I was on a lovely walk with my partner a few weeks ago. We both had headphones on, listening to our own things when I suddenly took my headphones off.
“Hey, babe? Wanna hear something cool about hamsters?”
I probably said “hamters” instead of “hamsters” because I am terminally annoying. My partner paused whatever they were listening to and took their headphones off and nodded.
I threw my hands into the air, triumphant and delighted to share my newfound hamster factoid.
“Did you know that hamsters have been known to eat human flesh? Like–if their owner dies and the hamster can get at them, they’ll eat them to survive? I mean I should have guessed, I mean I know they eat their young sometimes. That, and cats and dogs will eat you. Did you know lizards and birds do too?” I felt weirdly comforted by the fact that if I died and happened to have a loose hamster, they wouldn’t starve to death. I’ve never had a hamster.
I don’t remember how the conversation continued. I probably said something incredibly profound like “Just a cool new fact…but yeah.” My very patient, wonderful partner probably nodded before returning to whatever else they were listening to. I was delighted. I returned to what I was listening to, Gory Details by Erika Engelhaupt. The day was perfect. I got to walk outdoors with my favorite person and listen to all the carnivorous hamster, parasitic eye-worm, and maggot-infested information that my heart desired.
Gory Details is a collection of the macabre, disgusting, and (of course) gory. Erika Engelhaupt is a science writer, blogger, and author who masterfully describes the more disgusting sides to science with humor and levity. I love this genre of writing if “women who write about human decomposition” counts as a genre. My shelves at home are filled with books by Caitlin Doughty, Mary Roach, and Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. I’ve read these books and books like them over and over again. They’re my comfort reads. Recently, I’ve been thinking about why that is.
I’m an anxious person who survives entirely off of Redbull and spite. I’m afraid of fish. Sometimes, I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if a bug crawled in my ear. I’m what you would get if you made caffeine free diet Pepsi into a person. Last week, I cried because my cat is really cute when he’s sleeping. Why is my favorite type of book science writing about the grotesque and gory?
To some extent, I think it’s about knowledge and control. I can’t control that I’ll die one day. I can’t stop the bacteria in my gut from eating me once my heart stops. But, that’s okay. I can learn about it. It’s sort of like introducing yourself to the monster that lives under your bed and might eat your toes if you leave them out of your blanket at night. His name is Ted, he likes building model airplanes. He will still eat your toes, but it’s probably fine.
There are downsides and limits to self-medicating with the macabre. True crime is a lucrative and far-reaching industry with millions upon millions of people willing to consume whatever documentary Netflix squeezes into existence. Some true crime content is amazingly well-researched and nuanced like the late Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. But, for every Michelle McNamara you have countless internet psychics on TikTok claiming to know what happened in a victim’s last moments and YouTubers half-heartedly reading the Wikipedia page for a serial killer while their video is titled “HUGE PIZZA HUT MUKBANG TRUE CRIME.” Some true crime fans act as if their consumption of true crime media will protect them from crime itself. They rally behind slogans like “stay sexy and don’t get murdered,” and “fuck politeness,” both from the podcast juggernaut My Favorite Murder. The overarching narrative of podcasts, documentaries, and fandom tells you to trust your gut, but what if your gut is wrong? Statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by someone you know than someone you don’t. To quote editor and writer Princess Weekes, you can trust your gut, “but what if your gut is racist.” If you’re interested in the rest of her video on true crime. You can find it here.
Consuming true crime is not inherently a bad thing. I’ve listened to my fair share of podcasts. Hell, I’ve even seen My Favorite Murder live. When tuning into this type of content, we need to be aware of the systems and inequities that come along with living in the world we do. Being fearful of people, particularly people on the margins of society like the mentally ill, houseless, or anyone who isn’t white hurts society more than it helps. It will not stop you from being murdered.
I’d also recommend reading the article “True Crime is Rotting Our Brains” by Emma Berquist. Emma Berquist is a survivor of violent crime. Hers is one of those rare cases where she was attacked by a complete stranger in broad daylight. While she was attacked by a stranger, there was also a woman she didn’t know who stayed with her until an ambulance came. She writes “The one fact I can cling to when fear threatens to override my empathy is that there are more people like her than people like the man who hurt me. It isn’t naïve or reckless to trust one another. That stranger walking behind you doesn’t want to kill you; in fact, they may just save your life.”
It’s okay to be afraid. You’re allowed to peer into the proverbial darkness with your flashlight and determine if there’s someone in your bedroom, or if it’s just a chair with a hat on top. But when consuming true crime, we need to be more mindful. We can’t forget that true crime exists because people were hurt. Families are missing their very real loved ones and watching just one more Ted Bundy documentary won’t protect you from harm. You’re still allowed to find comfort and strength in what scares you, but it can’t come at the expense of the very real people around us.
-Margo Moore is a Teen Services Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.