Emily Fear was drawn to the world of true crime stories thanks to the high-profile cases that dominated headlines throughout her childhood in the 1990s: Amy Fisher, the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, and, of course, O.J. Simpson. She recalls her seventh-grade teacher interrupting class so they could watch the Simpson verdict on TV.
“I don’t know if I was just wired to enjoy true crime stories, but if I was, pop culture in my childhood was more than ready to sate my appetite for crimes and mysteries,” says Fear.
This lifelong fascination led her to co-create Let's Talk About Murder! — a true crime discussion group at her workplace, the Sewickley Public Library. The monthly gathering welcomes true crime fans to examine a variety of topics from serial killers to murder cults.
Between 15-20 people attend each month. Fear says that range is “fairly high” compared to what public library programs usually bring in. Let's Talk About Murder! reflects Pittsburgh’s growing true crime scene.
One group member, Wynne Lundblad, traces her true crime obsession to a childhood in Boston. At around 10, she became enthralled with the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart. “There were all these lurid details — the mistress and the money laundering and the life insurance scheme,” says Lundblad, who now resides in Sewickley. “I was just hooked.”
She believes the podcast Serial had a lot to do with elevating true crime. Its debut in 2014 started an avalanche of true crime podcasts, TV shows, and movies. Even the Post-Gazette decided to join in with its own podcast investigating local crimes, with two seasons titled Three Rivers, Two Mysteries and To Love and to Perish.
One of the most influential catalysts behind the growing local scene is My Favorite Murder, a Los Angeles-based comedy podcast from Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. What started as a casual weekly chat between two friends attracted a massive cult following of mostly female fans dubbed "Murderinos."
Numerous niche Facebook groups honor the podcast, including Pittsburgh-centric Yinz A Murderino? Launched in 2017 by Madison Hack and Tabrina Avery, the closed group page has, to date, approved over 760 members.
Yinz A Murderino? in part satisfies an obsession with true crime explored by Hack since she attended police and SWAT team camps in middle school. She often plays true crime podcasts out loud while working in her shop as a costume designer.
“My list of podcasts would probably concern a stranger if they went through my phone,” she laughs.
True crime fandom has come under scrutiny, with many speculating why the scene is dominated by women. In a 2010 study titled “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” it is hypothesized that, unlike men, women look to true crime as a way to gather information that would enable them to avoid being victimized. One Medium article titled “Love In a Time of True Crime” observed that, between 2003–2014, more than half of all American female homicide victims died at the hands of intimate partners.
Fear and Lundblad agree that true crime helps women to make sense of a world that seems to have no interest in protecting them.
“Reading about, watching, and listening to true crime stories is, in a sense, a catharsis,” says Fear. “It’s an acknowledgement of the dangers lurking and it’s reassuring, in some dark way, because many of the things we fear do exist. Encountering and confronting those fears head-on in the form of reading about these true cases is its own small form of control. Even preparation.”
As the program director at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, Joe Wichryk recognizes the powerful appeal of true crime. In 2015, he developed an evening with famed Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht. Since then, true crime fanatics have crammed into the 400-seat theater to hear Wecht discuss the many cases he’s consulted on during his long career, including the assassination of President Kennedy and unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Wichryk says many of the nine talks have sold out.
True crime has also evolved from focusing on the sensational aspects of crime to highlighting how the media and law enforcement pay less attention to certain victims — particularly sex workers and members of marginalized groups.
“People are thinking a lot more now about victims and what does victimhood look like and who are the victims … and how do we protect them,” says Lundblad.
Fandom is about connection. Since its launch, Yinz A Murderino? members have organized a variety of meet-ups, including a recent yoga-in-the-park session.
“We’re all about trying to spread love because we’re all constantly being bombarded with this dark subject matter, so we all wanted something where we could go and enjoy,” says Hack.
Follow senior writer Amanda Waltz on Twitter @AWaltzCP.