As some grieving families feel like fodder for entertainment, others feel joy that their story is being told, keeping the name of their loved one alive. My empathy for the victims has only deepened with the viewing of these shows. Life matters. It is up to each one of us to be a loving, kind person. We need to act out of love and kindness if we are to make a positive impact upon others.
A Guilty Pleasure
During this past year of pandemic, I filled my free time with these shows. It became a guilty pleasure; I knew I shouldn’t have a desire to watch…but I did anyway. I know I’m not alone, though. In fact, that’s why the Investigation Discovery network exists…it’s all true crime programming.
Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers, says:
“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters. The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
Bonn goes on to say, “People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain.” That’s why roller coasters, horror movies, haunted houses, and such exist, and why some people participate in risky activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, zip lining, and the such. It’s experiencing fear in a controlled environment.
As a child, I loved reading Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. Suspense is a rush. It’s good versus evil. It’s the curiosity of WHY? As a young teenager, the idea of being a detective drew me in, but I also knew I could never really have that career. I liked being a safe distance from crime scenes; I have no desire to get up close and personal.
Interest Spawned in Youth
My interest is also likely seeded in a few incidents of my younger years:
As a kid, I lived in Nebraska, and I remember being scared. Our community had a serial killer, and he targeted young boys. One victim delivered newspapers, and I remember being afraid for my older brother who had recently taken up a newspaper route. Sometimes, our family delivered the papers together. Another boy had been abducted while walking to school. These boys’ bodies had been stabbed and bitten and discarded. The day he was caught, preschool for my younger brother had been canceled. It turns out that this man, John J. Joubert, had been loitering around the preschool early that morning. “Challenged by [a staff member, Joubert] shoved her, threatened her with death, then ran to a nearby car and sped away. The staff member memorized his license number, and the rented vehicle was traced to 20-year-old John Joubert, an enlisted man at nearby Offutt Air Force Base.” Joubert began in 1982, was caught in 1984, and his story ends on July 18, 1996, by electrocution by electric chair. I was nine years old when he was caught and twenty-one years old when he was put to death.
Madison and Smalley
Then, in 1988, while living in Texas, two girls in our town went missing. Stacie Madison and Susan Smalley. At the time, my older brother attended the same high school as the girls. Unfortunately, this has turned into a cold case, and it still haunts me. With how far forensic science and technology has come, I still hope that this case will be solved.
Also, in 1996, in a nearby town of where I lived, a nine-year-old girl, Amber Hagerman, was abducted. A man witnessed Amber being snatched from her bicycle and pulled into a truck as she kicked and screamed. Four days later, a man walking his dog found her naked body in a creek bed. This case has yet to be solved. However, Amber is the namesake of the nationwide Amber Alert system which has since helped recover in excess of 900 abducted children across the country.
The Golden State Killer
One of my curiosities has been the Golden State Killer, previously known as the East Area Rapist. I learned of Michelle McNamara, a true crime author, who had been investigating the case on her own. She was married to Patton Oswalt, whom I adore. McNamara was also working on her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, an “exhaustive investigation into the identity of the Golden State Killer, who committed upward of 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s.” Unfortunately, Michelle passed away before the case was solved. Together, husband Patton Oswalt, crime writer and friend Paul Haynes, and crime journalist Billy Jensen finished Michelle McNamara’s book. In her notes was a list of items she was still working on. One of those items eventually led to the capture of the killer…the idea to use genealogical DNA, something that didn’t exist during the killer’s malevolent spree. This was the first time DNA from a crime scene was submitted into a consumer DNA database; this resulted in finding information about distant relatives which assisted in identifying a suspect. Finally in April 2018, Joseph DeAngelo was apprehended and eventually pled guilty and was sentenced in August 2020. In June 2020, HBO released a documentary by the same name as McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Genealogical DNA has since aided in identifying suspects. In January 2021, the 25th anniversary of Amber Hagerman’s disappearance, Chief Kevin Kolbye announced that they are submitting evidence later this year in hopes of identifying the killer via genealogical DNA, as well.
Throughout my time of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, I buried myself in more documentaries other than the Golden State Killer. Yes, it started with Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which I didn’t even care for much, but I was obsessed with the memes that popped up on social media regarding the show. Some of the most hilarious memes ever. Memes aside, I was really curious about the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband, Don Lewis. Carole even stated, “The only way to get a tiger to eat someone is to cover them in sardine oil or something.” Since the docuseries was released, the case into the disappearance of Don Lewis has been reopened.
Don’t F**k With Cats
After Tiger King, I moved onto Netflix’s Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer. The first episode was so disturbing (and yes, I had to keep watching). I was intrigued by the fact it was viewers online who took it upon themselves to investigate the man. The cocky man even taunted his amateur online sleuths. I had to know if the man was caught…and if these civilian sleuths could convince the police of the imminent danger. It was a wild ride.
The Menendez Brothers
Another docuseries I watched this past year is The Menendez Murders: Erik Tells All. I was twenty-one when the shocking murders took place, but I was in college and I didn’t follow the case. I only recall hearing that they killed their parents and then went on a shopping spree. Now, I wanted to know more, and this is the documentary I chose to watch. Yes, this was a gruesome and unthinkable event, but I learned of the despicable humans they had as parents, how evil they were, and I am deeply saddened that the brothers will never know life again outside prison. And, I was shocked to learn how O.J. Simpson’s trial had an effect on the Menendez brothers’ second trial.
With the true crime genre, I have a need to know if the bad guys (or gals) are caught and if justice is served. It’s a puzzle, and I’m an armchair detective trying to make sense of it all. True crime shows are storytelling at its best. True crime is on newscasts every day, but these shows surround it with context. Storytelling is as old as time; we all love a good story.
As for other shows I watched and recommend:
And, of course, my ongoing fictional shows:
- Law & Order: SVU
- Prodigal Son, and…
- Dexter, which I didn’t watch until quarantine times, BUT fall 2021 is a limited-series revival!
Premiering April 1st:
Organized Crime, with Elliot Stabler (previous character on SVU played by Christopher Meloni)
Copyright © 2021 Alicia Rust. All rights reserved.
“About AMBER Alert.” AMBER Alert. U.S. Department of Justice, October 20, 2019. https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about.
Alter, Alexandra. “Michelle McNamara Hunted, and Was Haunted by, the Golden State Killer.” The New York Times, February 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/15/books/michelle-mcnamara-patton-oswalt-book-serial-killer.html.
“Body of Kidnapped Texas Girl Is Found.” The New York Times, January 19, 1996. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/19/us/body-of-kidnapped-texas-girl-is-found.html.
Bonn, Scott. “Why We Are Drawn to True Crime Shows.” Time. Time, January 8, 2016. https://time.com/4172673/true-crime-allure/.
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Puckering, Emily. “Carole Baskin Makes Confession About Her Husband’s Disappearance.” 22 Words, January 18, 2021. https://twentytwowords.com/carole-baskin-makes-confession-about-her-husbands-disappearance/.
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Scudder, Charles, and Dana Branham. “25 Years After Amber Hagerman’s Kidnapping.” The Dallas Morning News, January 12, 2021. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2021/01/13/25-years-after-amber-hagermans-kidnapping-heres-why-detectives-stay-hopeful-for-a-breakthrough-in-her-case/.
Zakarin, Jordan. “Why the Menendez Brothers Killed Their Parents – a Look Inside Their Murder Case.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, March 16, 2021. https://www.biography.com/news/menendez-brothers-murder-case-facts.