. You fall out of bed slinging your arms. (Cold Case Files, S.1, Ep.2)
But then — it kept happening. A stubborn consistency of inconsistency becomes a pattern, which, if these shows teach us nothing else, the rules of true crime demand must be investigated. Was this to distance and dissociate themselves from the more painful details of an incredibly traumatic experience? To implicate the audience so that we share in the blame or responsibility? Or was it to bring the audience in closer, to widen a circle of empathy and trust? Some universal you? Although I’m sure it is unconsciously done, this “you” manages to speak directly to the audience in both obvious and less obvious ways.
You see bodies in your sleep. You see him in your sleep. It’s just too much. (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Ep.1)
If the way we consume these types of stories reduces their central victims to a kind of roadkill, then these “you” statements have a way of reminding the viewers that both the bodies we are greedily scavenging and the violence done to them are human. Flesh-bare bones exhumed from a bed of dead leaves under the shelter of forest ferns, fronds large as fox tails. A body gutted and discarded in a barren field rewilded with knee-high grasses and milkweed. Is she a deer or a girl? Because, let’s be honest, both are hunted; both are dissected. Even though we have attempted to make something (arguably) artful from these remains, we have no choice but to reckon with the cannibalistic nature of its making when their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children are looking right back at us.
Once you got halfway, you couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. You could hear the cars and the trucks on the freeway roaring overhead. You’re isolated. You’re all alone. If you were to scream for help, no one would be able to hear you. (Cold Case Files, S.1, Ep.3)
Is the true guilty pleasure of true crime television that we take pleasure in the guilt of others? As a defunct Catholic, I know that guilt is always a given; it’s just a matter of degrees. First-degree murder. Second-degree voyeurism. And the only cure is confession.
Here is mine.
My mother taught me how to be a good Catholic, like her mother before her, but I am not Catholic. I hope I am mostly good. Growing up in all of the stained glass and gilded trappings of the Catholic church, it is impossible not to take some of it with you (see what I did there?). And so I’ve carried it within me as both mythology and architecture — these archetypes of Good and Evil, and their portrayals of the tortured, the disfigured, and the murdered as the holiest a human can be. That, for her suffering, the dead girl is closest to God.
Catholics have built entire churches around small pieces of the bodies of their saints and martyrs, believing these relics to hold actual fragments of God in them: the heads of John the Baptist and St. Catherine of Siena; the tongue, jawbone, and vocal chords of St. Anthony of Padua; the right hand of St. Stephen; the heart of St. Camillus. So the divine-dead-girl theory really isn’t very far-fetched. Growing up in a house in the woods, I would occasionally find animal bones, already cleaned of flesh by scavengers and insects, giving off the dull half-glow of eggshells on dead leaves. I was the creepy kid who would bring them back home with me and enshrine them within my collection of found things in the backyard playhouse. Even as a devout animal lover, these relics had a natural magical quality to them. This is probably the closest I’ve come to some kind of manifestation of faith—a faith in the brutal beauty of the natural world.
Those objects hold that energy and they twist you and turn you in the wind; and you start asking, you know, “What is the past? What was it?” (The Keepers, Ep.1)
I did inherit my mother’s love of horror and true crime though. We would watch Poltergeist together, her taped-from-TV version complete with its gloriously late-eighties commercial breaks and news bulletins. We loved our gritty nineties murder movies like Se7en and The Bone Collector, our supernatural horror like The Exorcist and Fallen, and even the slightly-goofy creature horror of Gremlins and Tremors. My gateway to true crime television was less crime than it was true disaster, true emergency, true misfortune. Rescue 911 was a regular weeknight family show in our house, with its reenactments and recordings of a more everyday kind of horror. A child runs through the house with a kitchen knife and collides with a sibling. Another distracted child gets pulled into the unforgiving teeth at the bottom of a mall escalator. Most of the people in the bizarre accidents featured on this show survived. Some didn’t.
