Why True Crime Needs to Stop Treating Trauma as Entertainment

There is money to be made talking about murder. But what’s the real cost? 

Claire Brnjac // Arts and Culture Editor 
John Pachkowsky // Illustrator

In August, beauty blogger Bailey Sarian passed two million subscribers on her YouTube channel. Her main series is a weekly installment called “Murder Mystery & Makeup,” where Sarian does her makeup and tells her viewers about a real life murder case. Her following of millions is profitable—Social Blade, a social media statistics website, puts her monthly earnings between $10,000 and $162,000.  

True crime has been a popular genre since the Victorian era, but its popularity today has magnified due to easy and free access to podcasts and YouTube videos. The way we consume true crime cases should be repeatedly called into question due to the inherent exploitative nature of reporting gruesome events and profiting off them.  

The true crime industry is largely made up of people who like to hear about and solve crimes, and this can easily turn into disrespecting the wishes of the victim’s family or interrupting their privacy. In the famous Black Dahlia case, a picture of the victim’s dead body is the most popular enduring image. Additionally, the last video of Elisa Lam alive has millions of views—it is often used to scare people with Lam’s ‘odd behaviors,’ which were largely due to her bipolar disorder.  

The continual profiting off of true crime is another question of morality; a true crime podcast like Last Podcast on the Left has a Patreon that earns them over $66,000 a month, and My Favourite Murder, one of the most popular true crime podcasts at the moment, reportedly made over $15 million dollars in 2020 according to Forbes. These podcasts have not made public whether they regularly donate to domestic violence organizations or any sort of victim legal fund. Additionally, CrimeCon, a convention focused solely on true crime, amassed a crowd of over 3,600 people in their 2019 season at 200 USD a head. As it stands, these people and events profit entirely off of telling their audiences about someone else’s gruesome murder.  

Some fans cite the stories as warnings and examples of what not to do during a confrontation. The overwhelming majority of true crime fans are educated white women, according to this 2018 survey by Kelli Boling. While true crime can be a fun way to solve a mystery that has a real-life element of unpredictability, what gets the most attention in true crime circles are the disappearances or murders of young white women. Other more vulnerable populations, like Indigenous and black trans women, rarely get airtime or exposure. 

I enjoy true crime. But I think that the true crime genre should evolve more into advocacy-based productions, and away from exploiting dead bodies for curiosity. The continual exploitation through overexposure of victims must stop in order for true crime to be a morally defensible genre. There must be accountability for the people earning the most to donate regularly to organizations that will help prevent further true crime cases like the ones they discuss, and there needs to be a shift away from pretending each true crime case is reported in totality with little bias.  

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