Are you bored? In need of distraction? Hungry for a morsel of entertainment? Let’s review pop culture’s offerings.
Over at the smorgasbord of TV now available on every streaming service and device, there’s A Wilderness of Errors, a documentary series about Jeffrey MacDonald, the army surgeon convicted of slaughtering his wife and daughters in 1970. Or Killer Inside, a documentary series about Aaron Hernandez, the football star convicted of murdering fellow footballer Odin Lloyd. Or Don’t F**k With Cats, a documentary series about Luka Magnotta, the pornstar convicted of stabbing and dismembering Chinese student Jun Lin.
Like your amusements more literary? No worries: There’s The Babysitter, a memoir of girlhood summers spent with a nice man who turned out to be a serial killer. Or Last Call, an investigation into another serial killer who preyed on gay men, leaving the bagged remains of one in a Pennsylvania rest stop. Too much? There are always podcasts, such as Serial, In the Dark, and My Favorite Murder. By now you probably get what they’re about.
Why the glut of true crime? Why does virtually every new treat proffered by our purveyors of distraction draw on some gruesome, grizzly murder, mayhem, or massacre? To answer the question, let’s turn to Exhibit A, the Hulu comedy series Only Murders in the Building.
One of the year’s biggest hits, beloved by critics and audiences alike, the show is set in an upscale apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One of the residents is found with a gunshot wound to the head—a suicide, says the police, an open-and-shut case. Three nosy neighbors (Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and co-writer Steve Martin) set out to investigate. You see, like most of their fellow Americans, they too are true crime buffs, bonding over their favorite true crime podcast. So when a corpse appears, they just know that something foul is afoot. They launch a true crime podcast of their own and set out to investigate the potential murder next door.
In the hands of a lesser master, this premise would yield little more than a few awkward chuckles, the sort of cringe-inducing confrontations that pass for comedy these days. Martin, however, is a true artist and understands what draws his characters to the terrifying torrent of true crime like moths to a flame: loneliness.
The neighbors on Only Murders live in a zip code that’s the envy of many the world over—but, ensconced in their tony New York tower, they are irredeemably alone. Whatever family ties they have are frayed by the strains of making money or maintaining professional reputations. Whatever friendships they’ve cultivated are tenuous. The city offers them many thrills but no consolation. Despondent, they turn to true crime, the distillation of human suffering, if only to feel something, anything, amidst the numbing strum of their existence. Even the emotional torments of a slain neighbor are better than no emotions at all.
And they, alas, are us. The epidemic few are talking about, the one much deadlier than COVID-19, is hopelessness. According to research by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Americans are succumbing in alarming numbers to deaths of despair: suicide, overdose, and other preventable deaths, all of which suggest an epidemic of giving up and giving in to pain and emptiness. Between 1999 and 2017 alone, America registered more than half a million extra deaths, or deaths that exceed the average demographic calculations—and that’s just among people aged forty-five to fifty-four. It’s only getting worse: In 2017, there were 158,000 deaths of despair in the U.S. “Think of it,” Case and Deaton write, “as three fully loaded Boeing 737 MAX jets falling out of the sky every day for a year.”
You can bet that tumbling jets would have us immediately setting up national task forces. Working-class stiffs quietly surrendering to Percocet are treated instead to a strong dose of podcasts, TV shows, and paperbacks about other people’s violent ends.
And that may very well be good news.
Seems contradictory, but consider this. First, we’ve no better barometer of the national mood than pop culture. The 1930s and 40s brought us not only the Great Depression but also Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and the other ghouls that grace Universal’s pantheon of horror. Feeling as if dark forces beyond their control were rising, ravenous, to devour them, Americans sought the same sensations on-screen, letting all they’d repressed in real life safely scare them at the movies. Or take the 1960s, which tested our mores, imploded our institutions, and gave us Easy Rider and The Graduate and other tales of delinquency and rule-breaking.
What, then, can we learn about the hearts and minds of Americans from our appetite for true crime? Here’s one theory: We crave more and more of the genre because we feel acutely our lack of that sturdiest and most ancient of all human engines—morality.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, Americans received their moral instructions in church. Even those who were only infrequent churchgoers knew that the very first documented conversations between two human beings—Abel and his brother Cain—ended with one striking the other dead. Priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders were there not only to tell these tales, the ur-stories of true crime, but also to provide instruction and guide their flocks through the ethical thickets we all must navigate as we stumble through life. We crave this guidance, which is why we turned to religion the moment we stuck our noses out of the cave, saw the heavens, and began wondering what or who dwelled there.
Sadly, as church attendance has tumbled (it’s now below 50 percent for the first time in history), most Americans no longer have access to this reliable school of moral training. Even sadder, though unsurprising, the Great Unchurching happened at precisely the moment many Americans needed counsel and comfort the most, for recent years have been a time of radical economic, technological, and geopolitical shifts. Unable to learn about life and death, good and evil, and virtue and vice from their clergy, they turned to podcast hosts and true crime shows instead.
That’s why we crave crime that’s true rather than Hollywood fabrications. The anxiety we feel, after all, is very real. Our neighbors are dying, and we don’t really understand why. To make matters worse, we’ve moved away from the robust, diverse neighborhoods of our parents and grandparents and into what recent studies confirm are increasingly racially and socioeconomically segregated communities. This means that in the normal rounds of our day we gain even less insight into life in all its myriad forms, and even more fear of those who may live just a mile down the road but who have now become complete strangers to us.
Which brings me back to my paradoxical claim that there’s good news in all this. Religious leaders aren’t known for their marketing prowess, but they hardly need to hire a high-priced consulting firm to realize that their core product is in very high demand these days. Our pop culture shows that in the third decade of the twenty-first century, people want to spend as much time as they can tuning in to the voice of their brothers’ blood crying out to them from the ground. Hallelujah: We’ve got a book that’s all about that. The Bible’s stories are not only more epically gruesome (the Levite’s Mistress, anyone?), they are also morally instructive, with nifty to-do lists and the recipe for a disciplined, spiritually uplifting, and peaceful life.
Let’s hope, then, that more communities of faith answer to this seeking spirit, reanimating our increasingly silent houses of worship. Let’s hope that, instead of humble homilies, our clergy treat us to true crime writ large. We don’t need soothing sermons or soft metaphors. We’re feeling the crushing emptiness of a godless life, and we’re frantically looking for a way out. We’re afraid, and we need some hardboiled tough talk to remind us that while anger and bloodshed, jealousy and malice, fear and loathing are all as ancient as the species, so are mercy and justice. Our Netflix shows and podcasts give us the former, but not the latter. It’s time we remember that after true crime comes true punishment and then, bless the Lord, forgiveness and true healing.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.