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Content warning: This article discusses violent crimes.

In August 2021, 22-year-old Gabby Petito — an aspiring social media influencer — went missing while on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. As the details of her disappearance emerged, panic began to grow around the search for Gabby, until the case earned itself a torrent of media coverage, becoming social media’s latest “whodunit.” Online “detectives” began posting regular updates about the case, attempting to solve it themselves. One even helped to locate Petito’s remains.

Watching this all unfold, I was put off by the mounds of speculation over a person we knew nothing about and whose family was likely already experiencing intense emotional turmoil even without a whirlwind of media attention. My “For You” page was suddenly filled with case updates about Petito: Is she alive? Did her fiancé kill her? Is his family covering for him? I wondered whether any of this was really helping Petito or her family. Moreover, I was wondering whether it was helping us to hyperfixate on such a gruesome missing person case. 

Gabby Petito is just one example of a phenomenon that has been on the rise for years. The spinning of violent, real-life crimes into entertainment for the general public was once considered to be a niche form of media. Now, however, it has become a national obsession deserving of some serious unpacking.

Many credit the start of the obsession with true crime to the 2014 podcast “Serial,” which has amassed over 300 million listeners and maintained its popularity through the years. However, humans have always had a collective yearning to understand morally transgressive behavior. Many wish to learn what drives people to commit violent crimes, or they appreciate the satisfaction that comes with seeing the “bad guy” get what he deserves. This pursuit of understanding has spurred the creation of TV channels, documentaries and countless podcasts dedicated to unpacking the thought processes and motivations of those who commit cold-blooded crimes. Social media only fuels the fire by offering true crime junkies the opportunity to participate in the solving of the mystery, as seen with the case of Gabby Petito. There are accounts on TikTok dedicated to highlighting especially gruesome murder cases, unsolved missing person cases and other heinous crimes — some of which have accumulated millions of followers.

In some ways, this is not entirely bad — true crime content allows concerned citizens to engage with our justice system and question the decisions of law enforcement officers, judges and juries — a vigilance that is crucial. Podcasts like “In the Dark” and “Undisclosed” offer a different take on true crime by investigating cases that were grossly mishandled, particularly those which may have been racially motivated. This awareness was visible in the Gabby Petito case, when many on social media began to question why Petito’s disappearance was being given so much attention, yet the hundreds of women of Color who go missing each year — particularly Indigenous women — do not even make the news, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Of course, there is much work to be done, and this case was just one small step in the right direction, but it would not have been possible without repeated examinations of Petito’s case all throughout the media — in strong defense for the continued existence of true crime content. 

On top of increased civic engagement, exposure to true crime can have safety benefits, particularly for feminine presenting individuals, who are at a much higher risk of being victims of a violent crime. True crime media offers helpful information on situations to avoid and things to be wary of, an essential skill in a world where walking alone at night can be deadly.

However, this is where things get murky. Using true crime as a means for civic engagement or increasing awareness of possible dangers is not totally unhealthy, but it’s not the best idea either. Evidence has shown that rates of violent crime are decreasing — on top of that, studies reveal that constant exposure to violent television or video games can cause a person’s perception of how dangerous the world is to be misguided, and that same principle applies in the case of true crime. When anxiety levels are already higher than ever before, staying up late into the night to watch gruesome murder documentaries may only feed a person’s belief that the world is an inherently dangerous place and that they must stay vigilant at all times — a recipe for increased anxiety, fear and isolation.

Yet, this is still not the most concerning side effect of constant consumption of true crime. In a perfect world, this would go without saying, but any retelling of a violent crime that either dehumanizes the victim or glorifies the killer is not educational — it is dangerous in more ways than one. Most recently, we have seen this with “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the Netflix series released in September that quickly became a hit. The show follows infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters, “X-Men: Apocalypse” through the years, with a heavy focus on the internal and external factors that contributed to his multiple killings. However, far too much time was spent showing Dahmer picking apart human remains for it to be impactful in any way. What could have been an attempt at honoring the victims turned into a disturbing series that accomplished nothing more than garnering sympathy for Dahmer — who was portrayed as a lonely, misunderstood individual. A concerning number of TikTok edits have emerged sympathizing with Dahmer and even glorifying him as some kind of genius. There were even people who dressed up as him for Halloween, an act so absurd I do not think I can sum it up in a few words. Some of the victims’ families have spoken out about how the show has retraumatized them, but their comments have received little to no attention from Netflix or the media at large. Dahmer’s killings have instead been turned into a spectacle that only serves to inflict further pain on the victims. 

Unfortunately, this is just one of many instances when true crime has turned exploitative. The ITV series The Secret, which was based on the real-life murders of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan in 1991, showed a similar disregard for the victims. Though there was heavy resistance from family members who did not wish to see this story portrayed on-screen, the show was produced anyway. This is the root of the problem: Behind every gruesome murder case, there is a real person who had hopes, dreams and a family who is very likely still living with the trauma of losing a loved one. In situations like these, producers and writers bear the responsibility of representing such gruesome events in a way that humanizes and honors the victims. Yet, far too often, the opposite occurs — the stories of the victims are left on the back burner, with the details of the murderer taking center stage. The danger of this cannot be overstated. It has been shown time and time again that highlighting perpetrators of violent crimes, whether in the news or through some other medium, can inspire copycat incidents. Disturbed individuals may very well see the attention Dahmer is getting and act on an impulse, with the hope of getting their own Netflix series 30 years from now. 

This is why we need to exercise caution. In moderation, true crime can be okay. In fact, it can even be beneficial, as it asks us to engage with our justice system and be aware of the dangers in the world around us. However, there is a blurry line we must not cross, both for the sake of protecting the victims and their families, as well as protecting ourselves. Constant consumption of true crime can lead to heightened anxiety and can contribute to a dangerous kind of desensitization that leaves us unbothered in the face of violent crimes — the very situation that led to individuals parading around in Jeffrey Dahmer costumes on Halloween. We become so used to the violence that we forget its seriousness.

People like Gabby Petito, the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer and the millions of others who have been affected by violent crimes are all real individuals, and it’s imperative that we honor this in whatever future media coverage these cases garner, we honor this. Only then can true crime accomplish anything positive. 

Daily Arts Writer Rebecca Smith can be reached at