"Personally, I'm drawn to Jeffrey Dahmer. I guess I'd say that's my favorite murder," says Anna. "I wouldn't go visit his house or anything like that. For me, that's a bit much. I just like reading about him online. And I look at photos sometimes."
Anna is a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom and self-described "murderino"—meaning, a fan of the hit podcast My Favorite Murder specifically and of true crime in general. Dahmer, of course, is the serial killer who raped, murdered, and dismembered at least 17 boys and men. He had four severed heads in his kitchen and two human hearts in the fridge when he was arrested, shortly after one of his intended victims escaped.
"With the Dahmer case, the psychology of it, just trying to get into the mind of someone who does things like that..." Anna says, her voice trailing off. "That's what I'm interested in."
Anna isn't crazy or weird or even abnormally morbid, but, like a lot of women, she's long been fascinated by murder. Previously, this was something she enjoyed privately, beginning with fictionalized crime procedurals like Unsolved Mysteries, which she watched with her mom. True crime, and her interest in it, wasn't something she brought up casually. It just seemed too strange. But now, thanks to My Favorite Murder, Anna finally has an outlet to talk about murder and her interest in it.
My Favorite Murder was created in 2016 by hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and since then, it's become something of a blockbuster, with millions of downloads a month and legions of muderinos who pack the live shows, yelling like it's 1964 and the Beatles are about to come onstage. (They will be returning to Portland for two live shows on October 18 & 19. The fans have meet-ups, create Hardstark and Kilgariff–inspired art, and get tattoos of the show's taglines ("Stay sexy, don't get murdered," "Fuck politeness," "You're in a cult. Call your dad.").
While many cities have regular happy hours and meet-ups for fans, murderinos mostly interact through Facebook groups. Anna is a moderator of the Facebook group Seattle Murderinos, and there are murderino spin-off groups for every subset you could imagine, including lesbians and bisexuals (lesbiarinos), nurses (nurserinos), drinkers (drinkerinos), cat lovers (meowderinos), gardeners (garderinoes), and more. The groups are tacitly about the show, but just as often, people post about their own lives, seeking support, fellowship, and advice. They frequently find it.
For a show about murder, My Favorite Murder is surprisingly funny. The hosts are comics—Kilgariff wrote for the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Baskets; Hardstark hosts a comedy show on the Cooking Channel—and they have the easy banter of two buddies trying to make each other laugh. Many people think they'd be witty and hilarious if given a microphone and a friend to chat with (the number of failed comedy podcasts in iTunes is evidence of this), but Kilgariff and Hardstark actually manage to do it, while also talking about the worst moments of people's lives.
The duo met, according to their origin story, at a Halloween party in 2014, where Kilgariff, dressed as a scrub nurse, began recounting a crime she'd witnessed at South by Southwest earlier that year, when a drunk driver stole a car and plowed into a crowd, killing four. As she recounted the details, the crowd dispersed, but Hardstark, dressed as Glenn Danzig, made a beeline for her, wanting to know everything. They've been friends ever since.
They record the podcast in Hardstark's house, with minimal production and occasional cameos from her cat. Each episode begins with catching up. They spend a third of the show talking about their own lives (therapy, brunch, addiction) before getting into the meat of the show: murder. (There's a subgroup for murderinos who fast-forward through the banter, called "skippers.")
After the small talk, one of them recounts a true-crime story, gleaned mostly from information on Wikipedia. Sometimes they read directly from the website. Accuracy, for the hosts, isn't the point so much as entertainment; they have a segment called "Corrections Corner," where they correct previous episodes and apologize for their mistakes.
In an atmosphere where joking about dark things on Twitter is enough to get a person fired, the hosts of My Favorite Murder manage to skate past most criticism by focusing their humor on the perpetrators of the crimes and the bungling detectives, as well as the toxic masculinity that, they think, makes these murders possible.
Of course, focusing on true crime, and murder in particular, is going to be seen by some as problematic. In a scathing review of the series entitled "White Women Need to Do Better," writer Ashley Duchemin took the show to task for making what she perceived as insensitive comments about the LGBTQIAAP community. Duchemin criticized them for quipping about "how much easier it is for LGBTQ folks now than it was back in the '80s." "While not entirely false," she wrote, "the comments were ironic and insensitive considering that this summer marked the anniversary of the Orlando Shooting at Pulse and at least 22 transgender people have been murdered this year."
Like all online subcultures, the community is not without drama. In August of this year, the duo was called out for printing an image of a tepee on a My Favorite Murder T-shirt, which was viewed by some as cultural appropriation. Hardstark and Kilgariff subsequently apologized and promised to donate $10,000 to the First Nations Development Institute. Still, the controversy didn't die down after their apology, and they eventually shut down the main murderinos Facebook group, which had more than 200,000 members.
