The Golden State Killer and the Appeal of True Crime
“Fuck,” I muttered to myself when I switched on my computer this morning. “Fuck. Fuck.”
Because the first thing I saw when I got out of bed and logged in to check on my regular true crime forums was this announcement: that a suspect in the Golden State Killer case (also known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker), a serial killer and rapist active in the seventies and eighties, had been arrested. People were confident that this was the guy, matching images of the suspect to the photofits released of the killer over the last forty years. It’s a case that both law enforcement and amateur detectives (most notably the late Michelle McNamara, who’s final book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, catalogued her search for the killer) have been working on tirelessly for decades now, one of those cases that always came up in discussions of “what do you think will never end up solved?”.
I’ll been following the case for a scant couple of years, but as the details emerged and the hashtags starting trending and it seemed clear that they had finally got their guy, I found myself staring into space on my couch, thinking about the victims and the justice and peace they might find now. In fact, I’ve spent the whole day wafting around in a kind of jittery, emotional haze, bursting into tears making coffee this morning, relieved, somehow.
And I know I’m far from the only person who feels this way – take a look at the boards that are exploding to life all over the internet, discussing the personal impact this arrest has had on the people invested in the story, people noting where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It feels enormous, earth-shaking, even though most of us have probably, like me, only watched this case from afar.
My relationship with true crime has always been an uncomfortable one, because I’ve never quite been able to justify it morally. After all, who could justify using real-life atrocities as entertainment? We’re talking about looking at the worst things that have ever happened to people, to entire families and communities, and pulling them apart at the seams to pass the time. Yes, for some people, there’s a more practical element of aiding an investigation (such as those who volunteer to identify Does), but I know that for me and a lot of other people, there’s just something engaging about these crimes or mysteries at their core. There are plenty of mysteries that don’t involve murder, rape, or torture, and yet it’s usually the ones that do that end up getting the most traction in the public eye. There’s a reason the Black Dahlia and the Zodiac Killer make endless reappearances in popular culture, and it’s not just the catchy titles.
I can claim that it’s the strange puzzle-box part of my brain constantly needing stimulation, and that fitting the facts of unsolved cases together in every permutation I can think of helps to slow it down, but there are crossword puzzles for that and they don’t tend to involve rape and mutilation. And I don’t like the thought of me or anyone else exploiting the appalling acts of abominable people to while away the hours on a long afternoon, and yet it’s one of those pastimes that nearly everyone I know has a shelf on their bookcase devoted to. It’s tremendously hard to justify engagement with real-life stories that draw on unthinkable violence meted out to innocent people, let alone the media that puts it’s own fictional spin on it (as I wrote about in regards to American Crime Story earlier this year, and to an extent, American Horror Story in 2017).
So, if it’s so horrible, what is it about true crime that keeps pulling us, as a culture, back in?
I think the most convincing argument I’ve heard for this is that serial killers and murderers in general are to adults what horror-movie monsters are to kids: a way to peer over the edge of the abyss into inconceivable awfulness with the option to pull back whenever we want. Given the distance and the ability to analyse, studying true crime can feel almost cathartic.
For a textbook overthinker like myself, I have gone over every single way I could horribly die in my head at least a hundred times this week, and by all accounts an obsession with true crime should only intensify that. But for some reason, the ability to boil these narratives down in motive and opportunity, to pry open the events, these bad things, the worst things, and look hard at them – it helps. I feel awful for saying that these stories about unthinkable evil make me feel better, but they do. We break them down into stories, and I can handle stories.
And I think that’s why I found the announcement that the Golden State Killer had been caught such an intense moment today. Not only am I overwhelmed with joy at the thought of the victims (both surviving and otherwise) finally seeing their tormentor face justice after decades of uncertainty, but here’s the third act to the narrative, the epilogue where the dogged reporters and investigators get their man, the relief that comes with knowing it’s over.
Finding answers and suspects in cases like the Golden State Killer’s – cases that seemed to stretch out impossibly, leaving endless questions about how and when and where and why, why, why – the world, and the place of cruelty like that in it, makes a little more sense, seems a little less random. When we come to true crime, we come with a craving answers, and when we find them, everything is a little less scary as a result. As Michelle McNamara wrote in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, “I need to see his face. He loses his power when we know his face”.