True Crime Podcasts Are The New Pepper Spray

It was a few hours past dawn on June 17th, 1939, and Eugen Weidmann’s head lay bloodied in a basket below a fallen guillotine blade. The surrounding crowd hollered with manic joy and the prison guards could hardly restrain them as they surged forward, reaching for the ground beside the man’s casket to mop up his blood with their scarves and handkerchiefs—a small souvenir of the last public execution of France. 

Eighty four years later, the Internet pounced with similar hysteria on the disappearance of Gabbie Petito, initiating a public execution of their own against her missing fiancé. Endless theories and playing telephone with facts lead to the mythologizing of a sad, but simple case of domestic abuse. Many reporters were critiqued for how they treated this case, especially considering how similar cases concerning women of color are often ignored by the police and the media—a phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome.” While this ridicule was certainly justified, the critique put against certain online accounts was not. 

Many true-crime YouTube and Tiktok accounts, as well as podcast creators, were brought into the spotlight with the growing public interest in this case. Along with this publicity came others who questioned the general reason and morality in true-crime citizen reporting. Due to some of the historical cases in which the criminal has reached Hollywood-star levels of fame, often romanticizing the crime as well, true-crime listeners and creators have gotten a bad reputation for being consumed by the same cult-like hysterics which captivated the onlookers of Eugene Weidmann’s execution.

Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) fine Arts senior, Alexander Steen, is one of those who disagrees with this method of entertainment.

“I think a lot of true crime tends to be a little voyeuristic or fetishistic about bad things that happen to other people, and the dissection of the horrific deaths of people, often without the family’s consent, is not something that I particularly enjoy,” Steen said. 

Sasha S. Weeks, an FSSA film senior and avid true crime listener, believes that while there are some who follow true crime solely for the rush of a good horror story, many of them (in particular women or people assigned female at birth) follow it because it is in fact a method of self defense. 

Weeks grew up reading fictional mystery books, fueling her love of the whodunit story type, as well as a curiosity for the real life detectives who solved similar cases. She described how, since she was a child, she had an odd fascination with death and the macabre, even wanting to become a coroner at one point (although now she’s looking into the field of criminal psychology).

Once she began listening to true crime, inspired by the mystery books of her childhood, she began to realize the true lessons there are to be learned from these stories. Now she swears by true crime as a crucial point in her understanding of her surroundings and the world at large, and she encourages other women to listen and learn from these crimes. 

“Instinctually it [true crime] has gone a long way for me. I know what’s out there so I’m on edge a lot in a good way. It adds a certain common sense that some women need I think.I know what predators look for in women, so I don’t do that,” Weeks said.

One of the most popular true crime podcasts, and a favorite of Weeks’, is Crime Junkies. Run by Ashley Flowers and co-host Brit Prawat, Crime Junkies tells true crime stories both new and old with an emphasis on spreading the stories of women who have been overlooked by the press and police. Some of the cases they speak on are ongoing, and if so, they provide resources for their listeners to reach out to the families and local police with any information or comforts to help them find their missing loved one. Although, Crime Junkie does more than just help ongoing cases and dig deeper into old ones, they also work to prevent crimes. 

“If you’re a Crime Junkie (a listener of the podcast), you know how important Ashley & Brit think it is to be your own advocate! Help yourself by helping your loved ones in a time of crisis if anything should happen to you.”

The above quote can be found on the Crime Junkie website, specifically the page titled “If I Go Missing.” On this page viewers can find a form which compels them to fill out important personal information such as login codes to all of one tech devices and social media subscriptions, social security number, credit or debit card number, and all forms of contact information. The purpose of all this is so that if you go missing, the police and your family will have ample information, which will help the investigation. This may seem like overkill to some, but statistics show that investigators have a very short window of time to find someone alive, if at all, and attempting to hack into devices which could provide useful timeline information can take weeks. 

