When Does an Interest in Crime Become Grief Porn?

Photo by Viktor Hanacek

In a time when people are self-proclaimed “murderinos” and “true crime enthusiasts,” I think it’s fair to say that interest in crime stories and the macabre is not a quirky niche interest. True crime is increasingly mainstream, with podcasts and documentaries about crimes offering mass appeal.

True crime has always interested me, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching cases and trying to understand why bad things happen. In my time researching cases, I’ve come across some interesting and disappointing forums related to crime and sleuthing. All of this has led me to a big question. To what point is an interest in crime-related stories healthy? When does society’s interest in crime become merely an interest in grief porn?

Defining Mourning Sickness and Grief Porn

‘Mourning sickness’ is not a term I was familiar with before I did research for this article. I learned the term was coined following the 1996 Dunblane Massacre in Scotland, a mass shooting in which 17 people were killed, most of whom were young children. Many more were injured. Obviously, public outcry after a shooting is not unheard of, but the public grief of individuals who had no connection to the crime was intense.

Again ‘mourning sickness’ hit the United Kingdom once again with the 1997 death of Princess Diana. Public mourning and grieving of individuals we don’t know is not necessarily new. After all, people all over the world died when Elvis passed away because they had some connection with his art.

Mourning sickness is something different than having genuine feelings after somebody beloved passes. It’s recreational. Grieving as a sport.

Today, we are more likely to use the phrase ‘grief porn.’ One of the contributing factors to grief porn is likely the voyeuristic and intrusive approach to such stories by media. Additionally, we have so much more access to sad, terrible stories thanks to the news covering every story out there.

I want to say there is a difference between news coverage of a terrible event and grief porn. Grief porn is maudlin and detailed. In grief porn, we read the dirty, gruesome details of how somebody was murdered.

Why Are People Attracted to Grief Porn?

I have a few personal theories about why people are so attracted to grief porn. I think some people revel in terrible details and want to feel as if they are watching a movie. In the case of people who are self-proclaimed sleuths, I think some actually believe they are helping by engaging in conversation and throwing random theories out there, at least until they move on to the next case.

One writer named Patrick West summed up another type of person I associated with grief porn. He wrote, “What really drives their behavior is the need to be seen to care. And they want to be seen displaying compassion because they want to be loved themselves.”

The Internet certainly does help people find and share information in the wake of a tragedy, and it has helped solve crimes. But when does recreational grieving become a problem?

Grief Porn and True Crime Forums

Even a cursory examination of true crime and sleuthing forums reveals that many regular members are not posting to discuss the facts of the cases. Even some of the most prolific posters on these boards pop in to announce their feelings and create outrage under the guise of helping.

For example, I’ve seen a discussion regarding the death of a young girl go something like this:

Person A: This case is so sad. RIP Mary Sue.

Person B: I hate to bring it up since it’s nowhere in the news article or police report, but what if Mary Sue was sexually assaulted before she was killed?

In some cases, the posts similar to those of Person B go into extreme detail of how they believe the sexual assault went down, even if sexual assault was not described in any of the media related to the victim’s death. This kind of post is not at all helpful and actually helps spread misinformation.

I’m definitely not the only who feels this way. Multiple Reddit threads show that others have similar thoughts about these discussion boards. These are some of the common complaints among those who aren’t happy with the state of crime and sleuthing boards.

One of the biggest complaints is that some users speak about these crimes in a totally inappropriate tone. Hashtags probably weren’t meant for calling a child victim of homicide a #ForeverAngel.

The signatures some people attach to their posts as memorials for their “pet cases” are also disturbing. Some signatures consist of ill-placed emojis of candles, crosses, and baby angels.

And then, there are cases where posters just miss the mark completely.

Person A: I taught my 2-year-old daughter to say “Rest in peace Mary Sue.” She is so cute doing it! How do I upload a video?

I don’t fault anybody for experiencing some emotional investment after they read about a case. Some are truly heartbreaking. Still, some users get what I would call “too invested” in a case. Either that, or the investment is fake for Internet points.

For example, one poster made a stand on a post related to the 2016 murder of a New Mexico girl named Victoria Martens. She “pledge[d] to stand united with you all, to fight to protect children like her.” But she didn’t detail exactly how she would be working to seek justice for #ForeverAngels besides posting on a forum.

Some posters reveal intense details about the things they do when they think about the crimes they read about, and it often feels pandering to what they think other members want to read.

