A while ago, my boyfriend sent me an Instagram post that, in his words, reminded him of me. The screenshotted tweet read, “Imagine you get murdered, and some girl skips your episode of ‘Forensic Files’ because it’s boring”. I laughed out loud reading that because, of course, I was that “some girl,” and had been for a long time. My high school roommate initially introduced me to true crime YouTube during our sophomore year. The videos were usually of this format: a mid-twenties or older white woman doing her makeup if she did not already have a face full of dramatic makeup, chatting informally about some heinous crime to the audience. Sure, she’d make somber, socially appropriate facial and vocal expressions when discussing the especially grim details, but otherwise, it felt like having a big sister talk to me while my real big sister was occupied with college and my parents in New Jersey were busy with work (and divorce). I was the perfect mix of lonely, anxious, hormonal, and vulnerable to fall deep into the chasm that is true crime content. And that I did.
For some context, I was even more predisposed to being sucked into this context than the usual boarding school girl for a myriad of reasons. My parents immigrated to America in the late 80s and early 90s when America was dealing with the Regan administration and its disastrous effects, from which it still hasn’t recovered. They came to this country when the media was peddling distrust toward those who were Black, poor, and especially both. In the imagination of the white middle-to-upper classes, there was a crack baby on every corner, slung on the hip of its lazy, food-stamp-using mother as she watched her baby daddy sell crack or commit a robbery at gunpoint from afar. It didn’t help that the urban areas my parents moved to (New York City and Newark, NJ) actually had higher crime rates than they do today. This reality was terrifying to my paternal grandmother, who was raising four boys in a new country alone, instilling a paranoia in her which trickled down to my dad. I grew up hearing stories of kidnappings, rapes, and robberies when I was way too young to be thinking of these things. Even my mom, albeithumorously, recounted stories of her encounters with the mythical yet ubiquitous crackhead.
This is all just to say that I had already been desensitized to the heart-breaking stories that these YouTubers casually recounted between false lash applications. Hearing these stories paradoxically made me feel safer. In my mind, if I knew about them, the stories couldn’t hurt me. It was a coping mechanism for me, as a Black girl going to a predominately white school at the onset of the catastrophic Trump presidency, eerily similar to the political environment my parents experienced after coming to this country. Reflecting on this period of time, I was in a state of fight or flight, and I didn’t even know it. I started grappling with the terrifying reality that, at any moment, malicious actors could destroy life as I knew it. Even worse, how that possibility is slightly higher for me than the average American due to characteristics I cannot control. Religiously consuming true crime felt like I was inoculating myself against this reality. Bad things will happen to you, by virtue of being a human. When they happened to me, I wanted to feel like I could take it.
Thus commenced years of watching true crime YouTube under the covers, doing chores with true crime podcasts playing in the background, and falling asleep using these stories as white noise in the background. I never really questioned my habit. It made me feel comfortable, and I wasn’t hurting anyone. It got me through high school and the pandemic. Plus, lots of people love the true crime genre. It wasn’t until recently that I took a step back and thought about how the content I consumed could be trivializing the pain of so many as well as harming the way I viewed the world. Comparing my sisters’ media consumption habits to my own, I realized that maybe it wasn’t normal to almost exclusively enjoy true crime content. It wasn’t fair that I felt it necessary to numb myself instead of putting energy into acting to change the circumstances. Furthermore, while I’d told myself that the content didn’t affect me, I realized I had been lying to myself. Although I had dealt with anxiety since I was very young, I’d found myself catastrophizing more than usual and being unreasonably suspicious of people in public spaces. I had fallen into the same trap my parents fell into.
So, I took a step back from the content and reflected on my relationship with fear. When you’re young, fear is an effective motivator: it can push you to do the homework you’ve been procrastinating for, and it keeps you on your parents’ good sides. However, fear also solidifies prejudices, drives illogical decisions, and suppresses critical thinking. Most of all, it drains you of your empathy.
Commercializing pain and suffering for people to gawk at from the safety of their bedrooms leads to extreme desensitization. This can be observed in the many people who have become attracted to serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and most recently, Jeffrey Dahmer. The recent Netflix series “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” maybe without the creators realizing it, venerates Dahmer at the expense of the victims’ relatives, who must relive the horrors of their loved ones’ brutal murders. It’s made worse by the fact that, immediately after the show’s release, people began romanticizing him on social media.
Politically, we have seen how the obsession with fear leads to the irrational desire for the things that cause it. This in turn, leads to detrimental and long-lasting policy changes. Over the crime and drug panic that started with Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and reached a peak during Reagan’s time in office, society eagerly began perpetuating the systems that lead to crime. This involved the building of more prisons and the defunding of welfare and education systems for low income people, and the prioritization of corporate interests over public good. Fear is a great moneymaker, and that’s why those in power use it to further their own interests, deceiving those of us who are too overwhelmed or busy to be critical of the content they consume.
While we should not shy away from the horrors of reality, it is also important to put things into perspective. Firstly, crime is extremely over-reported. Bad things happen, but not nearly as much as the people who invest in your fear would like you to think. Instead, put your time into doing what you can to change the circumstances that give you stress. For me, that took the form of recently encouraging my dorm residents to register to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. No, the couple of votes that the newly registered people cast won’t solely change the outcome of the elections. That’s not the point. The point is that small changes add up to actual results. More importantly, I am no longer just absorbing bad news like an idiot. I am actually doing something productive with my fears.