I remember exactly when I discovered Casefile. I was driving solo to Broken Hill, a bucket-list adventure I didn’t realise would be so physically taxing. Driving six hours a day, alone? I don’t recommend it. Actually, maybe — but you definitely need a good podcast. Casefile had been recommended to me by a friend, and I ploughed through episodes of the popular true crime podcast as I cruised the long stretches of highway.
From there, I craved more. Serial. Somebody Knows Something. Up And Vanished. If it was about murder, I was listening. Then, I discovered My Favourite Murder. A total game-changer for me, MFM felt like sitting with friends who also had an awkward fascination with serial killers. It’s like we all knew our obsession was kind of wrong, but we came together like a big bunch of weirdos.
Except we were a really, really big bunch of weirdos. My Favourite Murder has gone from a small independent podcast started by two women who met at a party to a multi-content business that signed a deal with Stitcher in 2019 worth $10 million. That success is in part due to founders Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff having a knack for signing the right talent (they have fifteen podcasts and counting on the network, not all crime related), but to a larger degree, it’s because they built a dedicated fanbase off the back of telling murder stories that feel like they’re being told over a few wines.
I’m in no way judging here. I started my own crime podcast in 2018, modelled on My Favourite Murder. In each episode, my co-host and I would pick an unsolved mystery (not always murder cases, but often these appeared) and share all the details in a casual manner, exactly like you would at a dinner party.
We ended up moving on to a broader history-themed podcast that occasionally covers crimes, because we struggled with the content. While we aimed to always respect the victim-survivors, over the years, we found compelling stories that were not about murder, which we were more comfortable with.
At the time, I didn’t see this as an ethical decision. Yes, we struggled with the content, but that was more from an “it upsets us to talk about this” perspective. I still listened to true crime regularly. I still got excited about every new true crime documentary and series.
But I noticed a shift when Netflix’s Dahmer was released last month.
For the first time, I had zero interest in watching a show based on real-life murders. When my partner suggested we give it a go, I felt uneasy watching the first episode. When that episode ended, I decided to check out.
What was it about Dahmer? The series was no different to others based on serial killers. If anything, it had learnt from their mistakes. Where Netflix's Ted Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile garnered criticism for claims that it relegated victims to the background, Dahmer made a point to focus on them. This was particularly noteworthy given that Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims were predominantly Black and queer, both communities with victims of crime that were, and often still are, ignored. (There have since been suggestions that this attempt to centre victims has failed, and in fact served to re-traumatise them.)
For me though, it's bigger than Dahmer, and I'm reevaluating my love of true crime altogether.
2015 was the year our true crime obsessions began, I would say. Of course, the genre existed long before that, but in my lifetime, 2015 was it. Serial was released in 2014 but was a slow burn hit, and by December the following year, Netflix documentary Making A Murderer had landed. I was hooked — two complex cold cases with convicted criminals who seemed like they might be innocent. I remember how gripped I was.
From there, the genre was flooded — but there are only so many cold cases that can be covered, and the appetite for true crime was insatiable. It makes sense that shows like Casefile and Crime Junkie launched with a focus on other murder cases, not just those that remained unsolved. Suddenly, we weren’t just enraptured with lesser-known crimes that we might be able to help solve; we were just listening to and watching stories about serial killers, including those who had already been convicted.
Everywhere you turn in 2022, there’s a show, a podcast, a documentary about true crime. The podcast charts are flooded with them, and Netflix released Dahmer in tandem with a season of its documentary series Conversations With A Killer. We can’t shy away from the facts anymore — true crime has become entertainment.
We enjoy it.
I think for a long time I latched on to an argument that made the rounds years ago: that the reason women in particular are drawn to true crime is because we are so often the victims, and we subconsciously seek out these stories because we think we can learn from them. But, at least for me, I now don’t think that’s true. I enjoyed the stories. They were scary and fascinating and kept me hooked because they were delivered with suspense. They were well and truly entertainment.
But in saying that, is it okay to be entertained if the content does good work? Podcasts like The Teacher’s Pet, Bowraville and shows such as The Jinx have all led to reopened court cases and, in some instances, convictions of killers who had long gotten away with murder. If a show is centred on a cold case, with the aim of either piecing together evidence or uncovering new lines of investigation, am I okay with that also being my personal entertainment?
As you can see, I'm really in the middle of an internal conflict. I don't have answers just yet, and everything is mostly a grey area right now. What is black and white is this: true crime has become a serious money-maker.
That does not sit well with me.
I understand that creating these shows takes work, and work costs money and deserves payment. But some of these podcasts would be making some significant money. Money that flows in via sponsors and Patreon accounts and book deals and, for Casefile, for example, even a crime-themed board game.
We can't forget that this is money that's being made off the backs of murder victims and their stories.
For example, Ashley Flowers, creator of Crime Junkie, now runs podcast network Audiochuck. The network houses 17 podcasts, most of which are murder-related, like Park Predators (stories of murders in national parks) and Red Collar ("the white collar criminals who kill"). The site has a whole section for brands interested in advertising within these podcasts. “If you’re trying to get in front of a wide audience who is also interested in consumer products and services,” it says, “Consider advertising with us. Our listeners love learning about new products and services when they listen in.”
This is opportunistic, right? When you really think about it, making serious bank off a global appetite for more, more, more murder stories is a bizarre concept. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not saying these creators are bad people — Flowers established Season Of Justice after the success of Crime Junkie, a nonprofit that funds law enforcement agencies and families to help solve cold cases, for example, and has at least one podcast focused purely on marginalised victims whose stories are so often left untold.
But I do wonder if we’ve all, creators included, gotten caught up in the moment without a lot of critical thinking. Shouldn't there be an ethical line here that we shouldn't cross?
In such a saturated and heavily monetised genre, the truth is getting harder to shy away from. So here I am, currently standing in the middle somewhere. I still see cold case content as sitting in a morally okay space. They’re reaching for justice, so it feels less dirty to enjoy it as entertainment. But I'm probably done with rehashing cases that are closed.
Maybe my opinion will change over time, but as with most ethical quandaries, it’s a work in progress. The important thing is that I'm done pretending that this discomfort doesn't exist. These are real people, with real, horrific things that were done to them. And now I'm not feeling so good about hearing that being shared as a story for my entertainment. For me, all that time I spent burying my head in the sand is over.