For hundreds of years, tantalizing crime stories have lured readers to kill time by enjoying a lurid true tale about murder, madness and mayhem.
The crime pamphlets of old led to the seminal work of 20th-century nonfiction true crime, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which set standards for how true crime books are approached today.
Documentaries like "The Keepers" and "Making a Murderer" and TV shows like "Dateline NBC" tapped into the obsession. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu are perfect launch pads for short series that explore every permutation found in a case.
Podcasts exploded as a handy, accessible medium where true crime aficionados—some are called "Murderinos"—get their weekly murder fix. Got an hour to spare? Listen to a killer good story.
All sorts of people are into the genre. It can be lowbrow and highbrow, artistic or formulaic.
But women, in particular, seem to have a special connection to true crime. Just witness a group like the Texarkana Murderinos, so-named for the "My Favorite Murder" podcast and its fans, who are almost uniformly female.
Active as a Facebook group, Texarkana Murderinos have met for book club chats to discuss salacious, bloody good reads like Kerri Rawson's "The Serial Killer's Daughter" and Ann Rule's "The Stranger Beside Me." They'll post crime news and crime memes, discuss cases or share podcast recommendations.
Sleep Tight, Texarkana
Hailey Mahone created the group, getting her Murderino friends and fellow "My Favorite Murder" fans involved in the true crime cause.
"The fans of the podcast, someone dubbed themselves that and then it just took," Mahone said about the term "Murderino." "But even the people that have maybe fallen off of the podcast still consider themselves a Murderino because of the community. It's probably 90 percent women."
That community aspect is essential to understanding all this, like fans who share a fandom, but in this case it might be a particular podcast show or a certain true crime story that brings them together, or maybe it's a particular kind of killer.
And why the strong engagement for women?
"I think women in this day and age and even back a hundred years ago, we always have to look over our shoulder, because there's so many threats in the world to women," Mahone said, "and so I think true crime is really similar to like a car wreck. You're either looking or you're reading about it, but it's not truly affecting you. But you still are fascinated by it."
She doesn't think the interest makes women paranoid, as some may think. Rather, following true crime increases a woman's awareness. It can give a sense of protection.
"It's something that happens every day, in every city. Even those small sleepy cities, there's something that's happened there," Mahone said. Just look at the Phantom Killer and the the urban legend about how one shouldn't go visit Lover's Lane with a sweetheart.
"I have a shirt that has the Phantom Killer. It's an illustration of the mask, and it says 'Sleep Tight, Texarkana,'" Mahone said. She's comfortable waving her "freak flag" about true crime and values her partners in crime, with whom she can discuss the "weird stuff" or talk local crime.
"You stay on top of these cases that are unraveling and you can kind of feel better, maybe expressing your anger or your frustration with the world to somebody that understands or can agree with you," Mahone said. People have each other's back about what's going on locally, particularly for women. It's empowering.
In her early teens, Mahone became intrigued with the John Wayne Gacy case. The true crime spark was lit. "I've been terrified of clowns ever since," she said. Gacy led to Ted Bundy, then the Casey Anthony case, which she followed in real time. The psychology, in particular, intrigues her with certain stories.
"What makes them do that? Like, how could you? I can't fathom ever doing something that horrific to somebody," Mahone said.
Although there's entertainment value to podcasts, for example, what makes one successful and yet responsible?
"I can say I like to listen to ones respectful of the victims," Mahone said. There can be comedy involved, but victims aren't targets of the humor. About the "My Favorite Murder" hosts, she said, "They just kind of think that they're funny, so they make themselves laugh. They put on a show but they still tell a story."
A Podcast a Day
Like Mahone, Carly Rhyne is intrigued with psychological aspects to true crime. "I think I really got hooked when I was about 10 years old," she recalls. She remembers seeing a Time magazine article about the Columbine shooting. "And I remember as a 10-year-old thinking I probably shouldn't read this, but I did." It fascinated and terrified her.
"I was always just this super intrigued child. I just thought I needed to know about everything," Rhyne recalled. "And it was just really crazy to me as a kid to read about other kids doing something that intense."
Then, a few years ago, she got hooked on podcasts through a friend, starting with the award-winning "Serial" podcast that explored the murder of Korean-American high school student Hae Min Lee. It's a format she loves.
"That's probably the thing that has gotten me the most hooked. Since I listened to that a couple years ago, probably every single day since then I listen to or watch or read something about true crime," Rhyne said.
In some sense, true crime connects to her work. She's a forensic interviewer, which means she interviews children and teens when there's an allegation of abuse. Law enforcement brings them to her and she interviews as a neutral party. She's also a licensed therapist.
"It's interesting because you think that doing this every day for my livelihood, I would maybe want to get away from it a little bit in my free time. That's always something that's posed to me," Rhyne said. But no. It's not the gruesomeness that gets her going, it's the psychology.
"I want to know why people do what they do, the victimology behind it. And honestly some of it probably comes from a place of anxiety. I think that's a lot of the thing with women," Rhyne said. "Women, somewhat more so than men, have to be on guard more often. We're more likely to be victimized. So I think that it's almost like taking a bit of the control back to learn about things."