They not only provide their subscribers with police aid in case of an emergency, but also preventative measures they can put in place every day. The Crime Junkie mantra is “Be weird, be rude, stay alive.” Flowers and Prawat urge their listeners to not be afraid to be “rude” to strangers in public, for example, if you feel uncomfortable speaking to a stranger, you can stop the conversation and leave with no explanation. You have the right to be weird if it keeps you alive—one lesson of many Weeks has found herself learning from True Crime.

“It kind of adds this layer of reality to the things because you see stories on the news and you’re like ‘damn that’s not great that happened to that woman or that person,’ but I don’t think it hits you as much when it’s on the news because lots of things are on the news every day that are awful and it’s kind of depersonalized,” Weeks said.

True Crime podcasts and learning more about true crime and the psychology behind it sets it more into reality because you realize, learning about the victim’s first and then the killer second, that it’s people who are living their everyday lives.

Before I used to be super kind to everyone – or not kind, but really open, like, you’re a child, you know, I would talk to anyone I met because I thought it was interesting, you know? And just hearing these crimes I’m more standoff-ish and I mostly only speak when spoken to, and I’ve avoided a lot of attacks that way. You don’t have to be kind to anyone, you don’t owe anyone anything, and you learn that.” — D’Carol Torres, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) Fine Art senior and True Crime fan.

Weeks, despite loving true crime and believing in it’s importance, is just as skeptical as some people’s motivations and interest in the field as the true crime naysayers. She believes that a lot of true crime is inherently fetishistic of murder and violence against women, as many horror or true crime fiction TV shows and movies. Although, Weeks also argues that the value of true crime comes in who you listen to and who you are. One person may listen to a crime and hear a scary story while another person listens to a crime and hears an all-too-real cautionary tale. It is up to the listener to decide what content is helpful to themselves, what content is helpful to a community, what content is fetishizing, and how they are going to curate what they listen to.

One true crime case that gripped the nation and went on to be an international story occurred in Boston in 1915. On an unknown day in 1915, a woman named Jean de Koven was born. She grew up training as a stage dancer, and even taught in dance schools in New Jersey, although despite her affinity for performing she was described as being quite shy, especially around strangers. While on a holiday with her aunt in Paris, 1937, she befriended a man who went by the name “Siegfried” in a hotel near her town. She described him as being wonderfully kind and, despite being introverted, they got on quite well. Koven wrote a note to her aunt telling her how excited she was to meet up with this man again, left an address for where she would be with him, and she would never be heard from again.

Koven’s family received multiple ransom notes asking for unimaginable amounts of money in exchange for Jean’s life, all of which went unanswered. The police, although not taking the case seriously at first, watched each ransom money trade point like hawks and released a photo of Jean to the Paris public in case anyone had seen her. This photo exploded over headlines from Paris to New York, and the police were suddenly overridden with people claiming to have seen her since she went missing, almost all of which were lies or mistakes. People were infuriated that her captor had not been caught, many of them feeling a rush of protectiveness over the 22-year old woman whose face was on every newspaper in the city. 

Despite their best efforts and the family’s constant and public pleas for her kidnapper to release her, she was never recovered alive. Jean would eventually be found buried in a shallow grave under the front porch of a cottage in Saint-Cloud, a small suburb outside of Paris. It would later be learned that she was the first victim of serial killer Eugiene Weidmann, a man who would be sentenced to death by guillotine two years later. 

When the people of Paris ran to mop up Weidmann’s blood and hollered with joy at seeing his severed head, it was not a mania fueled by joy itself— it was fueled by anger and a need for protection. They had been terrorized by him for two years, they had seen the faces of the people he killed plastered in shop windows and post boards, they knew their names. Their fear of him and their need to keep themselves safe pushed forward an obsession with him and his eventual death. It was, in its own way, a catharsis. 

When you are a person born in a female body, you are born with a certain amount of instincts. You are more aware of the man sitting at the other end of the subway car who’s eyes flick up to you every few minutes. You are more aware of an empty street at night illuminated by a few weak lamps. You are more aware of the creeping sensation on the back of your neck when someone is watching you. So, when you listen to a story about a woman who was attacked, you are reminded how that could be you, and so you learn as much as you can to keep yourself safe. 

– by Marco Ammann-Bianciardi ’22