Should True Crime Be Tasteful?

Illustration: Elina Braslina

For Aaron Habel and Justin Evans, true crime podcasting began as a hobby. The two started recording Generation Why in 2012, after Evans served jury duty on a murder trial. When the 2014 success of Serial drove new listeners toward Generation Why, Habel and Evans knew the podcast had transformed into something more than a hobby: they were telling stories of murder and disaster knowing that the people concerned would be in the audience. It’s as if your pastime of building balsa wood airplanes somehow landed you behind the controls of a 747 full of passengers.

“We record knowing that family members of the victims may be listening,” says Habel. “We find ways to get the information to you where you understand what happened, without having every graphic detail explained. That’s really our goal: that fine line between understanding and making sure we don’t come off as exploitative.”

A woman is murdered. To understand what happened, do you need to know that she was stabbed? If a suspect’s DNA is found on a knife, perhaps so. Then, do you need to know that the victim was sectioned into parts after her death? Again, if the suspect is convicted because he owned the reciprocating saw used to do the sectioning, perhaps you do. Is it vital for the listener to know that the victim’s death was prolonged, or that, during the attack, she inexplicably began to yell, “I’m sorry”? Every time a true crime podcaster cuts an episode, he or she has to draw a line between necessary and gratuitous details.

“Are these people to be put on a pedestal? Do we list our favorite serial killers and forget the horrible things they’ve done?”

Generation Why is loose and conversational, approximating the experience of an hour-long chat with its hosts — what’s sometimes facetiously called a “friend simulator.” Shows like Generation Why eliminate the need for a godlike narrator or host — think Peter Thomas in Forensic Files — to fit everything together for the audience. Instead, Habel and Evans debate unresolved cases, clearly taking pride in an ability to admit uncertainty rather than pushing a pet theory. In a 2015 episode on the Trayvon Martin shooting, the hosts took pains to avoid any appearance of partisanship, concluding that shooter George Zimmerman was more likely wildly irresponsible than a murderer per se.

“Too often, especially in documentaries, everything focuses on the killer,” says Habel. “Are these people to be put on a pedestal? Do we list our favorite serial killers and forget the horrible things they’ve done? … To each their own, but, when it comes to us, I would like for the victims and their families to be remembered. It’s not simply, ‘Oh, wow, check out this serial killer.’”

Left to right: Justin Evans and Aaron Habel, hosts of “Generation Why. “ Photo: Instagram

There aren’t many Hannibal Lecters to be found in real life. A few weeks listening to true crime will introduce you to a seemingly endless parade of inept narcissists, would-be tough guys and men who preferred bludgeoning their ex-wives to paying child support. One detective compared conversation with the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, to “talking to a head of lettuce in the supermarket.” Even accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo, an overachieving murderer if there is such a thing, was known mainly as a grumpy old man who once pitched a tantrum over a botched plate of tuna salad. Habel isn’t above chortling at Richard Ramirez, a killer and rapist with an MO like that of a rabid dog, who was chased down the streets of East Los Angeles by a belligerent mob after being identified. In the end, Ramirez was forced to leap into the arms of police to save himself. The more one listens to true crime, the more one loses faith in the mystique of the serial killer.

Of course, not every podcast draws the line in the same place as Generation Why. Aussie podcast Casefile has moved from early episodes featuring eardrum-blisteringly graphic audio, sometimes accentuated by cheesy sound effects, to superbly restrained productions complete with content warnings for child or animal abuse. Rising star UK podcast They Walk Among Us is perhaps the most discreet of all, offering listeners a chance to skip over potentially upsetting sections while still catching the rest of the episode.

“People find what works for them,” says Habel. “There are movies that I watch that are PG-13, and there are movies that I watch that are unrated. That’s something that you know going in: this is going to be a bit graphic. This could get bloody. These podcasts are open about that… I’m not going to diss any other podcasts just because they do it differently, though I would say I’m not a fan of making fun of things, turning things into a joke — too much dark humor, as it were, when it relates to real cases.”

