How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group

Listening to stories of grisly murders allows some people to exorcise their fears, and the community built around the show encourages listeners to take care of themselves.

A forensic technician ties a used police line together to seal off a crime scene in Monterrey. (Daniel Becerril / Reuters)

On the way to her first therapy appointment on a November morning in Lafayette, Louisiana, Windy Maitreme listened to her latest podcast obsession, My Favorite Murder. Maitreme works as an administrative assistant and struggles with anxiety and depression. Podcasts distract her from her fears.

“If I don’t really focus on something, I worry about everything,” Maitreme says.

She arrived 35 minutes early, and finished listening to the episode to calm her nerves. It was a memorable one, a rare tale of survival on a show about killings. Co-host Karen Kilgariff told the story of Mary Vincent, who was attacked by a man who picked her up while she was hitchhiking. He raped her, used a hatchet to hack off both her arms at the elbows and left her for dead. A couple driving by found her the next day, walking nude along the highway, holding what was left of her arms in the air to keep from losing more blood.

My Favorite Murder is, on the surface, a podcast for true-crime fans. The hosts, comedy writer Kilgariff and Cooking Channel personality Georgia Hardstark, take turns retelling and editorializing about history’s most gruesome killings—and the occasional near-killing— while the other reacts with shock, outrage, and witty deadpan commentary. They also talk openly about their own struggles with anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and drug use.

“We're both oversharers, so opening up about ourselves happened naturally for us,” Hardstark said in an email. “Luckily people liked it, because now we don’t have to pretend to be perfect or experts or anything we're not.”

Murder is not instinctively soothing subject matter, but for many listeners, the podcast has opened the door to a virtual support group. On Facebook, a community of more than 100,000 fans—largely female—not only nurture each other’s enthusiasm for the taboo topic of serial killers, they follow the examples of their hosts and openly discuss their own mental-health issues. Some share how the podcast has offered the inspiration they need to seek help.  In part, this is thanks to two charismatic hosts who aren’t afraid to talk about tough topics. (Hardstark and Kilgariff regularly get messages from people thanking them for talking about therapy and asking where they can find therapists of their own. They usually recommend the directory on Psychology Today’s website.)

Maitreme is from a small town where she says she was taught to be strong and act even stronger. Emotion was a sign of weakness. “I couldn’t believe how much they talked about mental health issues and how they were very open about seeking therapy,” she says of Kilgariff and Hardstark. “It was just amazing to me to see how many people [on Facebook] not only accepted these two women and their mental-health issues, but they loved them and supported them.”

On the November day when Maitreme met with a therapist for the first time, she had already made and canceled four appointments. “It took everything I had to make me actually go in, but I could hear Karen and Georgia in the back of my head saying, ‘Here’s the thing, fuck everyone.’ It doesn’t matter what people think. You have to do what makes you feel better, and I did.”

There’s a deeper connection, however, between enjoying grisly crime stories and opening up about mental health—it isn’t just that the podcast mashes the two together. My Favorite Murder exposes listeners to two taboo subjects: murder, of course, and mental health. At the same time, it empowers listeners by offering practical advice for survival and self-care and by using comedy to deflate the scariness of these topics. This approach helps listeners get up the nerve to address their mental health needs. But also, simply talking about murder in this context may soothe listeners’ fear of being killed.

The hosts have addressed this on the show. Hardstark, in particular, has said she’s interested in murder specifically because she’s afraid of it happening to her.

“It’s a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you,” Hardstark said in an email. “Basically neither of us are willing to let our horror of true crime keep us from our fascination [with] it. Reading an awful story and then thinking, ‘We have to talk about this on the podcast!’ instead of, ‘I have to hide this from my Google history!’ makes all the difference.”

Anna Breslaw, a writer in New York City, says she relates to victims she hears about in true crime stories and wants to confront the fear that she could wind up in their place.

“I sort of exorcise that anxiety through obsessively reading about true crime and learning about it,” she says. “You’re like, I’m not afraid of this. I’m going to face this, and I think it’s like exposure therapy.”

Krista Lawless, a clinical mental-health counselor in Newberg, Oregon, agrees with that assessment. “In therapy, one of the things people do is that they have to walk up to those things that are really scary to talk about and start processing them out loud and accepting that they’re real,” she says.

