True crime appears to be having a moment in 2019, and there are some people who take their obsession a step further than the average fan. Murderabilia, an original series available now on Audible in the UK and Australia and coming to the US later this year, investigates the true crime obsessives who buy and sell real "memorabilia" from murderers and serial killers.
The true crime podcast boom began with Serial, Sarah Koenig's 2014 investigation into the case of convicted murderer Adnan Syed. Since then, Netflix has capitalised on its subscribers' taste for blood with original documentaries such as . This year has also seen Charles Manson and Ted Bundy's stories fictionalized in and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
Producers Alice Fiennes and Poppy Damon both cheerfully admit to a fascination with the genre. Investigative journalist Damon produces true crime podcast Blood Ties and a number of special investigations into true crime for BBC News. Meanwhile, Fiennes' career has seen her interview professional criminals, warring biker gangs and scam artists in Paris. She's now completing a master's degree in criminology and criminological research.
But this is a particularly grim aspect of the true crime industry and it comes with its own ethical quandaries. Who ultimately profits from the sale of these items? And is it ever morally acceptable to pay for them?
The podcast is upfront about the difficulty of handling its subject with sensitivity. We hear Fiennes and Damon discuss their own reservations about their project and learn that many families of victims were reluctant to participate. Victims' rights advocate Andy Kahan, however, is prepared to speak on their behalf. He's the man who coined the term "murderabilia" and he explains why he's made it his mission to put an end to the practice.
The series also introduces Fiennes and Damon to a man who proudly shows them his collection of Charles Manson's clothing, instruments and some of his hair. They interview Eric Holler, who goes by Eric Gein in a Marilyn Manson-style tribute to serial killer Ed Gein. Holler runs Serial Killers Ink, which sells everything from "authentic" soil collected outside John Wayne Gacy's house ($250) to Ted Bundy's high school yearbook ($1,000).
Damon and Fiennes discuss the appeal of murderabilia, the surprising history of collecting human remains and breaking genre conventions, in the Q&A below, which was conducted by email and lightly edited.
All six episodes of Murderabilia are available on Audible now in the UK and Australia. It'll be coming to the US later this year. The series is free to download for Audible members.
Your podcast explores the similarities and differences between true crime narratives and the idea of buying true crime collectibles. Would you say that murderabilia (the product, not the podcast) is a part of the genre of true crime?
Damon: I started off thinking this subculture had little to do with true crime and ended up thinking it had everything to do with it. I think it is all part of the same mystique. Many of us collect gruesome stories and most of us keep some kind of souvenirs from important events (gruesome or not). I've ended up feeling it's not so weird to combine these things. Superstition is something so built into our history. Murderabilia is all about connecting with darkness -- you can get a buzz off it of sorts. It's a form of thrill seeking. I've had that feeling before around a particular "thing." As a child I was fascinated by the Mary Celeste. I'd actually love to do a series on it. We should do that, Alice.
Fiennes: This can depend on how the individual murderabilia collector relates to their items. For lots of collectors, owning a murderabilia object is about fascination with the story of the killer in question. The object can be a way into the story of that killer. Likewise, true crime books, films, podcasts and TV programmes also mediate real-life stories, and offer windows into crimes that have shocked and horrified. But then, for others, murderabilia will be less about interest in a specific killer or victim, and more about simply owning unique and famous objects.
What's interesting is that not all criminals come with hefty price tags. The expensive murderabilia items are often linked to just a handful of names -- Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer. These are also killers whose stories are endlessly told and retold in the mainstream media, as "true crime."
I think that murderabilia and murder narratives are all part of a single true crime category, but the reasons for collecting and keeping a piece of Charles Manson's hair won't necessarily be the same as the reasons for watching a documentary about him.
Collecting criminals' hair or body parts seems particularly gruesome but has its own separate history. Can you understand the appeal of owning a part of a person?
Damon: I love this question. It's such a wild and surprising part of our history. Until relatively recently, owning a part of a person seemed totally normal. If listeners want to know more about this, definitely check out episode six, where we travel through time to look into this part of our history. Think autopsy doctor making an ashtray out of a killer's skull cap and people keeping fingers in their purses for good luck...
Fiennes: Body parts don't appeal to me personally! That said, we found that collecting criminal body parts, like hair, could be less about having a penchant for body parts themselves, and more about owning something special, authentic and one of a kind. I think the desire to own unique objects is something that a lot of people can relate to, in different ways.
How has the process of making the series changed the way you think about true crime?
Damon: To be honest, I think I always told myself that watching and reading true crime stories was harmless. Making this series has forced me to think more about the victims of crime. There are a lot of TV shows that skim on the details of the victim's life. I realised this is a problem. For many years I have been able to retell details of crimes and about killers but often didn't know the name of victims -- this balance is wrong, I think.
Fiennes: We started the series a long time ago, so it's hard to think back! I think that making Murderabilia made me much more attentive to the ways in which other podcasters, journalists, television shows, etc. present true crime stories. What do they choose to highlight? What do they downplay? If they use humour, what is it that makes that humour acceptable, rather than uncomfortable?
I'm also much more alert to the sense of collective ownership that exists around certain types of crime stories. There are plenty of happenings in the lives of strangers that we don't pay attention to. But when it comes to certain crime stories, it's as though we're all involved; we all have a stake. When does personal loss become public property?
