On February 9th, 2004, a Massachusetts college student named Maura Murray was driving her black Saturn down a rural New Hampshire road when she got into a fender bender. A man who witnessed the accident from the street offered help and was declined. He called them anyway, and on their arrival 19 minutes later, the police found a locked car with both airbags deployed, a cracked windshield, and a rag in the tailpipe. They did not find Maura.
I was a high school junior that year, and went to school about an hour from where Maura vanished. She was gone, but she was also everywhere — her picture was on every news station, her story in every paper. I was consumed by the case, galvanized and paralyzed by the confounding mystery at its center: What happened in those 19 minutes?
That was my first experience with the true crime buzz: An itch deep in my brain, a belief that if I could just find an explanation, maybe the story would stop haunting me. Crime stories create wounds in the mouth that we can’t stop running our tongues over. Maura Murray is how I got hooked.
But I’m not the only one. Since the advent of the internet, weirdos have been using it to connect with other weirdos who want to talk about crime stuff. My search for information about Maura 12 years ago brought me to the internet’s biggest true crime forum at the time, Websleuths.com. The posters at that time were a motley crew of death-obsessed teenagers (like me), shut-ins and the unemployed, ex-cops and wannabe lawyers, psychics and people in the broader social circle around the murdered or disappeared, all looking for answers.
Like all internet forums, there were petty grievances and debates, but Websleuths was surprisingly civil given its constituency. For the most part, the conversations remained respectful of victims and their loved ones, motivated mostly by a desire for answers. I’d found a safe space to indulge my obsession in nonjudgemental company. For much of my life, apart from the occasional big case in the news, you couldn’t talk about this stuff with just anyone.
That’s changed. Over the past 15 years or so, true crime fandom has gone from fringe culture, to high culture, to pop culture, attracting new devotees and new understandings of what it means to find murder entertaining. True crime has crossed into the mainstream many times before, it’s a dependable cycle — but before now, it always had a bit of that pulpy, “guilty pleasure” vibe.
This time, it’s entered the mainstream not via lurid tabloid headlines or even disposable Lifetime and Investigation Discovery reenactments, but prestige projects, like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer.” Murder has become polite dinner party conversation for a new group of people: The well-adjusted.
It’s both very cool and a little frustrating. While it’s no longer considered especially morbid to be into this stuff, and it is nice that the genre’s attracting new fans, to old hands these high-profile projects don’t always seem too exemplary: To a seasoned Websleuth like myself, for example, “Serial’s” Sarah Koenig can seem too uninterested in differentiating between significant and insignificant details, making for a meandering and at times incoherent narrative. She seems too easily susceptible to the charm of the accused, Adnan Syed. Even more galling is the fact that “Serial” was made against the wishes of the victim’s family: In terms of exploitation, what sets “Serial” apart from a tabloid story?
After this recent wave of higher-brow true crime serials, the genre’s returning to its pulpy roots as it hits primetime. Before “Serial” reset the bar, most television true crime aired alongside commercials for class action torts and CPAP machines: Prime “Websleuth hours,” when everybody “normal” was at work. But the newer primetime and prestige projects seem to think that merely pinning a rose on the ambivalent ethics is enough to escape the deeper questions in play.
Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning — and therefore prestige, by definition — “People vs OJ Simpson” is overtly critical of people who watched the original trial with glee, yet portrays it with the same exuberance — it’s never clear whether this is intentional dramatic irony, or Murphy’s usual ironic/unironic approach. The show also reminds us that the OJ trial effectively introduced the Kardashian clan, as though to draw a bright line between the trash TV of the ’90s and the trash TV of today.
September 2016 has given rise to at least five different multi-part TV programs about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey: A Lifetime movie, a CBS miniseries, and documentaries on A&E, Dateline and Investigation Discovery. Dr. Phil interviewed Jonbenet’s brother Burke, promising new insight on the case (the only new insight: Burke, unsurprisingly, grew up to be pretty weird).
20 years on, the mystery is still as confounding as it is titillating. With the grim imagery of child pageantry and the spectre of child sexual abuse, it’s ripe for the lurid TV junk food treatment (they don’t make Lifetime movies about regular old whodunnits). But even as it’s ripe for exploitation, it’s also, like Maura Murray’s disappearance, an incomprehensible mystery. The case seems overloaded with information and meaning. There are almost too many clues. It’s as if the shock value of the case doesn’t allow us to objectively synthesize this information in a coherent way. If any famous case deserves a serious investigation, it’s JonBenet’s — but, highbrow gloss notwithstanding, we won’t be getting that from TV this year.
The question of exploitation has always come up a lot, with true crime. It’s easy to disapprove when the pulpy stuff delights in the gory details — but you have to wonder whether, by foregoing the horror and approaching these stories from a more intellectual angle, we don’t elide the victim just as much without realizing it.
Maybe there’s blood on our hands, if that’s how we’ve decided to describe it, either way — no matter how much we overcorrect, intellectualize, or normalize it at our dinner parties. But is that misapplied labor, if we’re asking the wrong question to begin with?
In the end, there’s no chance finding “answers” will soothe the anxiety that attracts us and repulses us when we hear about this kind of random horror. No answer will be ever satisfying: I’m pretty sure Maura Murray was drunk, panicked and lost herself in those snowy woods; if it wasn’t a Ramsey monster that murdered JonBenet, it was some other monster.
These are the facts. At the end of every true crime story, a person who was alive is now dead. How can we possibly make sense of that? We can’t. But it’s just like any other story about loss, or grief, or inhumanity — we don’t ask the questions to solve the case, we ask the questions to regain control of a senseless world.
In 2016, you could argue that the mainstreaming of true crime is exactly that: A collective agreement to stop trying to own what’s incomprehensible, to make it about ourselves and allow our bloody past to exist, unknowable. To stop looking away from what’s uncomfortable, and start looking right at it.