Podcasters didn’t invent the true crime genre (nor did Dateline, even though it’s been around much longer), but podcasts have made crime a wildly popular obsession, freeing us from the tether of the TV and allowing us to take murderers on the road with us. Some are focused on victims, others on the questionably accused, and others on the grisly details. They’ve become so popular that one of the most popular streaming shows (Only Murders in the Building) is about true crime podcast fans making their own true crime podcast.
The genre is often seen as exploitative — is true crime cathartic, helping us to examine and thus exorcise our own fears and demons? Or is it just a way to wallow in the suffering of others from a discreet distance? That’s a question to ask of any entertainment, really, but it’s also not entirely fair: the true crime genre is broader than it gets credit for, with one of the earliest popular shows (Serial) focusing on the potential failings of the judicial system. Or they can be an education in the worlds of crime, forensics, and society. Across these popular pods, you’ll find examples of all of that and more.
My Favourite Murder
How disturbing is it? The stories are definitely horrifying, but the comic relief from the two hosts keeps things from becoming too grim.
Hosted by American comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, My Favourite Murder and its spin-offs became one of the most overwhelmingly popular true crime podcasts in the world, tackling some of the most terrifying stories of murder imaginable, from famous cases like JonBenet Ramsey and the Black Dahlia, to less well-known but similarly disturbing cases. The show’s fanbase of “Murderinos” are some of the most vocal in true crime circles — the show’s lighthearted approach to real murder isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s for an awful lot of people who live by the hosts’ catchphrase: “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered.”
You Must Remember Manson
How disturbing is it? The show deals with issues of racism and sexual assault, and ultimately the details of the murders committed by the Manson family. None of that is the focus, though.
A spin-off of her popular movie history podcast series, You Must Remember Manson explores the murders via the famous family’s intricate connections with Hollywood. Without shying away (too much) from the grisly details, Longworth digs deeper than the typical examination of the Manson family to explore the ways they did and didn’t fit into late-60s society, and why Manson was able to build a literal cult that drew celebrities into its orbit. The show also takes a more extensive look at some of those who died at the hands of the Mansons, looking at them as more than victims.
Bad Women: The Ripper Retold
How disturbing is it? The emphasis is less on murder than on the lives and living conditions of low-status women in Victorian London.
A couple of years ago, I was so impressed with Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper that several of my friends got copies for the holidays. Because nothing says Hanukkah like Jack the Ripper. So I was thrilled to learn that Rubenhold was hosting a new podcast on the same theme: exploring the gaslit Victorian-era murders from the perspective of the victims. Because the case has been so well documented, they all have a great deal to tell us about the lives and challenges of low-status women in the 19th century.
How disturbing is it? Police violence is the obvious content warning here.
Even though the 22-episode limited series concluded in 2019, it remains extraordinarily relevant. In 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez — the live Facebook stream from Castile’s girlfriend and co-passenger led to the first police shooting to go to trial in the state. The team behind the pod approaches the tragedy thoroughly and from every angle (dedicating a significant portion of one episode to the contents of the car, as a way of providing added context), looking at the broader implications as well as the minutiae and subsequent trial.
In the Dark
How disturbing is it? The show has a journalistic approach, but deals with the sexual assault and murder of a child in the first season.
The award-winning investigative podcast from the journalists at American Public Media looks in-depth at one case each season (there are currently three). The first focuses on the almost-30-year-old cold case of missing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, looking at the initial crime and its effects on the local community. A major break in the case during production changed the course of the show, adding significant dramatic heft. The second season looks at Curtis Flowers, a Black man accused of murdering four people and who was tried six times over two decades in attempts to secure a conviction.
How disturbing is it? If you’re already a little nervous about a trip to the doctor, then it’s terrifying. Not particularly grisly, though.
Dr. Christopher Duntsch radiated charm, displaying a level of confidence that could put anyone at ease. The problem was, the neurosurgeon grossly botched almost every single one of his surgeries, maiming and, in a couple of cases, killing patients in entirely avoidable ways (he had a related drug-dependency problem). Because of his connections and his general aura of self-assurance, it took years for his licence to be revoked, even after people started ringing the alarm. If you’ve got a medical procedure coming up…maybe hold off on this one.
How disturbing is it? A slow burn, but the show includes many instances of psychological abuse and gaslighting, becoming increasingly disturbing toward the end.
