Featured Illustration: Belle Wuthrich
Anyone who’s been connected to the Internet for this past week knows that the disappearance of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito has been front and center on national headlines for the past week. A young, ambitious 22-year-old vlogger who left on a cross country trip with her boyfriend never returned — even when her partner returned to Florida with her van and wordlessly lawyered up. The case gripped the nation for one obvious reason: the refusal of her boyfriend Brian Laundrie’s lack of cooperation with law enforcement and his refusal to speak about those last few days after her last known communication to her parents. Haunting bodycam footage from police response to a reported altercation between Petito and Laundrie in Moab, Utah partway through their trip show a hysterical Gabby fearful that her boyfriend will once again attempt to take her car and phone and abandon her in the backcountry, sobbing uncontrollably in a state of palpable anxiety and fear while the police joke around with Brian about these women being so crazy before they leave the couple with a mere suggestion to separate for the night. A month later, she’s reported missing. Tune the TV into a news channel, turn on the radio, glance at the top trending stories on your phone en route to work, and press updates from the Laundrie and Petito family attorneys stared back at you and every social media outlet harbored the same puzzling discourse — WHY ISN’T BRIAN TALKING????
For the general public, Gabby’s case was a matter to be discussed privately with friends and family — to encourage the young women in their lives to be wary and trust their instincts, to share experiences from similar abusive relationships and the warning signs of a budding one, and to mourn this new name to the list of women who had likely been assaulted and killed at the hands of an abusive partner. But amongst the general public are a sect of true crime enthusiasts, self-appointed sleuths who take it upon themselves to speculate and analyze on the limited information released by law enforcement, who comb Instagram and Spotify accounts in search for some new tidbit that hasn’t been covered by the mainstream news. The Gabby Petito subreddit alone has over 100 thousand members and the hashtag on Tiktok has amassed countless views. No small community, these true crime fans often play a pivotal role in maintaining the momentum on a case and summarizing the latest developments in short paragraphs or 60-second videos.
And it’s not difficult to trace where this interest comes from — the catharsis we get from following true crime stories allows us to experience a sense of thrill, urgency, the satisfaction of playing detective and piecing together clues of a story that we don’t have a personal stake in.
And the more “twisted” or peculiar a case is, the more we’re fascinated by the anomalies of human behavior. We’re led to believe that among us walk these seemingly ordinary people that at moment could snap, turn into cold-blooded killers, without a fragment of empathy or remorse. We don’t want to look for these people in our inner circles or believe that they’re there — but we want to feel prepared in case we ever encounter them. We tell ourselves what we would do, that we’d fight back or outsmart our aggressor. And we evaluate known killers on a scale of evil, the crueler the crime, the more we dig into the case in the hopes of assuring ourselves that nobody could have seen their break coming.
The sensationalization of true crime, especially in the way cases are framed by “like and reshare” driven media give us the juiciest, most suspenseful details while leaving out the mundane hours of routine police questioning and evidence collection that never makes the headlines. So like rubberneckers on the highway, we seek out these stories knowing that in some voyeuristic way, we shouldn’t keep looking. But at the root of it, we are secretly grateful that when we’ve gotten our heebiejeebies for the night, we can turn off the news, click out of our Reddit accounts and go about our day with the consolation that we are not the victims.
The issue comes when the language we use to discuss true crime cases mirrors the same way we would fictional murder mysteries. The recent popularization of true crime-centered media has regrettably blurred this line in the sense that we’ve created spaces for discussion that encourage the sharing of theories, and subsequently this sense of competition between followers of true crime stories. We should not gain this level of enjoyment and thrill from probing into the lives of dead or missing strangers, picking apart every word they’ve ever tweeted, every picture they’ve ever posted or taken, hyper analyzing their interactions and demeanor. While all these might be useful in discovering clues and eventually locating a victim, they should be done with tantamount decorum and sensitivity to family and friends who are waiting for answers in the worst purgatory of their lives or grieving the loss of a loved one. Friends and family who do not need to be further tormented by stumbling upon posts and videos hypothesizing that the person they have lost was secretly suicidal, sociopathic, or is faking their disappearance for Internet fame. While it is human nature to be intrigued by the sheer absurdity of socially abnormal behavior like Brian Laundrie’s paired with a puzzling mystery that concerns a woman that many can relate to, it is imperative to remember that victims are people with complex lives, far deeper than any of us know. Especially when countless victims that were once searched frantically for eventually become unrecognizable names while their murderers become immortalized in true crime lore. The grim truth is that post mortem, these complex individuals with lives beyond media publicized blurbs become an afterthought in pathologizing and romanticizing the likes of Bundy and Dahmer.
It’s not just about the language we use — oftentimes it is the intent behind sharing true crime stories that make me wonder if we’re really sharing these stories to remember victims or for our own entertainment. With the increase of ads camouflaged in podcasts and creator fund-sponsored TikToks, the truth is that many creators are making money off analyzing real-life murders. And it’s here that I think we have turned into dark, dark territory where the stories of helpless victims whose lives came to a violent end are being commodified into 12 part series, each episode left with a tantalizing cliffhanger. There is a whole other realm of sensitivity and tact that has to be considered on any platform paying creators to be storytellers of these chilling tales. Not only must we maintain victim-centric narratives and avoid diagnosing killers with pathologies of our fancy, but we also have to be cognizant of what exactly we’re profiting off and frame our analysis and storytelling in an appropriate fashion.
But perhaps the most troubling fact that gnaws away at me when it comes to our true crime obsession is the outright racism that permeates the genre. There’s even a term for it: Missing White Woman Syndrome, trending after political commentator Joy Reid discussed its relevance to Gabby Petito’s case on MSNBC this past week. Academic Charlton McIlwain defines it as “white women occupying a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting”, and in recent years it’s become increasingly apparent that the hundreds of thousands of black and Native women that go missing in States like Wyoming and the Dakotas are rarely if ever given the same kind of attention gained by Laci Peterson, Shanann Watts, and now — Gabby Petito. Too often, it is thin, attractive, White women whose cases are pushed to national headlines because the media has seen the pattern for decades — America can root for the safe return of a national sweetheart. A woman who could be their mom, sister, best friend. And for too long, this woman has looked eerily similar to her predecessors. So while we work to de-monetize and sensationalize true crime and refocus the goal to finding and bringing justice to victims, it is in all our best interests to extend the same vigor and franticness that we mobilized in the search for Gabby, Laci, and Shannan for equally innocent victims who look nothing like them.