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Irresistible true crime stories

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

A few weeks ago, I presented a lecture to a class that included the first episode of Serial. We listened for changes of voice in writing. After, a group of students approached me and asked for my recommendations for true crime stories.

“Where do I begin?”

I was stumped because I was certain they were looking for new content, and all I could name was old content – the OG podcasts like Serial, which they already knew because I just played it for them. They bounced on their heels and asked me if I knew this story or that story, things they'd read online, possibly on Reddit. I didn’t recognize any of the stories they were telling me. It made me feel out of the loop, but also I don’t have the time to consume content the way they did.

But I did offer some recommendations, and when I realized that I wanted to spend more time with this idea, I told them that I would post my list of irresistible true crime stories and they should keep their eye out for it.

Here are the irresistible true crime stories that have hooked me:

The Children of Sarah Lawrence – this was a New York Magazine story about a group of college students who were lured in by a cult of personality; some of those former students are still under that person’s spell. One of the survivors turned their story into a memoir Slonim Woods 9.

I also watched the Hulu series Stolen Youth, and seeing the video footage of what these college kids endured was much more visceral than the previous descriptions. Seeing someone be hit in real life, seeing them flinch knowing the punch was coming before the impact, is different than hearing a reporter explain the abuse.

I mentioned this story to my students after I finished reading the memoir – a “this is something that’s sucked me in” story – and many of them agreed that the reason college students are targeted is that they are so susceptible. I told them they should think better of themselves.

The Disappearance of Susan Cox Powell – This story has a horrific ending. A woman doesn’t make it to work, and her husband’s lame alibi is that he didn’t know where she went because he drove his young children into a snowstorm for a nighttime camping trip. For me, the Oxygen multipart documentary series is a little too salacious for me. However, the Cold podcast brings up issues regarding custody when a parent has mysteriously gone missing. Also, the level of narcissism in the story is surprising. I couldn’t process that anyone could be that level of narcissistic until I heard this story.

The Imposter This is a perennial favorite. The Imposter is the name of a documentary about a mysterious phone call from Paris that leads a family in Texas to believe their missing family member has been found. Before I watched this doc, I had actually read a profile about this case years before, so seeing it as a doc was exciting. This story was also adapted into multiple episodes of original-recipe Law and Order and Law and Order SVU.

Lorena – when I was a teen in the 90s, Lorena Bobbit was a mood, a meme, and a mantra. The story of the woman who sliced off her husband’s penis and fled into the night was in the news every day, featured on Hard Copy, and joked about by every late-night television show host. Wives evoked her name when they were fed up with their husbands' bullsh*t and husbands mentioned her when they wanted to label their spouses as psycho. Jordan Peele’s limited series on Prime features interviews with both Lorena and John Wayne, the prosecution, the defense, the friends, and the media who jumped on this case. It’s about a shift in how people view domestic abuse, battered women syndrome, PTSD, and medical procedures to reattach penises.

Skye Borgman – this is a director but makes the list because, at this point, I have not watched a documentary this person has created that I have not enjoyed. I think this director comes to these stories with the awareness that she is speaking to humans – usually families in crisis. She directed Abducted in Plain Sight, I Just Killed my Dad, and The Girl in the Picture. In another’s hands, these stories would be pointing at the atrocities. Abducted in Plain Sight has been adapted into a drama series on Peacock, but I have no interest in seeing this guy humanized or dramatized, even as a villain.

The Watts Case – Man, I really hate this guy. The American Family series on Netflix is about how no one can trust how happiness is presented on Facebook. Also, it’s a documentary told almost entirely through surveillance cameras: police cams, outdoor cameras, Facebook footage, Ring cameras, and interrogation tapes. Anyone who is interested in police interrogation techniques will appreciate the slow, gentle unraveling of the confession.

Tara Grinstead – I was not aware of this story until I started listening to the Up and Vanished podcast. What hooked me was the familiarity with the people involved. The host sounded like someone I could have gone to high school with – he loved his grandma, she baked cookies for him whenever he came to town to investigate a cold case, and she bragged about him to anyone who would listen. What’s rare about this podcast is that it started to actually unravel the case. Arrests were made. This past summer I watched the Court TV live-stream of the trial on my phone. Hours of testimony, expert forensic science, rebuttal witnesses, and closing statements. And they still cannot believe anything anyone has testified to at this point.

Ken and Barbie this one is about a young Canadian couple who do atrocious things together. Are they both in on it or did the husband force the wife to participate? The ID Channel documentary is worth the watch. This is another story that the Law & Order franchise latched on to featuring Ellen Pompeo – Meredith Grey herself – in a stellar performance.

NXIVM – I am conflicted to even mention this one. When I first heard of this group and the con associated with it, I could not gobble it up fast enough. I listened to Uncover: Escaping NXIVM – a podcast by the CBC out of Canada that got one of the first interviews with Sarah Edmonson, the woman who broke the story about the secret subgroup DOS and the brand they put on her as part of the initiation. I read every article that came out and obsessively watched the first season of The Vow. Then I watched Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on Starz. And now, I am less drawn to the story. The second season of The Vow is available on HBO Max and I haven’t watched much more than the trailer. Maybe gorging myself on it has left it tasteless.

This is in no way an exhaustive list. There are some stories I naturally gravitate to and others that I avoid. I am comfortable knowing that I don’t have to consume everything. For example, Don’t F*%k with Cats has a certain amount of appeal, but something about the trailer told my brain – stay away from this one. And then other times a story appeals to me at first, but by the time I reach the end, I’ve been completely turned off the story and become a little mad at the filmmakers or producers for delving into the case, for example, Tiger King or Broken Harts.

The thing about consuming true crime stories, and Truman Capote knew this, is we love a salacious story in a respectable package. We need it to be consumable in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we are trashy people. I’ve taken a deep dive on Reddit for trials in the news but an hour or so into it, I feel a little greasy like I’d eaten a Big Mac or something.

I am not necessarily high brow in my story consumption – no one loves the ID channel more than me – however, even I have a line. If a true crime story is only pointing at the atrocities, then I am not likely to enjoy it. But if it provides something more – an indication to change, an unraveling of something twisted, or providing a voice to the silenced – then, to me, that's a story worth hearing without feeling gross afterward.

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