Breslaw recently tweeted that a coworker of hers didn’t believe that a lot of women are into true crime. “He was kind of like, I don’t think this is a woman thing, I think this is a you thing,” she says. But it isn’t.

An article published in 2010 in Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that women are significantly bigger fans of true-crime than men. Women were far more likely than men to choose true crime books over war stories. Researchers also gathered data from Amazon that showed 70 percent of the site’s true crime book reviews were by women, while reviews in the new paperback section were evenly split between men and women.

Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist and co-author of the study, says there may be an evolutionary reason for women’s obsession with the genre.

“We’ve adapted to pay attention to anything that can help us increase our survival,” Vicary says. “So it could be the fact that we’re just in tune and interested in these things that are dangerous to us because understanding and knowing about them can increase our chances that it’s not going to happen to us.”

It makes sense that women would be particularly interested in increasing their chances of survival. Studies have consistently shown that women fear crime more than men. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the gender-fear paradox, since men are statistically more likely to be victims of crime. One of the more prominent explanations is the so-called shadow hypothesis, the idea that the specter of sexual assault pervades women’s fears of all types of crime and makes them more fearful, generally.

Scott Bonn, a criminologist and author of the book Why We Love Serial Killers, acknowledges that the fear of being killed by a stranger seems uniquely female. At the same time, he says, men and women both are drawn to the macabre and extreme—like watching a trainwreck.

“So you have this almost paradoxical fascination with the macabre combined with fear of death,” Bonn says.

True crime shows and books provide an outlet for that fear, and in the case of this podcast, the online community becomes what Bonn calls a “sisterhood” of like-minded fans who relate to one another’s fear of being killed, as well as the universal interest in gaping at the worst of humanity.

And while men are more likely to be murdered, Vicary points out that in some of the most disturbing crimes, like rape and serial killings, victims are more likely to be female. One of her studies showed women were particularly drawn to true crime stories that included a trick to survival—a victim who escaped or a murderer who chose his targets based on certain criteria—suggesting women may look to true crime for safety tips.

My Favorite Murder stands out from some other true-crime media because it does more than thrill and terrify the audience. Kilgariff and Hardstark, unqualified though they profess to be, offer their own advice for staying safe. Lawless, the mental-health counselor, thinks some of it is useful. “Even to say ‘Fuck politeness,’ that’s an empowering statement because now you have permission to not do things that are going to put you in danger,” she says.

One of the podcast’s better-known aphorisms, “Fuck politeness” comes up whenever a host recalls a woman who put herself in danger because she didn’t want to be rude—like agreeing to speak privately with a longtime stalker or stopping to help someone on a dark road. Other quotable tips include “Don’t get in that trunk,” “Unless you’re a ghost baseball player, you don’t need to be in that field,” and “You’re in a cult. Call your dad.”

Gina Barreca, a professor of English at University of Connecticut who writes books about women in comedy, thinks My Favorite Murder is an example of women using comedy to empower themselves. She paraphrases Margaret Atwood’s observation that women’s greatest fear is that they will be killed by men, while men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them.

“That’s the whole Wizard of Oz effect,” Barreca says. “’Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ or the man behind the mask. Rip it away, and you take some of his power away in that laughter. You’re not taking his terror seriously.”

But Vicary worries that indulging a true crime obsession, even to laugh in the face of fear, can create a feedback loop of terror. “You’re just hearing more and more about crime and learning about more and more serial killers and more examples of people being killed, which is only going to increase your anxiety,” she says. “I think it does get to be this vicious cycle.”

Bonn agrees that true crime can be addictive, but he thinks that’s normal. “We love the tension,” he says. “It builds and builds and releases and we go back for another fix.” It’s the same pattern of rush and release, he says, as going to a haunted house, or watching a horror movie.

However women are drawn into true crime stories, whether it's the jaw-dropping allure of horrific human behavior or a feeling of kinship with murder victims, it’s a way of directly confronting a fear of being killed. And once the door to one taboo subject is opened, it may be easier to step into discussing other private struggles.

Maitreme eventually admitted to her therapist that a podcast about murder encouraged her to make her first appointment. “She said yeah, listening to murder stories all day might not be the most healthy for most people, but she said everyone’s different, and if this is where you feel like you’re being supported and people are telling you it’s OK to get the help that you need, then listen to it all day long, if that’s what it takes.”