You mention that families of victims that you reached out to were reluctant to speak to you in person about murderabilia. How did that affect your approach to making the series?
Fiennes: We were interested in the experience of victims' families from the start. Many campaigners against murderabilia cite their feelings as the main reason to shut the industry down. And, in general, we think that if you're investigating an unsolved case, it can be really important to hear firsthand from those who have been directly affected. (Although that should be balanced with a suspect's right to due process.) Of course, for this series we weren't looking at an unsolved crime, but at the effect of a true crime "industry." And, fortunately, victims' rights advocate Andy Kahan could provide us with some insight.
Damon: We also spoke to Carli Richards, who was a survivor of the Aurora shooting. This is an interesting twist in the pod, so we won't say much more!
Did you change your mind about the ethics of buying and selling murderabilia while making the series?
Damon: I ended up clearer about my ethics on it. I think we should make sure killers don't profit in anyway from these items. I think people should be free to collect them. Perhaps trading in their possessions should only be permitted after the killers die.
Fiennes: At first, I felt quite troubled by murderabilia but now, after exploring the industry, I don't think collecting is "unethical" per se. However, middlemen contacting killers in prison and harvesting [their personal effects] is, to me, still quite problematic.
Some of the products mentioned in the series are related to events that don't appear to be traditional "true crime" stories (I'm thinking of George Zimmerman selling his gun in particular). Is there a kind of crime narrative that we consider more acceptable as entertainment?
Damon: I think that is exactly right. True crime can be incredibly formulaic. One thing we touch on in the series is the idea of the archetype killer, but we also explore the idea of the archetypal victim: blond girls are front page material. It makes me uncomfortable that audiences are still so much more galvanised by these cliche "embodiments of innocence" than by crimes against young African American men, for example. I am interested to see if the "perfect victim" narrative will change in the next few years. I hope so!
Fiennes: We discussed this subject with criminologists. They talked about how the "true crime" genre often revolves around stories with particular features -- certain criminal and victim "types" get more airtime than others. Victims who are white, female, blond and/or children tend to receive a lot of media coverage as do good-looking or rich perpetrators, and outrageous stories. At the same time, we do see podcasts and television series branching into real-life crimes that don't fit that mould, but which represent watershed moments -- When They See Us on Netflix, for example. RedHanded's very detailed episode on Stephen Lawrence also comes to mind. Maybe the true crime genre is evolving.
As part of the series you end up buying your own piece of murderabilia. Without going into spoilers, can you talk about what it was like to make that decision and how you ultimately felt about it?
Damon: We have been working on this story for over two years. There came a point fairly early on where we felt we needed to experience owning something for ourselves. We agonised over what to buy and in the end bought a letter written by killer Sean Sellers. One of my favourite parts of the series is where you hear the letter he wrote being read by an actor.
Fiennes: I felt quite conflicted about buying an item at first, knowing that we would be paying money into a machine that, in turn, pays out to killers in prison. But, in the end, time and the specific origins of our piece of murderabilia neutralised those feelings of conflict.
On some level it seemed that the shock of owning the letter from the murderer wore off eventually. Is there a risk that reading and hearing about gruesome murders can desensitize us to them?
Damon: This is very perceptive. I think, as with all the things you do repeatedly, you can lose sensitivity and need more and more extreme things to shock you. Alice and I are looking into a follow-up series about Nazi memorabilia -- that shocks me (which is a good thing!).
Fiennes: I think this is a great question -- and a really difficult one to answer! The "appropriate response" to stories and images of suffering is something that people have debated and written about for a really long time. I do think that we can become accustomed to hearing stories about violence and trauma -- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep talking about violence and trauma.
True crime is one of the most popular podcasting genres. Are there any true crime podcasts that you think handle the subject matter particularly well?
Damon: The truth is we both love true crime podcasts. Serial was the "gateway" podcast for me into the genre. Now I am obsessed. I have recently got into conman (or woman) stories, too. I recommend Who The Hell is Hamish?, Dirty John, Unravel and The Shrink Next Door. Ultimately, I think that true crime should be good storytelling where it is clear what the presenters are trying to find out, and [how they go about finding it]. Otherwise I like good old-fashioned storytelling the likes of They Walk Among Us or Blood Ties, which I also produce. Can I pick one I also produce?
Fiennes: There are a number of series out there that we might not identify as "true crime," but that push the boundaries of "crime" as a concept and make you think about how we define it. I think that's really interesting. "Crime" can come in all shapes and sizes -- and there are also all kinds of social harms that aren't necessarily criminalised when they take place, but which have devastating effects. At the moment I'm enjoying 1619, from The New York Times, which reframes the US narrative around slavery and its human rights abuses.
And are there any pitfalls that true crime podcasts can fall into that you try to avoid?
Damon: I don't like it when true crime series try to be something they're not. Atlanta Monster works well because it's not trying to be Serial. Unravel's series Snowball is so well told in Ollie Wards' words, and with his lightness of touch and humour -- I'm not sure anyone could re-create it. Someone Knows Something has its own unique pace that leaves me spellbound. All different -- all compelling. The podcasts that do well use an authentic voice.
Fiennes: Good question. For us personally, in our storytelling, it was always important to acknowledge that our frameworks of thought about crime and "true crime" come from somewhere. We felt a responsibility to interrogate those ways of thinking, because they shape the questions we ask about the world around us, and the information we choose to privilege.