Monday, Justin Ross Harris was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of his 22-month-old son Cooper, who had died in 2014 after Harris left him in a car for seven hours while at work.
The case made national headlines when it first happened and the news of his conviction and sentencing following trail did as well. While many made up their minds about Harris’ guilt based on the stories that bookended this tragedy, many listeners have been following the details of the case and trial for months now thanks to Breakdown, a podcast by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that tracked the entire sordid affair from beginning to end. Because of what was learned, discussed, and analyzed during the 16 episodes, listeners got a chance to dig into the dirty details themselves.
It’s no surprise that the podcast was a huge hit given that it fits the mold of podcasting’s breakout genre: criminal mysteries.
Podcast listening has boomed in the last year (57 million Americans listen regularly, the same number of people who use Twitter) and just like with so many other forms of entertainment, our fascination with real crimes and mysteries is driving much of that growth.
It should be no surprise given that the podcast that broke the pop culture barrier, Serial, spent it’s first season going over a years-old murder case in which the wrong person may have been convicted. That fascination might also explain why Serial’s second season, which focused on Army deserter Bowe Berghdal instead of keeping the same format, didn’t live up to the first season’s hype.
In the interim, dozens of crime mystery podcasts have popped up and many of them now dominate the charts. The number one podcast currently on iTunes’ charts is Crimetown, which chronicles the organized crime and corruption that ran Providence, RI in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Also in the top ten are Up and Vanished, about the unsolved disappearance of a Georgia beauty queen, and Missing & Murdered, which delves into the mystery surrounding a young woman murdered in British Columbia in 1989.
There have been tons more in recent months that captured the attention of an audience ravenous and fascinated by the darkest corners of humanity. The best ones are able to not only tell the story but also give us new information that changes our perception of what happened. In The Dark shines a light on shoddy police work that hampered the investigation into a young boy’s disappearance. Undisclosed zeroes in on people wrongly convicted or who may be wrongly convicted of their crimes.
It’s a tried and true genre that other avenues such as Netflix (Making a Murderer, Amanda Knox) and HBO (The Jinx) have also leaned on in order to drive interest and ratings. But with podcasts, the form fits the content perfectly. Each episode gives you pieces of the puzzle that help inform your understanding of the mystery, potentially leading you in one direction only to pull you back in the other with the next piece of news.
These things ebb and flow over time and it’s likely audiences will tire of getting bombarded with ongoing stories about long-dead and long-disappeared people. But eventually they’ll come back around, because humans can’t help but wonder about the darkest parts of us. Crime mysteries are where we get to indulge that.