Each morning, I walk through a park surrounded by well-maintained houses with their beds of summer flowers spilling out color, and I wonder what goes on behind the blank windows. They stare back at me, unremarkable yet intriguing, resolutely hiding all that unfolds inside.
We assume that the individuals behind those windows, no matter how different their circumstances, are much like us. That they share our basic values, and that no matter what the provocation, unless forced to protect themselves or another, none would ever turn to violence. It is impossible to envision ourselves, or people we know, taking someone’s life for any reason — be it unrequited love, revenge, greed, or convenience, and certainly never for pleasure.
Then, every once in a while, we read our morning newspapers, turn on the television, or log onto the Internet, and the curtains are drawn back, a door opens somewhere in the nation or the world. Casey Anthony is accused of suffocating her toddler in Florida. Drew Peterson is questioned about his missing wife in Illinois. An angelic look on her face, Jodi Arias sings a Christmas carol in an Arizona jail, awaiting trial for slaying her ex-boyfriend. An unnamed murder victim is defined by the place of her discovery, known only as the Lady of the Dunes.
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For months, even years, the murders are front-page news. We talk about them over lunch with friends, click onto breaking bulletins during a pause from our work. Why do these cases latch onto our public consciousness?
Because they are the ultimate human dramas and the most terrifying horror stories.
Well-written fiction can portray the human condition. It can speculate about what men and women are capable of. But these cases actually happened. These events are real, not imagined.
The victims woke up on their final mornings most likely not understanding what danger awaited them. Not a mythical goblin reaching out from under a bed or an apparition in the shadows, Ted Bundy was a handsome former law student in a Volkswagen Beetle who looked remarkably like the nice young husband next door. What turned Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler, into a killer? In his army uniform, he undoubtedly garnered nods of approval and respect.
Such tragedies speak to us about the human condition in a different way — not as we wish it was but as we know, and fear, it can be. They challenge us to acknowledge the dark side of humanity, to admit that evil flourishes not just in some far-off land, but in posh high-rise condos and quiet homes on suburban cul-de-sacs. True crime fascinates us because it’s true.
As the cases unfold, the investigations have the twists and turns of well-plotted mysteries, keeping us guessing at each new revelation, hiding secrets that aren’t made public until sensational trials tell all. We are riveted by the minute details of everyone involved. We identify with the families who cry out for answers. We embrace the victims, claiming them as our own. Always there is hope that when a final resolution comes, there will be a righting of a terrible wrong, something to deliver a sense of satisfaction that justice has been served and the world is as it should be.
Then we return to our own lives, until the next morning, or the next week, or the next month, when a newspaper slaps down on our driveways or an alert flashes across a screen with a headline shouting that, once again, a door has opened. And we willingly go inside.
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane
Lead image by Alejo Porras