Dirty John, which was popular enough to be made into a Bravo TV series with Connie Britton and Eric Bana, focuses on the story of interior designer Debra Newell, who met John Meehan online. He seemed to be the man of her dreams, such a perfect match that the two were quickly married, even as the red flags began to pile up. “Freelance anesthesiologist” John never seemed to bring home a paycheck, for one thing, and Newell found herself increasingly isolated. Smartly, narrator Christopher Goffard sticks with her side of the story, making for a disturbing and compelling listen.
How disturbing is it? There’s no escaping the disturbing details of Hae Min Lee’s murder, but that’s not the focus of the show.
The grandmother of true crime podcasting, Serial’s first season focused on the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Syed for the crime. Unlike many later crime docs, Sarah Koenig’s show was less about uncovering a murderer than in exploring the idea that the justice system got it wrong, and asking whether or not Syed ought to have been convicted. It was wildly influential both in podcasting and in terms of the judicial process surrounding Syed’s case — seven years later and people are still talking about it. Subsequent seasons (about US Army soldier Bowe Berghdahl and the problems of the US judicial system more generally) were less buzzy, but similarly compelling.
How disturbing is it? It’s not grisly, but the show deals with mental health challenges and suicide.
A few years back, Woodstock, Alabama resident John B. McLemore contacted radio journalist Brian Reed, eventually convincing him to investigate what he claimed was a small-town murder that was covered up by a wealthy family. The real story was something quite different, though, and the show’s focus shifts radically during the course of the telling. S-Town, a spin-off of Serial, became wildly controversial during and after its run, in part for its impact on the town under investigation, and in part for elements that came to be seen as exploitative. The critiques are unquestionably fair, but the show is also unquestionably compelling, and became a topic of conversation as much for its controversies as in spite of them.
To Live and Die in LA
How disturbing is it? Relatively tame for the genre, but deals with domestic abuse alongside the show’s central murder.
On Feb. 23, 2018, 25-year-old aspiring actress Adea Shabani disappeared from her Hollywood apartment. Asked to cover the story in a single article, journalist Neil Strauss instead dug deeper into Shabani’s deeply complicated life, as well as that of the boyfriend with whom she was last seen. Strauss tackles the increasingly complex story with tremendous empathy, but goes a step further in that he actually uncovers significant truths behind the death through his investigation over the course of the podcast.
How disturbing is it? Not terribly, although some of the financial crimes discussed are pretty disgusting.
Though podcast fans could be forgiven for forgetting it, there are crimes other than murder. Laci Mosley has a lot of fun uncovering the stories of racketeers, Ponzi schemers, fraudsters, and grifters of all sorts. Most episodes begin with a current events segment covering the latest cons out there, and then proceeds to dig deeper into a historic grift. It’s fascinating, funny, and educational — knowing how scammers work, after all, takes us a long way toward outsmarting them.
How disturbing is it? Political crimes are impactful and repugnant, but there’s nothing gruesome here.
The true crimes of the powerful, while not always as grisly as those of regular folk, tend to have a disproportionate impact on our lives. Each season of this pod deals with a different major public scandal of the past in great detail: first with Nixon and Watergate, and moving on to Bill Clinton’s coverup over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The two most recent seasons focus on the obfuscations that led to the Iraq War and the assault on Rodney King that lead to the 1992 LA uprising.
True Crime Obsessed
How disturbing is it? Not very.
Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle built a small empire of true crime and true crime-adjacent shows from this, their first show together. Rather than looking directly at real cases, the hosts typically recap and examine true crime documentaries (movies and TV shows — there’s a lot of Dateline in here). It’s a thoroughly lighthearted look at both incidents of true crime, as well as the sometimes ridiculous recreations and reenactments on crime shows.
FriGay the 13th
How disturbing is it? Varies from episode to episode, but the tone is generally light.
From the fox at Dread Central, the hosts FriGay the 13th look at true crime and mystery alongside movies and monsters from an LGBTQ+ perspective. The tone is generally light and conversational, even if some of the stories discussed aren’t so much. The true crime genre, generally, has a mixed reputation when it comes to dealing with stories involving marginalised groups, so it’s valuable to have different perspectives.
Last Podcast on the Left
How disturbing is it? Varies, but, as with other comedy and culture pods, the crew keeps things relatively light.
As with the previous pod, Last Podcast on the Left discusses anything and everything horrific, whether it be real-life murder and mayhem or the stuff from the movies: everything from Jeffrey Dahmer to cryptids. It’s one-stop shopping and wildly popular, inspiring tons of merchandise and very popular live shows. It’s a Spotify exclusive at the moment, so you won’t find it in your normal podcatcher, but that’s ending in early 2022 when it’ll be more broadly available.
