I grew up on true crime television. While I was never allowed to watch horror films, which my mother was sure would influence my malleable mind, she never seemed to think that a steady diet of real-life murder could affect me negatively. I vividly remember watching America’s Most Wanted as a kid and having her lecture me afterward about all of the terrible things that could happen to me simply because I was a child, kidnapping being the most obvious, though murder was always there in the background, a constant possibility, post-kidnapping. She knew about the Adam Walsh murder, which happened the year I was born. She told me the gruesome details, emphasizing how easy it would be for me to be taken, just like him, if I drifted away from her in a grocery store.
As I got older, the true crime focus shifted: instead, she warned me about rape, about walking alone down a street, about never getting in the car with a strange man (and never, even if I knew them, with more than one man). Even still, when she calls, she warns me not to pick up hitchhikers, to never go walking alone, to always “watch my back.” Although I never accepted this type of paranoia at face value, I did take up her morbid interest in the complexities of crime — how victims were lured, how they were kept hidden, and how they died.
True crime is an overwhelmingly female genre. Both true crime books and television shows are primarily read and watched by women. Investigation Discovery, a Discovery channel offshoot that plays only true-crime and crime-related shows, is one of the most highly-rated channels with women 18 to 35. While both men and women watch serialized shows about crime in which anti-heroes break laws (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc.), men are not avid true crime viewers. Although women are less likely to be victims of crime in general, the types of crimes that women are particularly vulnerable to—death from spousal abuse, rape, stalking, kidnapping, etc.–are often featured in ID channel programming. True crime often shows us the “Perfect Victim”: middle-class or at least working class, without a drug or drinking problem (or, if they did once have addiction issues, the drug and drinking problem is placed firmly in the past to create a narrative of redemption before a sad downfall). True crime carefully selects its victims for maximum sympathy with the white, female, middle class audience that eats up this type of programming.
A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Research suggests that women enjoy true crime, specifically true crime that focuses on survival tactics, because they are afraid of being victims. I think this explanation is too simple, though it certainly is part of my mother’s interest. While she watches true crime to validate her view of reality as terrifying and full of people who are probably going to kill you, I watch because that divide between victim and perpetrator has never seemed terribly clear to me. Could the story have gone otherwise? What takes a crime from the thought to the action, and are all of us capable of that leap in the right circumstances?
Shows like Disappeared, Stalked, Solved, and Nightmare Next Door, all streaming on Netflix, provide an endless procession of true crime television that I half-watch while I grade papers or compose little poems, but Deadly Women is special: the existence of the show itself tells us that the important factor here is gender.
Deadly Women includes all of the hallmarks of true crime television: terrible re-enactments, true crime authors and professional profilers making stony proclamations about the monstrosity and/or evil of the perpetrators, and atmospheric musical cues telegraphing an upcoming horrific event. It’s a trashier-than-average true crime show, due to its lack of any real footage of significance, which tends to make it more campy than sobering. While Snapped and Solved and Wicked Attraction often show interviews with the victim’s family, photographs from the crime scene, and even archival evidence of interviews or video footage, Deadly Women is purely re-enactment, generally poorly done re-enactments (often, curiously, with actors and actresses who have Australian accents, even when they are supposed to be US Southerners or British), that depict horrific crimes in lurid and poorly executed detail. Each episode centers around a “type” of female crime, which gets recycled from season to season. Favorites include women who kill their husbands, women who kill for money, sadistic or mentally ill murderers, murdering nurses (often engaged in what they believe are “mercy killings”), or women who kill their children — a common episode that can appear up to twice per season.
Criminal profiler Candice DeLong provides colorful commentary about the women, usually labeling them as sociopaths, though we sometimes get a borderline personality disorder, Munchhausen by proxy, or postpartum depression thrown in, depending on the type of murder.
It makes for a decidedly strange viewing experience. Most true crime shows don’t really show the graphic stuff—you might see a bit of blood spray or an obscured body, the wounds digitized (very rarely), but otherwise the details are left to the imagination. Deadly Women uses all re-enactments. So, in Season Three, Episode Five, for example, “Pleasure From Pain,” which focuses on women who “kill for pleasure” (including the puzzling descriptor, “This is the deadly women’s house of sullen delight”), we are treated to a gruesome re-enactment of a torture-murder of a young woman by her meth-addicted roommate. The re-enactment involves the victim being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan, electrocuted with wires, and finally stabbed in the head with what appears to be a screwdriver. The low-quality, enthusiastic acting and sepia footage makes it feel like a scene from any exploitation film, but the presence of experts explaining the motivation behind this murder mean we are constantly confronted with the reality of the crime: this cheesy re-enactment is nothing compared to the actual suffering that the victim went through. And since the torture itself is so front-and-center, it’s hard to know exactly what the show wants us to take away from the whole thing. The victim is framed as a down-on-her luck addict who happened to come into contact with a sadistic, sociopathic killer, but almost all of the story emphasis is on the female murderer, her bloodthirsty nature, her lack of real motive. The victim is always and only a victim.
Most episodes are like this, the emphasis firmly on the perpetrator, often with mention of her evil, selfishness, or gold-digging (another popular theme), and the immediate events around the crime. Personal history, if any, is kept to a minimum. This tone in particular is popular for the “women who kill their children” episodes.
Such crimes are hard to comprehend, but I’m struck by how gender is so central. It isn’t the murders themselves that are so shocking; it’s the fact that they are done by women, who are meant to be loving, nurturing, and self-sacrificing. Women being anything otherwise is both fascinating (as evidenced by the morbid interest in the crime, in making the re-enactments as graphic as possible) and so frightening in its possibility that apparently the show needs to emphasize the “unnatural” nature of these women as much as possible, to batter the viewer into agreeing that yes, indeed, these women are monsters. They are not really like us. We would never kill our husbands or our children. The voice-over tells us this. The show descriptions tell us this. Candice DeLong tells us this. And this is another hallmark of true crime — the careful rhetoric of us vs. them, the evil and the good, the perpetrator and the victim.
But of course, Deadly Women has its cake and eats it too. If we want to see those crimes cataloged in detail, re-enacted and fully explicated by experts, does that mean we have a little piece of that unnatural, lawless, bloodthirsty nature, too? True crime doesn’t investigate that question, and part of the pleasure is the lack of self-critique of the genre. Like other heavily formulaic genres, such as slasher films, there’s something grimly satisfying about seeing a narrative play out based on established patterns. The difference is that Deadly Women ends not with the death of the victim or the capturing of the killer but with the viewer reminding herself that she is not like those others, those women who were too greedy, too selfish, too unloving, too unnatural.