Mike Boudet, host of “Sword and Scale,” at a meetup with fans in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Photo: Facebook

Mike Boudet, host of the Sword and Scale true crime podcast, is not universally admired. Google Boudet’s name and you’ll find a Mamamia article calling his interactions with female fans “revolting,” shortly followed by a Tumblr blog devoted to archiving content unflattering to him, followed by the r/SwordAndScale subreddit. A quick glance at r/SwordAndScale turns up threads titled “Complaints about Mike,” “The king of douches” and “Mikes [sic] a douche but the show is so well done….”

It’s easy to understand why Boudet would be disliked: he’s prickly toward his critics and produces a podcast with no pretense to harmlessness. Sword and Scale is unapologetically graphic — as matter-of-fact as heart surgery. One recent episode includes the uncut confession of Kevin Davis, who committed a crime that can most politely be described as a combined act of incest, cannibalism and improvised brain surgery. It’s enough to leave any listener feeling a little woozy.

For anti-fans, episodes like this one prove that Boudet has used gratuitous accounts of depravity and suffering to fuel his climb up the charts. But can we make crimes like Kevin Davis’s palatable without trivializing them?

“We want to tell the stories in the purest way possible, as they really happened.”

“Everyone has a different line, so essentially there is no line,” writes Boudet in an email. “We want to tell the stories in the purest way possible, as they really happened. We’re not going to play a three-minute manicured piece, cut to commercial, and then come back with a fun piece about the annual town fair. The news can do that and pretend it’s a public service, I think it sugarcoats the tragedies happening all around us and makes us into jaded sheep.”

Boudet’s background in audio engineering shows itself in the high gloss of the show, which eschews Generation Why’s matey banter for a tightly scripted narrative, bookended with slick downtempo. Most episodes are woven with long clips taken from courthouses and interrogation chambers. The drip-drip-drip of information in a courtroom question-and-answer session, it turns out, lends itself to suspenseful storytelling. Each episode of Sword and Scale works hard to ground its atrocities in everyday experience: remember, this could be happening to you.

A two-part episode focusing on Derek Medina, who shot his wife and posted a photograph of his accomplishment to Facebook, begins by asking the listener to imagine this: you pick up your phone. You open Facebook and start scrolling. Suddenly, there, among the sunsets, selfies and cat pictures, is the bloodied body of a friend or relative. How would you react? While the atmospheric and mannered true crime TV of the ’90s seemed to take place in another reality, Sword and Scale insists viewers accept that even the worst crimes are intrusions on previously normal lives.

Boudet approaches perpetrators with a kind of wry contempt for their bad excuses. The two-parter on Derek Medina details not only Medina’s crime, but traces the path of his meandering and unimpressive life. Boudet gives particular attention to Medina’s self-published motivational books, pamphlets with circuitous titles like If the World Ended Today How Would You React to Saving the World or Helping the World or Would It All Be Over for You, so listeners can join him in marveling at Medina’s misplaced self-importance.

The virtues of discretion in true crime podcasting are self-evident, but Sword and Scale shows that describing murder explicitly can denude it of its glamor. Under Boudet’s spotlight, crimes are revealed to be merely ugly, and the perpetrators often rather tedious — not people with whom you could share edgy repartee over a nice Chianti.

“Sword and Scale” host Mike Boudet. Photo: Instagram

“It’s hard not to be overstimulated by horrible things these days even if you’re not a true-crime podcast host,” writes Boudet. “I think the difference is that I’m not surprised by how horrible humans can actually be. I kind of started with the premise that we all were inherently bad, selfish, narcissistic, so being exposed to examples of that really just affirms it. Some people out there though like to hide from that idea. They stick their heads in the sand and pretend that humanity is good and everything is wonderful. Those sorts of people don’t like my show because it goes against their basic belief system and cognitive dissonance can be very uncomfortable.”

According to Boudet, Sword and Scale is strictly entertainment, and any positive social effects are a happy accident. Several Sword and Scale episodes have focused on the rarely considered topic of sexual abuse of boys, and Boudet appeared on a 2017 episode of the Real Crime Profile podcast on the subject. The Real Crime Profile crossover drew hundreds of calls from abuse survivors who said it helped them confront their trauma, says Boudet.