In some weird way, she says, it helps with anxiety. A podcast a day can keep anxiety away. Specifically, she enjoys the humor found in "My Favorite Murder" and how it empowers people to stay safe. Survivors and victims get nothing but support, too.
"Sometimes being able to laugh about it is a little more empowering than crying and feeling scared," Rhyne said. Also, knowledge is power, to put it simply, and for women in the South, true crime is a fun way to break out of the box of how "women are supposed to be," she said.
Make Light of the Dark Side
Rhyne and Erika Grimes are both fans of "Last Podcast on the Left," which features three men using their humor and research skills to ruminate on everything from ghosts to UFOs to serial killers. For Grimes, the roots of this true crime obsession are found in her youth, too.
"I remember being 5, 6, 7 years old and watching 'In the Heat of the Night,' and then 'Law & Order.' It was just what we did with my dad. My dad worked really long hours and so he'd come home and that's how he unwound, so if you wanted to spend time with him that's what you did," Grimes said.
She remembers "Amityville" and the "Bunnicula" book series (including "The Celery Stalks at Midnight"). "My third-grade teacher actually recommended that I read those, and they're kind of true crime, whodunit type things," Grimes recalled of the kid's books about a vampire rabbit.
When Grimes was in high school, she studied serial killers in one class—"and the psychology behind it." They studied everyone, although they didn't delve into the gruesome stuff. "I learned that Charles Manson was sold for a pitcher of beer by his mom," she said.
The Green River Killer, the Zodiac Killer and more. Learning about them gave young Erika a psychology education. "By the time I got to college, I didn't even have to open my psychology book to get college credit for it," she said.
She, too, wants to uncover the "why" beneath the lurid details. "I want to know what causes them, what has happened in their childhood that has caused them in their life to make them be motivated to do something like that," Grimes said.
Manson holds a particular fascination. "I hate to say favorite, but he's my favorite because he never did anything. He controlled everyone else to do it. It was his ideas, but he had such control over everyone else. Although he was convicted for being involved in the Sharon Tate murders and stuff like that, he never did anything but plant ideas in people's minds. That's control," said Grimes, a self-described "podcast nerd."
"Last Podcast on the Left" does deep dives into serial killers with three and four episodes devoted to one, she says. That's part of the appeal: an in-depth look at the serial killer's life with a dose of humor. "Henry (Zebrowski, co-host) has a voice for every serial killer," she said.
"I think I like it because it's something I can do at work and still stay focused," Grimes said. And she's still learning at the same time.
She, too, enjoys the comedic aspect. "I think it just kind of makes light of the darker side of humanity," she said. A humorous spin can make the entire story easier to handle. Straight murder 24-7, that's impossible to take.
And why are women so into true crime? Part of it is the fear instilled in women. There's a fear women have growing up here, she says. "You don't go places and you don't do things, and you aren't supposed to go places alone at night," she said. True crime is a way to explore the flip side of all that.
They Seemed Normal
Madysen Neathery is another one of those Murderinos. When her mother watched programs like "Dateline NBC" and "20/20," she got into it, too. So she's seen the true crime interest there for a long time, and with the Internet the obsessions resurfaced for her and others.
She credits "My Favorite Murder" with part of that. And then for her there was something local. "I grew up in Paragould, Ark. and it's close to West Memphis, Ark. I remember watching a documentary probably when I was 12 or 13 about the West Memphis Three and that story," Neathery said.
The father of one of her friends was a defense attorney on the case. "That immediately sucked me in and I was so into this," Neathery said. Late at night, she'd search online about the case. "Just getting entranced in it," she recalled, noting it's a case where "the justice system didn't do them justice," referring to the three teens convicted only to be later released.
As it is for others, the psychology behind a true crime case became the trigger for her interest. "Because you have these people that seem to be normal, everyday people, and yet there's just something off that makes them this way," Neathery said.
She's impressed with the thorough research of "Last Podcast on the Left," and names "Sword and Scale" as another favorite. "My Favorite Murder" is a podcast she can relate to, in a way, with its appealing sense of humor.
"Especially with 'My Favorite Murder,' it feels like a conversation I would have with one of my friends. We're not making fun of the act and what happened, but there are just aspects of the story where someone will have like a ridiculous name, or they're doing something to get caught where you're going, 'Really, you didn't think that one through?'"
Authors? Ann Rule. "She has a really good book about Ted Bundy," Neathery said, noting the subject doesn't appeal to her but the author makes it interesting. Then there's "My Friend Dahmer," a movie based on a graphic novel of the same name.
And what does she think about the true crime appeal for women?
"I think that humans as a whole are specifically interested in very taboo subjects, whether it be cults or just different things that you hear about where it's not the norm, it's not the status quo," Neathery said. It's the idea that we shouldn't be into it, but we are. So in a way, it's risky.
"But I also think part of it is because a lot of victims are women," Neathery said. "And so for us, it helps us be aware and it also helps us as a community to grow together and hold each other accountable and be there for each other."