Last summer's primary election was cathartic. At once madcap and heinous, it was almost fun. Many Americans, myself included, dove headlong into political news. The websites, newspapers, podcasts, television shows—we filled our heads and our time with the most current news cycle, believing we would be rewarded in November with our first female president.
But we were wrong. After Trump was elected, during Stephen Colbert's election night special, actor Jeff Goldblum lamented to the host, "I'm in shock ... But I'm trying my best to navigate. Look. Horrible things will happen to me. To all of us." To which Colbert replied, "That's the happiest thought I can think of! Perhaps something worse than this will happen to me one day!"
In that spirit, I went looking for something worse.
Hiding from the tailspin of American democracy, I filled my ears with stories of murder. I found them on true-crime and horror podcasts. First thing in the morning: murder. Last thing at night: murder. I finally learned what the big deal was with the JonBenet Ramsey case, and followed it up with four straight hours on the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo. I carried on this way for months because, honestly, Trump ordering a travel ban on seven Middle Eastern countries was more horrifying than listening to three hours of Richard Speck murdering eight young nurses in Chicago in 1966.
It turns out I'm not alone. Something strange is happening on the iTunes Top Ten Comedy Podcast list. While the list contains plenty of what you'd expect (sit-down interviews with comedians such as Joe Rogan and Marc Maron, along with NPR's dependable Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me), two of the 10 podcasts are, strangely, all about murder.
Coming in third on the list is My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, two comedians from Los Angeles who share a love of true crime. For every episode, each woman brings a researched murder story to share with the other. Strict accuracy is not their goal (most of their research comes from Murderpedia.org). Instead, listeners are treated to a fun, conversational, blood-soaked gossip sesh. The women use their aural stage to critique the justice system and rattle off perfect soundbites of advice, such as "Fuck politeness," and "You're in a cult, call your dad," most of which can be purchased cross-stitched onto a pillow by one of the pair's many Etsy store-owning fans.
The Last Podcast on the Left is 10th on the iTunes list. Hosted by Marcus Parks with comedians Ben Kissel and Henry Zebrowski, the podcast covers cryptozoology, ghosts, witches, political conspiracies and lots of alien abductions, but it's at its best with its multi-episode coverage of serial killers. Parks, the brains of the group, does exhaustive research on even the lightest subject (say, fairies) and he doesn't skimp on the darker stuff, either (Dahmer's sex zombies, anyone?). The comedians' friendship is the backbone of their dynamic, and they strike a balance between slightly offensive banter and sensitivity to their subjects. When I realized all the men on this podcast are feminists and discovered Parks' side-project podcast about mental health, I was hooked.
These podcasts offer more than crime and even more than humor. Hardstark and Kilgariff's warm, friendly conversation is like listening to your favorite aunts dish in the next room. Kissel and Zebrowski's dynamic is endearing and sweet while being off-the-wall ridiculous. Listening to them feels like eavesdropping on the nerdy kids at the next lunch table. You don't always know what they're talking about, but they're excited about it, and that makes you excited, too.
So why are we drawn to these dark topics? Jordan Peele, creator of the new horror film Get Out, said in a recent interview with NPR's Code Switch, "Horror is one of the best ways we as a society face our demons and face our fears." On My Favorite Murder, Kilgariff and Hardstark often discuss how their obsession with true crime stems from their anxieties about death. To them, harnessing this information can teach how to act in dangerous situations. But while I do glean life lessons from my murder podcasts, fear of death isn't what draws me to them. My fears stem not from death, but from our shocking new political reality. Having lived in Obama's America since I was 18, I didn't know what was possible. With every episode, the horrific stories remind me that our world is far from perfect, and the hosts are kind enough to help me recognize that bleak fact while making me laugh out loud.
While my favorite murder podcasts are comedic, other Americans are distracting themselves with straightforward true crime. Podcasts such as Serial, Criminal and The Serial Killer Podcast are hugely popular. Though the podcast platform is relatively new, the crime-as-entertainment phenomenon isn't. The true crime genre has existed for well over a hundred years, and its popularity boomed during the Vietnam War with Truman Capote's publication of In Cold Blood, an in-depth look at a small-town murder in Kansas. Capote's dedication to detail captivated the public, and his nonfiction novel is second in the true-crime genre only to Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry's telling of the Charles Manson story in Helter Skelter, which is still the No. 1 best-selling true crime book of all time. Both books were shocking in their meticulous coverage of heinous murders, and both arrived just as Americans were able, for the first time, to see the horrors of war in real time on television. As with today's onslaught of morbidly appalling news coverage, Americans in that era took their terror and channeled it into an obsession with crime.
The hosts of The Last Podcast on the Left and My Favorite Murder become the good mood in our back pocket, tugging on our anger and funneling it someplace new. It's as if murder, in this strange new world, is the only thing that makes sense anymore.