‘Real People Keep Getting Re-traumatized.’ The Human Cost of Binge-Watching True Crime Series
Mindy Pendleton panicked when she learned her stepson’s murder would be featured in a true-crime docuseries on Netflix. Her stomach churned in the days leading up to the debut of the show, which Pendleton worried would glorify the killer who strangled 25-year-old Robert Mast in 2015 as he sat in a car in a Walmart parking lot.
“This was my greatest fear,” says Pendleton, 64, who helped raise Mast from when he was a toddler and who still has marks on the walls of her Largo, Fla. home showing his height through the years. The last mark, when Mast was 18, is 5’11 off the ground.
When Netflix asked Mast’s family and friends in February 2019 to participate in the series, I Am A Killer, those closest to him pleaded with the producers to abandon the project, saying it was inhumane to sell a documentary at the emotional expense of a grieving family. “As a parent, a fellow human being, I beg you not to do this,” Pendleton wrote in the first of many emails to the producers, which she shared with TIME. “PLEASE don’t do this!”
But on Jan. 31, Netflix released the second season of the show to more than 60 million U.S. subscribers, leading it with the episode detailing Mast’s murder. In the first few minutes, viewers are introduced to Lindsay Haugen, the woman who pleaded guilty to murdering Mast. From a Montana prison, where she’s serving a 60-year sentence, the occasionally tearful Haugen recounts her years in an abusive relationship before she met and fell hard for Mast in August 2015. Twenty-six days later, he was dead.
Far from portraying Haugen as a vicious killer, the episode casts her in a relatively sympathetic light, and at a time when police chiefs, politicians and the media often are refusing to name mass killers to deny them fame, I Am a Killer takes the opposite tact. In her confession to police, Haugen casts herself as having acted out of a deep love for Mast, saying she put him in a chokehold and held her hand over his nose and mouth after he insisted he wanted to die. But in the same interview, which was recorded by police and is included in the episode, she flippantly tells a detective that she also wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone with her bare hands. Police say Mast was so drunk that he was unable to fight back. By the end of February, I Am a Killer had landed on Netflix’s list of its “Top 10” most-watched shows of the day in America, positioning it to be renewed for a third season.
“When we continue to give numbers to these shows, they keep making them,” says Mast’s stepsister, Jenna Wimmer, who along with Mast’s father, brother, friends and other siblings refused to take part in the series. “And real people living real lives keep getting re-traumatized every time.”
On the other side of the world, in Myers Flat, Australia, Rosalee Clark empathizes with Mast’s family. Nearly six years ago, a killer slipped a knife into his belt, scaled a wire fence, and repeatedly stabbed her brother, leaving the military veteran to die slowly near a dirt path. Then he crossed the road and fatally shot Clark’s 75-year-old mother and 78-year-old stepfather at their house. In 2018, Clark, a 58-year-old former school librarian, stumbled upon a book about the Oct. 22, 2014 crime.
“It haunts our life, this book,” says Clark, who spotted the paperback while browsing online. Based on its title, Wedderburn, Clark thought it was a historical book about her small hometown, so she clicked on it. The cover image sent her spiraling: a tiny blue wren—her mother’s favorite bird—perched on the handle of a rusty knife. “I realized it’s about my murdered family,” she says. “It just shattered me.”
“We’re treated as fodder,” Clark adds. “We’re fuel for people’s fascination.”
That fascination is widespread, especially in the United States, where tens of millions of fans devour true-crime shows on streaming services, on major TV networks, on podcasts and in books. When Serial launched in 2014, it became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes’ history. More than 1.6 million print copies of true-crime books were sold in 2018, compared to 976,000 copies in 2016, industry figures show. On March 20, when Netflix released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a true-crime docuseries about a feud in the world of big-cat breeding, viewers were captivated. The series, packed with quirky characters—some missing limbs, many missing morals—drew more than 34 million unique viewers in the first 10 days of its release, rivaling the third season of the streaming hit Stranger Things, according to Nielsen, an independent company that provides viewership data across multiple channels. Netflix said Tiger King has been viewed in 64 million homes worldwide since its debut.