Bruh Issa Murder
How disturbing is it? Varies from episode to episode. The show doesn’t typically emphasise the gruesome, but topics include murder (of course), rape, cannibalism, and so on.
Again, the true crime genre has a spotty history when it comes to approaching cases involving people of colour and other marginalised groups, which is part of what makes Bruh Issa Murder so essential. With a diverse group of creatives, the show examines murders that are often ignored or covered up, as well as the stories of murderers (including episodes, for example, on Black serial killers).
How disturbing is it? Not terribly. The topics can be grim, but they’re discussed with humour and humanity.
Lifelong friends Frank and Alvin set out to explore true crime stories from a Black, millennial view, creating what they describe as an “equal opportunity” true crime and comedy podcast. The perspective is rare in true crime podcasting, and the two are both funny and empathetic when it comes to the stories they discuss. The conversational episodes tend to run long, but the chemistry between the hosts is such that it’s hard to mind.
How disturbing is it? The topic is disturbing, but it’s not gruesome.
Other shows have touched on the wrongfully convicted, but few make it the sole focus as happens here, where the show uses files from defence lawyers and interviews with people who have very often spent years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. More recently, Wrongful Convictions spent time focusing on false confessions: both why they happen, and their consequences. It’s a reminder that those who’ve been harmed by the system are at least as much victims as anyone harmed by crime.
The Catch and Kill
How disturbing is it? Includes frank discussions of rape and sexual assault.
For his journalism on sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against public figures like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein, Farrow has developed a reputation as a writer capable of bringing the powerful to justice — or at least into the light of day. His single-season (so far, anyway) podcast goes in depth into the reporting that sent Weinstein to prison, with audio of many of the interviews that were critical to that work.
How disturbing is it? Includes frank discussions of rape and sexual assault.
The NPR podcast zooms in to Louisville, Kentucky to spend a year looking at the ways rape cases are investigated and, just as often, not. As you can probably guess, it’s not a good picture. There are a handful of podcasts with very similar names, so make sure you grab the one from Louisville Public Media if you’re looking for this one.
How disturbing is it? Varies from episode to episode, but the hosts generally keep things from getting too grim.
What if true crime…but British? That’s a not insignificant part of the hook here, given that so many crime podcasts are focused on the United States. Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala are the engaging and charismatic hosts in the thorough-but-chatty show, and it’s quite popular, with over 200 episodes to choose from.
The Dating Game Killer
How disturbing is it? A dive into the mind of a killer (whose crimes had a sexual element). It’s fascinating but not for the faint of heart.
In 1978, Rodney Alcala took time off from his cross-state serial murder spree to make an appearance and win a date on an episode of The Dating Game. Convicted for seven murders, it’s suspected that Alcala killed many, many more people — possibly well over 100. It’s the exactly the sort of horrific, wild story that the genre was made for, especially given that Alcala is relatively little known.
How disturbing is it? Generally cosy.
I don’t believe for one moment that there isn’t a ton of overlap between the audience for true crime and those who obsess over property listings. It’s all part of the same desire to pull back the curtains and find out what’s going on behind closed doors. Dark House is just such a hybrid: a relatively lighthearted look at nice houses gone bad, presented by Alyssa Fiorentino and Hadley Mendelsohn, two editors from House Beautiful magazine. The show touches on the ghostly drama that springs from real-life events that occurred at the notoriously haunted houses that are the focus of each episode — along with occasional discussions of interior design.
Murder in My Family
How disturbing is it? The stories, told from the perspective of family members, can be incredibly emotional.
The anthology show emphasises family members of true-crime murder cases by having conversations with the surviving family of the victims, reminding listeners that there are real people behind these cases. In a genre that’s been seen as exploitative, that perspective is important.
How disturbing is it? The show deals with multiple homicides, but the emphasis is on investigation and procedure.
Exploring a cold case involving four bodies discovered in the titular state park in New Hampshire, Bear Brook stands apart in a couple of significant ways: first, the murderer was uncovered during the production of the pod, allowing for a satisfying conclusion as well as an exploration of the forensic techniques involved. The show also looks at the genetic genealogy procedures used to solve the case (essentially involving comparisons with huge online genealogy databases) — the techniques, used for the first time here, raise major privacy concerns, but have also lead to a couple of significant cold cases being closed.
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