And then there are the victims and survivors of crimes to consider. Some of the murders the show features took place centuries ago, but others are more recent, and the crime survivors sometimes have strong feelings about how, and why, their stories are told.
"I admit I'm in a complicated spot," says Sarah Perry, the author of the 2017 memoir After the Eclipse. "I have real issues with true crime. Meanwhile, I have created this [memoir] that is arguably true crime."
Perry's mom, Crystal, was killed by a stranger in 1994. The story is horrific: Perry, then 12, was sleeping when the attack began, and she awoke to hear her mom's screams as a man shoved a knife into her body. After it was over, Perry fled the house and ran barefoot into the night, banging on doors until a neighbor half a mile away finally answered.
The effects of that night rippled out from the scene of the crime. Perry, unsure of who took her mom away, was sent to live with family members who didn't really want her. It wasn't until 2007 that the killer was finally arrested. Perry wrote about this tragedy and its aftermath in her critically acclaimed memoir. It's the kind of story that's perfect for My Favorite Murder.
Perry has never listened to the show, but she is not exactly a fan of the true-crime genre. "I feel so many things," she tells me. "My default response is visceral, intense, knee-jerk disgust, and real judgment of people who binge-watch, say, SVU. But once I started paying more attention, it became apparent that nearly everyone around me was a true-crime fan. And keep in mind that I have exactly one male friend, so 'everyone' means a lot of women."
The data backs this up: Women are overrepresented as consumers of true crime. Anna, the Seattle murderino, told me that when she hosts meet-ups, one or two men show up, but it's overwhelmingly women.
Without fail, the half dozen murderinos I spoke to all said they suspect women are more interested in true crime as a sort of survival mechanism, as though understanding what leads to a murder can prevent it from happening to them. This is also backed up in a 2010 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which concluded that women consume true crime to "learn survival tips and strategies."
Perry, however, doesn't buy it. "I think this is complete BS," she says. "The study is rather weak if you actually read it, and then it gets quoted all over. Honestly, I think the vicarious fear (and rage) creates a physiological thrill that people become hooked on. They get that shot of adrenaline, which is then, most often, soothed by a predictable narrative with a neat conclusion when the killer is found and brought to justice."
Regardless of the reason women love true crime, there may be a downside. According to the most currently available FBI statistics, the homicide rate in the United States is roughly 5.4 per 100,000 people—about what it was in the 1950s—and nearly 80 percent of murder victims are men, not women. Statistically, the average My Favorite Murder listener (i.e., white, female) is in the demographic least likely to become the victim of homicide. And yet, consuming large amounts of true crime can have the effect of making an audience unnecessarily fearful or even paranoid about things that aren't really a threat to them at all.
"True crime focuses our attention in the wrong direction," Jean Murley, the author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture, tells me. "Most true crime presents stories of the aberrations: the serial killer, the psychopath, the weirdo rapist/murderer. Those men, horrible as they may be, aren't a massive threat for the vast majority of women, because they are aberrations. I don't have to worry (so much) about being killed by the next Ted Bundy, but I do have to worry about sexual harassment on the street and on the job, sexual assault, date rape, and domestic violence. True crime asks us to fear the stranger, when the real threat is much closer to us."
Murley is a critic of My Favorite Murder, which, she says, "creates more fear than it assuages," but she also understands its allure. "It (largely) tells ordinary women's stories," she says. "There aren't many places in the media landscape that focus on real-life intimate relationships in the way that the 'romance gone wrong' subgenre of true crime does, and I think that offers women a way to see themselves reflected and to have their lives validated and acknowledged. And that's a positive thing."
It's also something to bond over. With one exception, every one of the murderinos I spoke to watched Unsolved Mysteries with their mothers growing up (the one exception watched it with her father instead). Sarah Perry and her mom watched it too, although Perry regrets this now and says she wishes her mom hadn't spent a single moment of her short life watching other women get stabbed.
Unlike Unsolved Mysteries and many other true-crime series, My Favorite Murder is not gratuitously gory or detailed, and there's something about the hosts themselves, perhaps as much as the subject, that has inspired a deep love from fans. One murderino told me the show inspired her to change her career. Another told me the hosts' frank conversations about mental health and addiction made her seek therapy. A friend of mine started listening to the show and is now talking about becoming a private eye.
There are many stories like this, about how Hardstark and Kilgariff have changed people's lives. But there are also stories like that of Sarah Perry, a survivor of the worst thing we can imagine, who would be appalled to hear her mother's story on air. It's complex, our love of true crime. You don't have to be a murderino, or a survivor, to see that.