The Murder Show Demographic

I like watching shows about murderers and murders because I’m not one and I haven’t been, even though the odds were tipped a bit in favor of either happening.

Ladies love murder shows. Some say it’s because they keep us scared, aware that our place in the world is precarious, aware that we don’t have power and shouldn’t try to transgress. I call bullshit. We don’t need a proliferation of murder shows to make us afraid to move, talk, act, be. Daily life has got that covered.

In school they teach you that everything is comedy or tragedy, but I think horror deserves its own mask. If a comedy ends in a marriage (and celebrating the community of both of those fortunate in love and those outside its embrace), and tragedy ends in death (and the joining community of mourners, an ensemble that often includes the next king), horror ends in escape—often alone (or into a community that simply has No Fucking Idea And Wouldn’t Believe Me Anyway). The “last girl” thing, right? Tragedy is just horror that doesn’t go far enough. The mourners know it’s not going to end there, and the worst to come is after the funeral, but they draw the curtain anyhow.

It doesn’t make sense that the main murder show that shows women doing the murdering is called “Snapped,” because women tend to plan things out more.

In murder shows, victims matter. If we go missing, people will notice. They’ll put our best photo on the news. Everyone in town will spend days and nights walking slowly through the woods and meadows beyond where anyone mows, calling our names. We’re great friends, great moms, great coworkers. Our smiles light up the room. Our businesses were just starting to be a success. We might have had affairs—or showed the strength to avoid temptation—but only if driven to it by a mate’s cruelty. We were about to get divorced. We were about to find love. No one calls us idiotic for being out there or in there at that time or in that place. They know we had a reason to be there. They tell the people watching the reason.

In murder show world, violence isn’t the typical insulting snap at the end of a common sequence as familiar and repetitive as “Happy Birthday” or “Jingle Bells” — that one-two-three pattern of insecurity, irritation and impulse control. Instead, violence must be carefully planned by a by a mastermind: It takes that much luck and genius and sharp desire, that many hour- and half-hour increments of manipulations and machinery and tragic strokes of luck, con jobs on store clerks and artfully snipped wires and brilliant computer hacks to get to you, girl. In murder show world, the assaults, rapes, murders, even the daily gaslighting and undermining of confidence and belief will be narrated and acknowledged by a cast of recognizable tropes: the ex, the best friend, the cousin, the mother, the daughter, the would-be lover who just knew something was wrong. What you feared was happening to you will not only be validated, it will be enshrined, gazed at again and again, attended to like a statue of a saint regularly prayed to and on occasions elevated, paraded through the public byways—a reminder, a cause for awe, a fund-raiser.

Murder shows can teach you how to escape. The hundreds of podcasts of friends trading speculations are exercise sessions, keeping us sharp and aware we can learn the of the “signs of a psychopath,” letting us believe we can build up the muscles and neurons and instincts we want so terribly to believe will prepare us for any attack. If we watch enough, we’ll learn how to be brave in all the ways people recognize, afraid but forging on through dark or mud or empty streets or empty office buildings or parking garages or the small room down the hall from the party. We’ll be clever, our minds and senses honed. Our instincts won’t settle for a barely felt gut-rumble; our instincts scream out at us like people in the audience in movie theaters used to: “Don’t go in there!” Our instincts will have a drive clear as the light that bursts into the basement dungeon through the broken window: Our instincts want to keep us alive.

In real life, victims are random and our courage often consists of keeping our mouths shut. Smart doesn’t get you far against a psychopath or those with milder personality disorders or even the sullen troll, the casual racist, the incel in a snit. Police forget, cases drag, judges flounce, the money runs out. And our instincts are directed less toward keeping ourselves alive than toward cultivating our role as a perfect victim. We work on compiling a flawless permanent record, should it ever need to be consulted. Our smiles light up the room.

Sally Wilde’s a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. She can’t say where she works. She has no degree.