Content Warning: this post references violence, including sexual violence.
In an early interview about their podcast, Karen Kilgariff — co-host of the long-running and beloved podcast My Favorite Murder — says that what is scary and thrilling about murderers for her is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” dynamic, when someone has a place in a community or family and seems stable; when the community thinks this person is not capable of murder. She uses the expression “to pass”: She says these people “pass for normal.” And this is what strikes fear (also obsession) for her.
This relates to the things they articulate in their first episode about needing to KNOW, as much as possible, about violent crimes so that they might learn how to spot these killers in sheep’s clothing.
Near the end of their first podcast, Karen goes over the case of the East Area Rapist, later known as the Golden State Killer, which, in 2016 when they recorded this podcast, was still unsolved. (The GSK was eventually identified through DNA evidence in 2018 and sentenced to life without parole in the summer of 2020 after pleading guilty to multiple murders.)
After going over the then-unsolved case, which stretched back to burglaries and rapes in the 1970s and forward into the 1980s with brutal murders, across multiple locations in northern and southern California, Georgia Hardstark says:
“I just want to know; I just want to know the answer. [. . .] It’s funny that we’re both talking about murders that are unsolved because I just want to know. I want the problem solved. What’s the answer to the riddle?”
Karen: “And you want there to be a better policing system where this doesn’t happen so often.”
Georgia: “It’s so easy to point to, well, ‘What did they do wrong?’”
Georgia goes on to suggest that it’s also “a bummer” or confusing when a crime is solved, and the “answer” turns out to be “boring.”
By this I think she means that the killer does not match the romanticized imaginary of a serial killer: dark and brooding, troubled, etc. Your standard Byronic hero.
She brings up the example of the Green River Killer who, apparently, turned out to be “boring.” (I dunno, “boring” isn’t the word that comes to my mind for someone who apparently had a long history of committing sexual assault and violence, including knowingly spreading STD’s to sex partners, who were mostly sex workers, and putting at least one of his multiple ex-wives in a choke-hold, which turns out to be his M.O. for the DOZENS of women he strangled in the Pacific Northwest.)
It turns out Georgia thinks she might have momentarily mixed up the GRK with the BTK killer: the serial killer who named himself with the acronym for “bind, torture, kill” and who sent letters to the police and local newspapers (a la Zodiac) in Kansas where he committed his crimes over several years between the 1970s and 1991. It was him, not the GRK, who was associated with a local church, though not on staff (the GRK reportedly had an odd religious obsession, however).
On the other hand, “Ted Bundy was satisfying” because he was “diabolical, handsome,” and “intelligent,” according to Georgia.
To which I say: INTERESTING!
How much of this perception of Bundy, though, comes from how his stories came out? How the narratives have been shaped by True Crime writers, especially the representation by Ann Rule? Or is Ted Bundy just more traditionally “attractive” than the GRK? And the BTK killer, for that matter?
One of the first things said in this podcast series, at the very top of this first episode, is: “Let’s just relax into what we’re about to do, which is our new podcast, My Favorite Murder. [. . . Let’s get cozy] and talk about the thing that makes you feel most romantic: murder.”
They say this sarcastically, but, like most of their comedic framing, this statement is at least half-true. There is a romantic flavor to their engagement with these cases, with these circulating true crime narratives, and with each other as they bond over their feelings about this violence.
In this moment in the first podcast episode when they are providing a kind of assessment or hierarchy of the satisfaction one gets with learning who a serial killer is, Georgia reveals some more truths about the circulation and reception of True Crime:
How many assumptions and cultural myths or basic social codes regarding heterosexual desirability or romantic (aka patriarchal) potential are in play here with Georgia’s mental categorizing and arranging of serial killers?
Is the search for the perfect True Crime narrative correlative to the search for the perfect romantic partner? In other words: are there heteronormative tropes akin to the social conditioning tropes regarding romantic love and sexual attraction that are part of the true crime sub-genre of “serial killers”? I’m going to put a pin in this question for a later post.
Karen goes on to, kind of, defend the bonafides of the GRK as a worthy serial killer to obsess over, however: “But, what I think is really fascinating about the Green River Killer is that his mom was really inappropriate with him.” (my emphasis)
She goes on to explain: “Sometimes I like it when you can trace a little bit. We’re all just trying to cobble together the ‘Why’.”
In this case, Karen is suggesting that being able to pathologize the killer by connecting his crimes to his mother makes him a fitting subject for the True Crime canon.
The 2019 book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, by Jude Ellison, published under the name Sady Doyle, touches on this practice of associating men who are serial killers with their mothers.
This “mother” trope (different from the romantic one, btw, but to a similar effect, or no?) is carried out in fiction in films like Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) or Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham), and in true crime representations of real world killers like Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield, who was charged with at least one murder, and who confessed to digging up bodies of buried, dead women from local graveyards in order to make a “woman suit.”
As Ellison weaves together the various accounts of Ed Gein’s case and its many echoes in popular culture (like Silence of the Lambs and Psycho), they point out that it is the success or failure of the mother to 1) properly adhere to codes of gender roles and, 2) properly adhere to codes of motherhood that ultimately shapes the narrative around criminal behavior in men.
We may circle back around to those ideas in other posts, but for now it’s worth it to point out that Georgia and Karen, as consumers and lovers of popular culture as well as True Crime (is there a difference?) have absorbed these narrative tropes not only about the desirability of serial killers, but also about the role of mothers in men’s violence into their personal relationship with crime narratives.
Karen and Georgia consider themselves feminists, and they take special care in this first show of their long-lived and much-loved podcast series to lay out the kind of cultural analysis and even social service that their obsession and podcast offers. They admit to their personal anxieties about being killed. They point out that learning “all the things” about these crimes might help them avoid assault or grizzly death. They also hope to help solve the puzzle, with the help of their audience, of open cases.
And all of this is likely true. I feel these things often myself, especially the bit about needing to know all the information because anyone with anxiety will tell you that their nemesis is the unknown that lurks around the corner.
And, at the same time, listening carefully to their categorization and analysis — their narrativization, even — of their own relationships with True Crime, I can see how they often repeat the myths and uphold the cultural codes that they might also wish to crack.
But what do you think? How do you feel about Karen and Georgia’s pursuit of the perfect killer in traditional, hetero-patriarchal terms?
Or: GRK: hot or not?