To this day, my imagination regularly plays out similar what-if scenarios in real time: what if I fell over this second-floor banister? what if I tripped on the cats and careened eyeball-first into the pointy-end-up forks in the dish drying rack? what if the dog pushed the bathroom door open when I had a cotton swab in my ear and it punctured my eardrum? I close my eyes and wince at the passing thoughts. Then I shake off the revulsion and continue my routines.
In my adolescent years, when there was nothing else to do on a Friday night, I would occasionally flip through the channels until I landed on 48 Hours Mystery or Dateline or Unsolved Mysteries. It was just a mindless sort of consumption, the way we sometimes eat out of boredom and restlessness rather than true hunger. What was I craving though? Recently, I asked my mother what she thinks draws her to true crime. She told me that it was really two things. The first was an irrepressible curiosity about the twisted psychology of people bent toward causing such harm to others because it feels so far from her much more empathetic view of the people in the world around her. The second thing was the thrill of solving this mystery, of taking all of the tiny details and assembling them into a picture that does make sense, even if it’s the worst thing you can imagine (yes, you).
You think it should be solved. You’ve got to blame somebody. (Cold Case Files, S.1, Ep.4)
What is the distance between solved and resolved? We can solve the mystery of the episode laid out before us, ready for autopsy. But these “you” statements remind us that resolution is much more elusive. Sometimes you have to solve something over and over and over. The witnesses on these shows will describe the aftermath of the original crime in the second-person in a way that proves their pain is playing on a loop. It’s a parallel reality in the present indefinite tense where, every day, their sides are gouged open, an eagle slowly eats their livers, then they are healed miraculously while they sleep, only to wake again to the same cycle of evisceration and renewal.
You start to feel as if you’re ripping masks off your face and looking in a mirror as you’re doing it. And it’s very painful because you’re not sure anymore. Who are you? (The Keepers, Ep.3)
What kind of people are we to watch this Promethean display of human grief? That is probably the question implied the loudest by these “you” statements. I think there will always be a stigma tethered to the watching of true crime shows because our participation is taken for a perverse kind of enjoyment rather than a curiosity and an inability to look away. I will not pretend that this curiosity is not also perverse — it is entirely profane and morbid. But, for most of us, there is no pleasure to be had in the real misery of real people. I also cannot agree that simply being able to look away from terrible, gruesome, and true things is a virtue. I believe the void looks back at us whether or not we choose to look first. But I do still feel that uncomfortable sense of guilt about my insatiable need to know, my curiosity about the depths of human depravity. It is a necessary discomfort though: this is no place to feel at home.
There’s a certain thing that you do in order to survive, and that is, you leave it where it’s at. You can’t think it. You can’t look at it. You can’t do anything with it except sever it away, put it in a box. (The Keepers, Ep.3)
Here is the meat of the matter. The beating heart of the true crime show is a woman’s fear: this really could happen to you. It strips away any of the unreality of the horror movie and leaves us with the eventual scene of our own violent deaths. For some of us, this is how we deal with that ever-present anxiety. In order to protect us from all of the horrible fates humanity imagines for women and girls, those who love us have taught us how to fear, have taught us how to see danger before it has a chance to show itself. But this fear can grow into a malignancy.
True crime stories are a type of contemporary fairy tale in this way: allowing us to watch from a safe distance so that we can dissect the danger itself, so it is no longer an unknown. This is how we survive: we imagine the dozens of ways we are to be murdered, kidnapped, raped, tortured, beaten, stabbed, strangled, drowned, shot, dismembered, burned, frozen, buried, left to die, left to rot. This is how we carry our deaths within us without being consumed by them.
Berlinger, Joe. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. (Elastic/Gigantic Studios/Outpost Digital/RadicalMedia, 2019).
Kurtis, Bill. Cold Case Files, Season 1. (Kurtis Productions, Ltd./Blumhouse Television/AMPLE, 1999).
White Ryan. The Keepers, Season 1. (Film 45/Tripod Media, 2017).
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