“True crime is everywhere,” says Kelli Boling, a researcher at the University of South Carolina, who studies true-crime audiences. Boling echoes other scholars of the genre who attribute its surge in recent years to the critical and popular success of Serial and to the docuseries Making a Murderer on Netflix and The Jinx on HBO, which both aired in 2015. “When you watch the nightly newscast, you’re watching true crime,” she says. “What makes the genre special is that it turns those facts into a narrative, a really strong story.”
The appetite for strong stories is especially robust as the COVID-19 pandemic forces hundreds of millions of people to stay home, offering an unprecedented opportunity for binge-watching. Between March 23 and April 5, NBC’s Dateline saw a 9% jump in viewers over the same timeframe a year earlier, according to Nielsen. The Investigation Discovery (ID) channel, which broadcasts true-crime content nonstop, says its TV ratings in the week of April 6 were the network’s highest in six weeks. And when the Oxygen channel launched “12 Dark Days of Serial Killers,” a campaign to air a string of shows about mass murderers starting April 9, it had its highest-rated week in five years, a spokesperson said.
While confined to the couch, millions of more viewers in the U.S. are also flipping on shows in other genres, from the news to 90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days, a reality TV favorite on TLC. On April 12, Fiance had its best night for ratings in 11 years among viewers aged 25 to 54. But Henry Schleiff, the Investigation Discovery president, says true crime fills a need for more than mere entertainment by distracting viewers from the chaos outside while providing them a sense of predictability and justice, since most of the shows end with authorities solving the crime. “It is exactly the prescription our viewers need,” he says.
“The world is upside down right now,” says Rebecca Reisner, a true-crime fan who blogs about cases that have appeared on Forensic Files, which aired from 1996 to 2011 and returned to television in February as Forensic Files II. “True crime gives people certainty in a time of uncertainty.”
In India, a reviewer called Tiger King a great “unifier” of the coronavirus age—bringing the world together “as we collectively fight stress, boredom, outrage and paranoia.” The Boston Globe said Tiger King was the “show that’s getting us through quarantine.”
Even Reisner’s blog, Forensic Files Now, has seen more traffic. It had about 21,000 more visitors in March than in January, says Reisner, who lives in New York City, which has become the epicenter of the disease. “It’s a combination of people being jobless, unfortunately, and people finding a little bit of solace in true crime.”
Long before the pandemic, demand for the genre had sparked film festivals, an annual convention called CrimeCon, and CrowdSolve, a CrimeCon spin-off event in which amateur sleuths try to solve cold cases. More than 3,500 people from 12 countries paid up to $1,500 to attend CrimeCon in 2019, up from 1,000 in its first year in 2017, according to Kevin Balfe, CrimeCon’s founder and executive producer. Before the pandemic hit, Balfe had anticipated an even larger crowd at CrimeCon 2020 in Orlando, which has been rescheduled from early May to the end of October.
“The interest is that most of these stories represent what all great stories have,” Balfe says. “There’s a hero. There’s a villain. There’s usually a mystery. There’s oftentimes a traumatic event. There’s usually a resolution.”
When there’s not a resolution, as in the series Unsolved Mysteries, fans have other reasons for tuning in, says criminologist Scott Bonn, who studies serial killers and the public’s fascination with them. “Everybody loves a whodunnit,” Bonn says. “By watching these true-crime shows, even if you’re not necessarily there for the shock value and the excitement, there’s the appeal of maybe I can solve the case before the authorities can.”
The interest is driven by women, who make up nearly 75% of true-crime podcast listeners and about 80% of CrimeCon’s attendees. Some psychologists say female viewers may be drawn to the genre to pick up on survival skills or to figure out what they might have done differently under similar circumstances. They may also relate to the subjects of most true-crime entertainment, in which the victims are overwhelmingly female even though, in the U.S. at least, far more men than women are murdered each year.
