I spend a lot of time (emphasis on A LOT) thinking about, reading, watching, listening to true crime in many iterations. I also spend a lot of time thinking about and consuming sci-fi, fantasy, and horror media. Never has it occurred to me that there might be a correlation.
But then, I consider my deep fascination with Heaven’s Gate and equally deep love of Star Trek, because of the homage the cult paid to the franchise (when Heaven’s Gate members died by suicide, convinced that was their boarding pass onto the Hale-Bopp comet, they sported arm patches that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”).
Isn’t that telling?
I love SFF/H because it exists, as the Twilight Zone aptly describes, “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…the dimension of imagination.” Likewise, I study true crime for that same reason: to explore the pit of my fears, and to gain knowledge about what they are, to fascinate myself with the gruesome, the spectacular, the unimaginable.
So, reader, if you’ve ever wanted to peek into the true crime world, choose your favorite flavor of genre fiction and see what facet of true crime with which it matches. Here, I give you a gateway into another dimension.
Cults and Surrealist Horror
Reading about cults is by far my favorite subset of true crime. The beauty of stories about cults is that they come in many flavors. Some of the most famous cults have been hyper-religious or secular, politically left or right to the extreme, and hypersexual or puritanically repressed. But the common thread in all these stories is shared delusion, groupthink, and ego death. It’s hard to hear about cults and not feel a sense of surrealism.
- The Atrocity Exhibition by JG Ballard
- The Fever by Megan Abbott
- Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg)
- Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch)
Conspiracies and Alternate History
Whether we’re talking about flat earth, a staged Apollo 11 moon landing, or the “second shooter” in the assassination of JFK, conspiracies are all about what lurks in the shadows just beyond our periphery in a world that is otherwise totally normal. The X-Files is a great work focused on straight conspiracy, but if you’re fascinated by this and want to expand your horizons, I bet contemporary fantasy or alternate history is right up your alley–a genre that portrays worlds so like our own, but are just slightly off.
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
- An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris
- The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
White Collar Crime and Psychological Horror
Perhaps the lightest “brand” of true crime stories, white collar crime is less about a fascination with the macabre and more about privilege. People’s fascination with it is more about shock and disbelief of hearing about the most privileged on the planet thinking they could do anything, and do it with impunity. It’s easily digestible but no less horrifying.
Similarly, psychological horror stories are what I recommend to friends who want to get into horror or have a low threshold for gore but want to watch horror anyway. Watching a character’s mind unravel in the face of gaslighting or mental illness or some other nefarious influence can terrify without the
- The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
- The Invitation (dir. Karen Kusama)
- Wayward Pines (TV show based on the books by Blake Crouch)
Cold Cases and Epic Fantasy / Serialized Franchises
First off, you’re a monster. You really don’t want to experience the sweet relief of resolution? The husband doesn’t always do it… you know that, right? I mean, I guess i’m not here to pass judgment but you’re wrong. That said, if you love these ever-unfolding cases, you’d probably love a good, sprawling SFF movie franchise, or an epic fantasy trilogy that grows into a tetralogy, then a heptalogy, then a series with no end in sight that you’re still compelled to see through.
- The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
- The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu
- The Purge film series
- The John Wick film series
Serial Killers and Space Opera
Serial killers are the bread and butter of true crime. They’re what most people think about when they talk about true crime and, chances are, even the person least interested in true crime knows the names Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy. These killers live in infamy, deeply embedded (for better or worse) in the zeitgeist. In the same way these names are ubiquitous, so are these two subgenres that started it all with classics like Dune and 1984: space opera and dystopian sci-fi. The recommendations below aren’t classics, but some of my favorite, more recent examples.
Originally published in March 2020