“Hi crime junkies, I’m your host Ashley Flowers, and I actually have multiple stories for you today, all of which involve the disappearances of young girls and women in the Vernon-Tolland area of Connecticut in the late 60s and early 70s.” Thus begins the latest episode of the mega-hit podcast Crime Junkie, hosted by Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat. The podcast, which launched in December of 2017, has over 630 episodes and more than 500 million downloads. The website touts that the show is for people with a “true-crime-shaped-hole” that needs at least one episode a week to satiate it. The banner on the home page gives insight into the podcast’s provocative title: “Can’t get enough true crime? Congratulations! You’ve found your people.”
Is true crime really that popular?
There’s no denying the popularity of the true crime genre. In December of 2022, Cosmopolitan narrowed the hundreds of podcasts in the genre available on Spotify down to their top 50. Teen heartthrobs of the past like Zac Efron and Evan Peters have soared to new heights of success playing serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, respectively. #truecrime has 27.5 billion views on TikTok (compared to 21 billion in December of last year). Young people are by far the biggest consumers of media in the genre. A 2022 article by Ypulse.com reports that 25% of young people say they watch true crime videos at least once a week. However, the survey also found that 46% of teens agree with the statement that “I’m starting to feel bad watching true crime shows because it’s inconsiderate to survivors and families.” So why does engagement keep rising?
Bobbi Miller, host of the podcast The Afternoon Special said of true crime that “Star Wars and Marvel fandoms treat their fiction as if it’s real, where true crime fandoms treat something very real as fiction.” There is an element of escapism to true crime; the idea that just by knowing more about a murder or a kidnapping might mean you could play a part in solving it is intoxicating. There is a sense of safety that comes with being so aware of a serial killer’s tactics and patterns that you feel confident you’d never be duped. But there are also darker appeals; the grim satisfaction of probing the absolute worst depths of mankind and affirming your own inherent goodness in comparison, and perhaps somewhat shamefully the unspoken relief that although the victim could have been you, it wasn’t.
How should a Christian think about true crime?
As with many things that have arisen in the modern era, Scripture doesn’t have specific words which speak to whether a Christian should or shouldn’t engage with true crime media. However, the Bible does make clear that Christians are to use discernment when considering how we spend our time and with what we fill our hearts and minds. A traditional benchmark verse for gauging our interactions with information and entertainment is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This verse is often used to make the argument that Christians must never engage with anything dark or even mildly upsetting. But that would rule out the necessary meditation on sin which drives us to an understanding of our need for salvation. It would also keep us from lamentation over the evil we see and experience.
Essential to the application of this verse is the word “think.” What do we dwell on? What do we immerse ourselves in? What runs through our minds when we lay in bed at night; what persists in our thoughts throughout the day? Furthermore, how do we think about it? Does our interest in true crime stem from a desire to better learn to empathize with victims of violence and respect their strength and survival, even to marvel at the ways in which God preserves His people through tragedy and suffering? Or are our darker interests aroused? Do we tune in to be shocked and appalled and above all, entertained? By examining our motivations, we practice the discernment to which Scripture calls us.
Is there anything redeeming about true crime?
In season 11 episode 11 of the podcast Something Was Wrong hosted by Tiffany Reese, rape survivor Dara shared the following words when Reese asked her if there was anything she wanted people to know about her story:
“I did wanna share that the reason why I’m still alive and I’m even speaking here now is because of my Lord Jesus Christ. What he has done for me. When trauma happens it shatters your life and it shatters your spirit and it shatters your mind, at least it did for me. He put all of the pieces back together and then he carried me and he picked me up and he then walked me through.”
Dara doesn’t shy away from the pain of what she went through, but what she wants listeners to know is that there is hope for people who have gone through even the most horrific of experiences. Her story is transformed from something that might be, like much of the genre, mindlessly consumed with a voyeuristic interest into a testimony to the redeeming power of Christ. If we as Christians choose to engage with true crime media, we must do so with a critical eye towards where it is drawing our hearts. We cannot, as Matthew 6:24 says, serve two masters. Either the violence of this world will draw us towards our darkest instincts, or it will awaken us to compassion for others, and our desperate need for a God who is mighty to save.