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What the Hell Happened: True-Crime Stories


The world is no stranger to the mystery genre. From authors Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to television series “Twin Peaks” and “True Detective,” murder and mystery stories driven by suspense have kept audiences dying to know what comes next for centuries. But it would appear that it isn’t suspense but rather something else about a mystery that captivates audiences. True-crime stories like This American Life’s “Serial” or Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” have similarly seen a surge in popularity, but unlike their predecessors, a quick Google search will reveal whether the accused was found guilty or not, killing any suspense. The former was the number one podcast not only in the United States but also in the UK and Australia and put the art of the podcast back on the map. The latter garnered about 19 million views within the first month of its release. What is it about these seemingly suspense-less true-crime stories that makes them so popular?

For one, many of these true-crime stories feed into the conversation about race that has dominated in America over the past several years. The first season of “Serial” is a retelling of the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American teenager supposedly killed by her Pakistani-American ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” follows the well-known trial of the infamous O.J. Simpson, found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and a waiter. “The Central Park Five” is a 2012 documentary about the five innocent black teenagers convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park. What these all have in common are the minority accused who, innocent or guilty, were vilified during their respective trials, highlighting the underlying racism in America that never really left and has now resurfaced, bigger than ever.

These stories are also very telling about the power of fame and wealth. Robert Durst, subject of HBO’s highly acclaimed “The Jinx,” is the millionaire heir to a real estate fortune, while O.J. Simpson was America’s beloved football star before he was accused of murder. Both avoided guilty convictions—perhaps thanks to their expensive teams of lawyers, calling to attention a major flaw in the American legal and justice system. Give your lawyers a paycheck with enough zeros on it, and you’re more likely to walk away free. On the flip side, these stories also reveal that fame and money don’t provide protection from the tarnished reputations from which the two may never recover.

In the digital age, when everything is accessible literally at one’s fingertips, these stories encourage audiences to step away from the computer screen and do the unthinkable: Wait. Anyone can find out how Adnan Syed’s case culminated with a brief online search, but the possibility for a more intense experience listening to the podcast entices people to avoid doing just that. People seek the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next, even when they already do know what happened. The phenomenon these stories have incited proves that the time-old saying—that it’s not about the destination but about the journey—holds true even today.

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—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at mila.gauvin@thecrimson.com.

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