The question I’ve waited my whole life for someone to ask me:
"Want to see a dead body?"
No. NO. Oh God, maybe? Yes? I…. No. Definitely NO.
YES. YES, I TOTALLY DO.
I blame Stand By Me.
I saw Stand By Me when I was 9 years old. I read The Body (the Stephen King short story it was based on) when I was maybe 11. There was not a single thing I could relate to in either, but I was obsessed. Still am. If it’s on TV, you bet your butt I pause whatever I’m doing, drop to the couch and watch it all and absolutely cry at the end. (I’m SURE that’s why I was so into Stranger Things. It was a beautiful tribute to everything that made 80s storytelling so iconic, with a sweet nod to the friendship and journey those four boys took in Castle Rock in 1986.)
I was a latchkey kid, a nosy kid with an overly swollen imagination with VERY LITTLE real-life drama in my own life. I wanted something, anything interesting to happen to me.
I devoured teen mysteries by the armful. (Nancy Drew paled in comparison to that spitfire Trixie Belden. The Belden books were solid little bricks in my hands, stiffly bound hold-overs from my Mom’s childhood. They smelled damp and earthy but I loved them so much. Trixie was on my short list for names when I was pregnant but the veto from my husband was swift and brutal "That’s a stripper’s name." DAMNIT.)
I’d stare out the window hard, unblinking, on long road trips, my heart leaping if I saw a misshapen object on the side of the road that was always inevitably a shredded garbage bag. (But maybe it contained the hacked off limbs of a missing woman! MOM, TURN THIS HONDA AROUND.)
My head swirled with imagined crime and violence and sex and drugs and the things people do when they want it, need it, miss it…
When I worked at a bookstore in the late 90s, I’d linger in the True Crime section and run my fingers over the bumpy spines of paperbacks with gruesome stories to tell. They would always start with a three chapter intro to the sleepy town where the crime took place and I didn’t care at all - give me the sordid and the meat and the blood!
I learned to just flip to the middle section where the pages were a little more sturdy because here was where the pictures were laid in! The victims, smiling awkwardly before they knew what terrible truths life had in store for them. The perpetrators, sometimes handsome, mostly creepy. Black and white grainy shots of the crime scene – my eyes straining to see if that was a smudge or a pool of blood. Lives ruined, mistakes made forever, monsters disguised as people – as the store’s gentle muzak swelled around me and the frappucino blender in the adjacent Starbucks roared to life.
Then I had a kid and suddenly crime and murder and people hurting each other landed harder. It buried under my skin and felt both ripe and rotten. I felt it deeper and couldn’t bear it. Crimes with children? NO. I would immediately slot myself into the role of the grieving parent and feel all the feelings and go hug my kid until she pushed me off and then carry this dark grey cloud around with me for days. I was too raw for true crime. It derailed my happiness and made me hate everyone and suspect everyone.
I’m still a Mom. Why can I now stomach it again? Age, I think? As I get older I can more easily separate my curiosity from my emotions. When someone is a dick in public, of course a part of me hopes they trip and fall and slice their achilles, but a larger part of me wonders "WHY?" What makes that person so hideous inside?
How are we so different? I choose Y and you choose Z.
People are flawed and gross and weird. I used to bathe in it, then run away from it and now I want to understand it.
Then I heard about a humor podcast called My Favorite Murder and I downloaded all the episodes and oh my god, I am BACK IN. Somehow these two genius women (Georgia Hardstark & Karen Kilgariff) can make you laugh while listening to insanely sad stories and you don't feel bad. They have also inspired a following of "Murderinos" and some epically clever merch of their tagline. (Spoons PLUS MORE available here.)
I have since downloaded every recommended true crime podcast. As I stand and slowly sway on the bus, I am listening to sickeningly tragic tales. As I type at work, giving off the appearance of a mild-mannered tired Mom, I am listening to 911 calls from lying murderers and then sobbing relatives and sober craggy detectives detail all the carnage I can’t see.
I even bought the OG True Crime masterpiece The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. It’s not well-written but she KNEW Bundy. Of COURSE I needed to know what that was like. I read it on the train with no shame and did my best to keep my face even as I read about the insanely ballsy ways he stole women, ruined lives and then goofed the legal system for years.
Podcasts and books are excellent ways to fill your true crime boots but nothing beats visual storytelling. There are SO many ways you can scare an audience. Even if liberties are taken, the crime is real, and as an audience how can you possible look away?
Luckily Netflix has a lovely selection of documentaries and fictionalized crime shows that are very very good. Here are my current favourites:
Fictionalized crime that is filmed, written and acted so beautifully, you are immediately sucked in. I just started Season 1 and I am hooked. (Two seasons are currently streaming.)
I thought I knew what was going on here before I hit Play. Even if you do, the way they unfold the story is gripping as hell.
Warning: you will lose 5 pounds of water weight from crying. I can barely recommend it .
You will need a long hot shower after this.
What's *your* favourite true crime documentary/series/movie? (And I didn't forget Making a Murderer - I was boooored.)
As a member of Netflix Canada's #streamteam I will be giving you the straight goods on what I'm watching each month in exchange for a yearly membership. It's a match made in heaven, really.