“I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m some sort of podcast Messiah here to solve a cold case that has stumped an entire police force for decades,” writes Boudet. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t beneficial side-effects from putting together an entertainment-based show… It’s a wonderful feeling to do something you love and inadvertently help a bunch of people at the same time.”

Child abuse, paraphilias, mass shootings, fetal abduction, suicide — these subjects can’t be explored in full detail by a podcaster who cuts graphic material. Boudet’s anti-fans are correct. Sword and Scale is hair-raisingly offensive — but, perhaps, murder should be.

Graphic: Zachary Snowdon Smith

Like riding a roller coaster, eating a ghost pepper or cage diving with sharks, listening to audio of life-threatening events can trick your body into reacting to danger that doesn’t really exist. Listening to a 911 call is one of the most adrenaline-charged experiences you can have without moving.

“Our audiences really love the thrill ride of emotion, tension, fear and disgust… the more extreme the better,” writes Boudet. “It’s like a horror movie or haunted house experience. Your heart pumps a little faster and the adrenaline flows making you feel a little more alive.”

Though more men than women listen to podcasts, it’s well-known that the true crime genre is female-dominated. Even Sword and Scale, often regarded as misogynistic by Boudet anti-fans, reaches an audience that is about 62 percent female, according to studies by Brandwatch. My Favorite Murder, a podcast with two female hosts chatting in a format similar to Generation Why, draws an audience that is 80 percent female.

Though testing bears out the conventional wisdom that women are more grossed out by blood and gore than are men, women are more enticed by crime narratives focusing on the psychology of perpetrators. Men are more likely to be murdered, but true crime focuses on the abductions, rapes and serial killings that more often befall women. The robberies and gang skirmishes that tend to get men killed are prosaic by comparison.

“Sword and Scale” serial killer shot glasses. Photo: Facebook

Learning the details of crimes can help equip women to respond to them, says psychologist Dr. Amanda Vicary, who’s been consulted for Investigation Discovery’s Married with Secrets, among other shows.

“They’re learning, whether they realize it or not, how to prevent something happening to them,” she says. “They’re better at locking their doors and windows at night. How could you listen to a podcast on the Golden State Killer or Ted Bundy and not be worried about sleeping with your window unlocked or getting into a car with a stranger?”

As behemoths like Serial have expanded the reach of the genre far beyond the niche previously hollowed out by true crime books, the psychological effects of a crime-heavy diet are still being understood. About one-fifth of people exposed to violent news events via social media scored high on clinical measures for posttraumatic stress disorder, found one study by the University of Bradford. None of the study participants had encountered a mass shooting or a suicide bombing except through a screen. Psychology Today cites various reports buttressing its recommendation that readers limit their exposure to repetitive violent news images to avoid “vicarious traumatization.”

Vicary, who laughingly describes herself as a “paranoid nutcase” as a result of her years-long crime fascination, is skeptical that a podcast can actually traumatize its listeners.

“Generation Why” soap by San Diego Bath & Body Co. Photo: Instagram

“The danger could be in people getting a skewed view of reality,” says Vicary. “If you’re listening to crime podcasts every day and watching Investigation Discovery, all you’re being exposed to is women being kidnapped, assaulted, tortured, killed. Statistically, that’s pretty rare.”

As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the person who ends up watching the most porn is the censor himself. Podcasters must imbibe a constant stream of graphic content in order to decide what to convey and what to cut for reasons of taste. Aaron Habel avoids listening to too much true crime when he’s not researching for Generation Why, he says. He and other podcasters describe a kind of depression induced by too much reading, talking and thinking about murder. Rosie Fitton, writer for They Walk Among Us, gave herself a day off researching after unexpectedly opening a file of crime scene photographs.

“While I do find the subject of true crime fascinating, I think it’s important to not completely immerse yourself in it,” writes Ben Fitton, host of They Walk Among Us and husband to Rosie, in an email. “You could run the risk of being so desensitized that you forget you are talking about the loss of life.”