Fans, producers and some victims’ families note the positive side of this obsession. True crime shows have helped law enforcement agencies capture hundreds of fugitives and have led to boundless tips, multiple arrests and some convictions. Kevin Sova, a 61-year-old musician in Streetsboro, Ohio, cried tears of joy when he discovered that true crime shows, including Unsolved Mysteries, had detailed his 17-year-old brother Kurt’s mysterious death. That told him that people still cared about Kurt, who vanished from a party in 1981 and was found dead days later in a nearby ravine. “I thought most of the world gave up on Kurt long ago,” says Sova, the last surviving member of his family.
Criminologists trace our obsession with true crime to Jack the Ripper, who in 1888 killed and mutilated at least five women in London. His crimes were the first to garner global attention, due in part to their depravity and in part to the evolution of broadsheet newspapers, according to Bonn. Interest in the killings prompted newspapers to change their storytelling strategies by printing more salacious headlines and cover images to increase sales.
Today, more than just newspapers and a few TV networks are vying for audiences. The surge in new media, including streaming services and podcasts, has enabled true crime to go mainstream. Ad revenue from podcasts in the U.S. jumped 53% to $479 million in 2018 from $314 million in 2017, an industry report found. There are more than 2,800 true-crime podcasts available for users to choose from, says Boling.
Even major police departments have joined the craze. The New York Police Department launched its own podcast in 2019 to highlight the “humanity and hard work” of the nation’s largest police force. In 2018, when authorities in California captured Peter Chadwick—a millionaire fugitive accused of strangling his wife—they credited the Newport Beach Police Department’s six-episode podcast with generating hundreds of leads. “It was beyond our wildest expectation how much traction we got,” says Jennifer Manzella, a police spokeswoman at the time who produced the podcast. “People connected through this new medium in a way that we hadn’t anticipated.”
After Tiger King’s success, authorities reopened a missing person’s case that became a focal point in the show. Since March 30, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said it has received about six tips a day related to the case of Carole Baskin’s millionaire husband, Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997, although it’s unclear if any have been deemed credible.
Bringing wanted fugitives to justice has been an obvious perk of true-crime shows since 1988, when America’s Most Wanted began broadcasting into homes nationwide, asking families on Sunday nights to keep a lookout for dangerous suspects who could be lurking in their communities. But Serial—along with a host of other hugely popular and critically acclaimed productions, including Making a Murderer, The Jinx and American Public Media’s podcast In the Dark—is credited with ushering in a new generation of fans more eager to see flaws in the criminal justice system investigated than to sit through another TV reenactment of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey’s unsolved murder.
Serial questioned whether Adnan Syed, a Maryland man serving life in prison for killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, had received a fair trial. The podcast drew international attention and sparked calls for a new trial, resulting in a flurry of legal actions, but the U.S. Supreme Court let Syed’s conviction stand in November 2019.
“That showed that there’s a whole new way to present this genre,” Balfe, who grew up watching Dateline, says of the shift from sensationalist entertainment to investigative projects. “It opened my eyes to a new way that true crime can be done.”
No matter the production value or intended audience, though, victims’ families have no power to prevent their worst nightmares from becoming part of the craze, and some say they have been forced to watch the industry flourish at their expense. “We are the living victims,” says Pendleton, who used to watch true crime shows until her stepson’s murder. She no longer does, out of support for other families in similar situations.
Hae Min Lee’s loved ones suffered in silence as Serial sparked cries of support for her accused killer. “We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve,” the Lee family said in a statement in 2016, as Syed’s family fought to win him a new trial. “We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”
Before Making a Murderer aired, the family of victim Teresa Halbach issued a statement saying they were “saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.” Kathleen Peterson’s sisters echoed that sentiment after Netflix released The Staircase, which chronicled the legal saga of Peterson’s husband Michael, who was found guilty of killing her in 2003 but, nearly 15 years later, entered an Alford plea and was freed. Netflix did not respond to requests for comment.