Person A: I’ve had so much trouble sleeping because of this case. Mary Sue’s face haunts me every time I close my eyes. I had to get out of bed because her image was so vivid. That sweet angel deserved so much more. I can’t stop crying. I had to make a run to the store for more tissues.

Person B: I know. I can’t stop thinking about Mary Sue’s final moments. She suffered so much. I feel the tears streaming down my face and I just realize that Mary Sue will never be able to cry again. Never laugh again. Never enjoy her favorite foods. Never go to school. Never pet a dog. Never drink water.

Person C: You guys, I keep dreaming about Mary Sue. In my dream I was holding her hand and showing her that her killer had been captured. She was so happy, you guys. I woke up feeling a little lighter.

It’s true that some of the posters are probably experiencing vicarious trauma, but to what degree does posting about how much you cry become unhealthy and unhelpful?

Person A: I can’t get over this case. I cried last night. I cried today. I just can’t stop. It’s interfering with my ability to care for my own child.

Person B: I tried to talk about Mary Sue with my friend, but she couldn’t stand to hear about it. She walked out of the room and told me to stop. Isn’t this all so horrible?

Person C: This is the most I’ve cried over a case, and I used up six boxes of tissues crying over Caylee Anthony.

Posters also frequently discuss the idea of praying or lighting a candle for a victim, though it’s not clear why they are posting this publicly. I stumbled upon one thread about lighting a candle for a victim consisting of over 400 pages. Every post was essentially the same.

Some threads simply consists of condolences for a family that will probably never see them.

Person A: I’m So Saddened!!!!! May Justice Prevail In Your Daughter’s Murder!!!!!

Person B: God Bless. Praying for you.

Person C: Your gorgeous daughter has a permanent place in my heart. Every day I wake up and every night I go to sleep with your daughter’s memory on my heart and in my mind. I am mourning her right along with you guys, her parents. I’m a parent too.

From posts like these, I get a sense of self-aggrandizement and self-absorption. Look how good I am. Look how much I care about the dead woman. Look how much more I care because I have children of my own. I care much more than the average person, wouldn’t you say?

Another common trope among these forums is the desire to debate the meanings of words and facial expressions. It’s all armchair psychology, but to many users on these forums an opinion is as valuable as fact.

Person A: Did anybody catch the video of Mary Sue’s uncle at the press conference? He was touching his face a lot. I read in a book by Dr. Snorkin Bublesnot that touching your face a lot means you feel guilty. Hmmm… wonder what he might be feeling guilty about.

Person B: You totally misrepresented Dr. Bublesnot’s interpretation, Person A. He actually says that touching your face a lot means you are hungry. How could a person be hungry after the death of a family member? And did you see the scuff mark on his shoes? Looks like he’s guilty for sure.

For a lot of people who post on crime-related forums, anybody who ever made a weird face in a photo was never happy and must have been abused. If somebody makes a peace sign in a video with a friend, they belong to a secret gang. A band t-shirt must have a deeper meaning. The color of someone’s hair is enough to represent their entire personality.

I sincerely believe that many of the people who post in these discussions are out of touch with pop culture and young people in general. Reading their interpretations of the memes and photos on a high schooler’s social media page was shocking.

Some users claim to have “insider information” about cases too. It’s hard to verify whether people truly are insiders, but most don’t really try to prove it. They pop in to report something they heard from the cousin of the victim’s high school English teacher. Or, they think they are insiders because they live in the same town the suspect did six years ago.

Person A: I read in the news the house Mary Sue was found in had an attic. Wonder what else could be up there . . .

Person B: Actually, my friend’s brother used to live in that neighborhood and he said none of the houses in that neighborhood had attics. Not a chance it has an attic.

Person C: Wow? An attic? I hope officers investigate thoroughly.

Person B: I said there is NO CHANCE that house has an attic! Stop talking about attics!!!!

Then, there are some users who believe they have more to offer based on their own personal stories.

Person A: Poor Mary Sue. I am a mother with six beautiful daughters and I know more than anybody that a parent would NEVER let their child walk to the neighbor’s house three doors down.

Person B: Actually, I would let my child walk to their neighbor’s house.

Person A: You’re wrong. Real parents don’t do that. Something fishy is going on here. Must be the parents. They’re lying.

Arguably, the worst posters are those who actively insert themselves into the lives of the victims and their families. Some people claim they’ve protested in front of suspect’s homes or try to add the victim’s parents on Facebook.

