Like so many others, my interest in true crime podcasts started with Serial, the award-winning 2014 production that investigated the murder of Hae Min Lee. I was captivated by the twisty narrative and the complicated question of a killer’s guilt, which culminated in Adnan Syed’s release from prison in 2022.
In the years since, Serial launched a tide of true crime podcasts that cover a range of formats and narrative structures. Popular weekly podcasts such as Crime Junkie and My Favorite Murder highlight different cases each week, while other shows use ten or more episodes to explore a single case, similar to the Serial format. Then there’s Dateline NBC, the most popular podcast in Apple’s true crime category, which takes the audio from a Dateline episode and molds it into a listener-friendly format.
Why are true crime podcasts so popular? The explanations are as varied as they are complex, and human psychology has a lot to do with it. Some experts posit that true crime plays on our own fears and anxieties; it represents something that “happens to other people,” but not to us. And yet, the fact that true crime is, quite literally, true, means that there are real people living with the trauma of what happened to them or to a loved one. In this way, true crime brings us even closer to the subject matter; it forces us to confront the ugliest sides of humanity.
For me, though, it’s not the depravity of some members of our species that draws me to true crime content. Instead, it’s the perspective of the victims and their families; it’s the creativity and intelligence of the detectives who worked their cases. I listen to their stories and hear their voices, and I find myself immersed in their lives. The survivors in these cases talk about their experiences with their emotions laid bare, entrusting the listener to hear and process their pain.
The emotional truth of a well-produced true crime podcast cannot be overstated. Human beings evolved as part of a storytelling culture; we live and breathe the experiences of others through personal stories, which can and do evolve over time. When I listen to true crime podcasts, I do so with the knowledge that these events happened to real people. With novels, there exists a certain distance from the subject matter that makes it an altogether different experience. But in both cases, that emotional truth is there; it has to be, for us to relate to and engage with it.
Most true crime podcast listeners, as it turns out, are women. I, myself, have always been an avid reader of mystery novels and true crime books, starting with a teenage obsession with Ann Rule, but I’m a rather persnickety consumer of audio content. I have never been one to listen to audiobooks, in large part because my brain much prefers processing information visually. True crime podcasts, on the other hand, come in short, digestible formats that are delivered by someone who is not performing a story, but rather conveying their account of events. Over the years, I have gravitated toward a very specific type of true crime content.
Take Anatomy of Murder, which is hosted by former NYC prosecutor Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi and former journalist and deputy Sheriff, Scott Weinberger. Like other true crime podcasts, Anatomy of Murder does an exceptional job focusing on the victim and their family’s struggles for justice; I never feel like this show is exploitative or graphic. Both hosts come from a law enforcement background that informs their view of the case and brings it to life for the listener. As a writer of crime fiction, I have found this podcast to be an invaluable research tool. I also love the chemistry between the two hosts; in some ways, it echoes the dynamic between the two main characters in my own crime fiction series. If you’re interested in checking out this podcast, I highly recommend the episode from May 3rd of this year titled, “Forever Mother’s Day.” It moved me to tears.
As a physician, I may have a unique grasp on traumatic injuries and the like, but I can’t claim any expertise in solving crimes. In this respect, true crime podcasts have helped inform my writing in ways I never considered even a few years ago. Shortly after writing my first book in the National Park Mystery series, a new podcast called Park Predators debuted in 2020. Narrated by an investigative journalist, Park Predators highlights homicides and disappearances that have occurred in national parks, both in the U.S. and abroad, over the last hundred years. Listening to a journalist talk about these crimes has given me a unique view into how the Park Service and the FBI investigates crimes—which of course plays a critical role in my own books.
As a writer, I want my readers to feel like they can pick up one of my books and feel transported into one of the sixty-three national parks in the United States. I rely on maps, photos, hiking guides, social media, and various other sources to paint a realistic picture of these majestic wildernesses. While these are invaluable tools, I have also come to appreciate true crime podcasts as a way to color in the investigative side of my stories; to remember the impact of a crime on a victim and their loved ones; and to give the main characters their own flaws, biases, and insecurities.
In a world saturated with true crime content, I often grapple with the moral grey area that comes with sensationalizing crime for the purposes of entertainment. In some cases, a hit podcast or television show highlighting an actual murder case has helped solve it; in Serial’s case, the outcome was more complex. I understand, though, why the public has an appetite for this type of content, and for the fictionalized versions, too. While listening to a true crime podcast, I feel privileged to be offered a window into a defining moment of someone else’s life. As a writer, it is never my intent to duplicate their experience, but rather to explore what it means to be human.