Even Sova has soured on the true-crime experience. When 300 strangers, including pop singer Selena Gomez, convened in Chicago for CrowdSolve in late February to try to crack his brother’s case, which is still under investigation, Sova saw 300 fresh sets of eyes. But two months later, he says the event has not brought him any closer to figuring out what happened to his brother and has only opened up old wounds. “I put my whole soul into this thing,” he says. “I wish I never got into this in the first place.”
Less than two weeks after I Am a Killer aired her stepson’s story, Pendleton was eating lunch with her mother at a neighborhood diner when she looked up, blinked and saw Haugen’s face on TV. It was the local news, doing a story about the docuseries.
“I was totally blindsided,” says Pendleton. She quickly redirected her eyes to prevent her 89-year-old mother from also looking up at the TV and seeing the image. Through tears, she packed their food in to-go boxes and left the restaurant. “I was a wreck,” she says. “I felt like I was back at day one, spiraling.”
The show’s producers told Pendleton they were making the series to “encourage social discourse” about issues related to violent crime—not to sensationalize brutal acts or advocate for convicted criminals—but she didn’t buy it. “I really don’t feel that with the name I Am a Killer, you will be viewed by an audience wanting to seek social change and understand violence crime,” she wrote to them. “They are just looking for gruesome details of murders.”
After receiving letters of opposition from at least seven of Mast’s relatives and friends, the executive producer of I Am a Killer, Ned Parker, emailed Pendleton that he had never encountered such a “moral dilemma” in his career. Without having the testimonies of Mast’s closest loved ones, Parker acknowledged it would be difficult to present a “fully rounded portrayal” of her stepson. He also told Pendleton that he was concerned that Haugen described her relationship with Mast as significant, even though they knew each other less than 30 days.
But they went forward with the project, including interviews with Mast’s biological mother, Dori Greeson, who had shared custody of Mast with Pendleton and Mast’s biological father as he was growing up but who had little to no contact with Mast after he turned 18. Greeson has become close with her son’s killer and visits her in prison. Parker, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Pendleton in an email that Greeson’s perspective deserved to be heard. He also told her that as long as the killer was speaking to the media, another TV network was sure to do the story if Netflix passed on it, and the result was likely to be a “more sensationalist” project.
Clark says she has tried pushing her elected local officials to give victims’ families more power to block true-crime entertainment projects but has been ignored. In Australia, as in the U.S., there’s no legal obligation to get a family’s permission or cooperation before going ahead with a production, book or podcast.
“Dollars are bigger and more important,” Clark says. “It’s just building and building. It makes me sick to my stomach.” Wedderburn has sold about 5,000 copies, according to the publishing company. That’s not a lot as book sales go, but it might as well have been a bestseller given its impact on Clark. “It has compounded everything,” she says. “It changed the grief process. You can’t just quietly grieve for them.”
She says her mother, Mary Lockhart, raised five children, never forgot a birthday and helped her through life’s toughest moments, including her son’s death from cancer and her divorce. “Everything she did for 75 years was turned into a horrible form of entertainment,” Clark says. Her slain 48-year-old brother, Greg Holmes, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A neighbor involved in a long-running property dispute with the family confessed to the killings.
“They were so much more than just victims,” Clark says of her mother, stepfather and brother.
So was Robert Mast, says Pendleton, describing him as a laid-back man with brown eyes and a tattoo of a skateboard-riding dinosaur on his right hand, who was passionate about playing guitar, telling stories and traversing the country by trains. Mast loved trains so much that even now, when his nieces and nephews hear a train whistle, they shout “choo-choo, Uncle Robby.” These details about Mast that Pendleton holds closest to her heart are one reason she refused to participate in the Netflix show—she did not want to share them with Haugen.
“She shouldn’t get my memories,” Pendleton says. “They’re all that we have left.”