Person A: I brought flowers to Mary Sue’s parent’s home today. I rang the doorbell in the hopes of expressing myself, but nobody answered. I left the flowers with a note and my phone number. Hopefully they reach out so we can get some answers.

Some posters seemingly toss out theories at random. Since they are not based on facts, they are unsubstantiated and dangerous. Some are based on the posters’ dreams, visions, and feelings.

Person A: I have a hunch that the sister is involved somehow. I can’t tell you why, it’s just a feeling I have.

Person B: I had a vision last night that Amanda was wearing a red sweater when she was killed. Red symbolizes lust. Lust makes me think it was a boyfriend that did it. Do you think she was having an affair?

Person C: I can’t shake off the feeling that Lisa is responsible. I know she was exonerated based on DNA and somebody else has been convicted of the crime, but I will never accept that Lisa got off. Something is just so ‘off’ about her.

No doubt, the victims of terrible crimes did not deserve to become victims. They had their own lives, goals, and desires that were taken from them. The problem with glorifying victims is that it almost deifies them, and people stop seeing them as flawed, normal humans.

Person A: Claudia was so beautiful. I have a hard time imagining somebody so beautiful ever being involved with drugs. Everybody saying she died of a drug overdose needs to stop. That’s just not possible. I know the news reported that, but it just doesn’t make sense why such a nice and amazing person would ever have an addiction. I doubt she ever even had a drop of alcohol.

Glorifying victims on the Internet is also a problem because it involves taking on a sense of grief that people who actually knew the victims experience. Failing to recognize that victims were normal people feels disingenuous.

I would never argue that murderers and people who hurt others are great people. Some people are deserving of negative opinions.

What I don’t agree with is that every person who is a suspect in a crime always did terrible, no-good things everywhere they went. For some members of these websites, it’s totally fine to make up stories about suspects, even if the false stories are unhelpful for actually getting to the facts. Sometimes, the suspects they discuss are later proven not to have been involved in the case at all.

Person A: Jamie is probably the biggest piece of trash in existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if she kicked puppies just for fun.

Person B: Yeah, Jamie is the worst. I heard a rumor she stopped at a gas station once. Yeah, right. Probably a truck stop where she performed sexual favors for money.

Person C: Somebody like Jamie is so undeserving of love. I bet her parents didn’t even like her. What an ugly person, inside and out.

Person D: Hey guys, did you hear that Jamie wasn’t involved in the murder? The news showed they arrested somebody else. They have DNA and a confession.

Finally, I can’t end this discussion of online crime discussions without mentioning users who are obsessed with human trafficking and the dark web (sometimes served with a side of racism).

Person A: I don’t want to trigger anyone, but do you think they removed Gerald’s organs so they could be harvested on the dark web? We all know you can go on the dark web and find organs for sale so easily these days.

Person B: That’s a good point. I was on the dark web just yesterday and I saw seven livers for sale.

And then, some people bring personal anecdotes into their posts, seemingly to demonstrate exactly how common human trafficking is.

Person A: I am almost certain I was a target for sex trafficking yesterday. My family was followed through the grocery store for five minutes by a man. Later, he came up to me and told me I had dropped my keys. I think he took my keys and pretended to find them to look less suspicious.

Person B: My sister told me those at highest risk for sex trafficking are teenage runaways, but I don’t believe it. Women in their 40s are now the most common victims of human trafficking, and the grocery store is where it’s happening.

Person C: That’s terrifying! I too was almost a victim. I was at Wal-Mart and kept coming across the same man on multiple aisles. I had security walk with me to my car. I never saw him again, but I called 911 to report him after I left. He seemed like he was up to no good.

When somebody enters the discussion with facts and statistics, they are often scolded. I feel like spending a lot of time in this fearful environment is unhealthy, especially if it helps facilitate such a negative view of the world and encourages isolation.

Obviously, I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading true crime stories, writing about crimes, or doing some sleuthing. What I do find problematic is the use of oversentimental and generalized posts that encourage fear mongering or that detract from the discussion. Some people are looking to spread fear or insert themselves into situations rather than to discuss the cases. Many these people do not even know they are doing it.

Crime and sleuthing forums do have a lot to offer. I appreciate having ongoing coverage and updates on criminal court cases right away, and some people really do offer interesting perspectives.

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Just a West Coast girl passionate about my hungry guys.

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