Talk Murder to Me: True Crime and the Sublime

Nothing reaches out and chokes the attention of a morbid mind quite like a murder. Gory? All of the details, please. Scandalous? There’s no good crime without a scandal. Unsolved? Even better. Who did it, why did they do it, on and on and on the wormhole of crime spirals. It seems that following the release of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” there has been a flood of interest in all things true crime. Documentaries crowd the menu page of show streaming services, and there are countless podcasts covering the topic. Before we rush to assume that this fascination with grotesque, sinister murders is a new phenomenon, I’d like to propose we try to solve the mystery of where true crime can trace its origins. Maybe we’ll discover that it really is this generation exclusively who are so interested in true crime, but for the first clue, I’ll tell you that this is not true. In fact, writing about and exploring murder and the motives behind it bubbled up from a time period which may be least expected: Victorian England. That’s the answer, case closed. Except that this is only the very tip of the Freudian id-ego-superego iceberg. Victorian works such as “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning draw their influence from the writings of Romantic predecessors that focused on sublimity, a concept that is intimately connected to the rise in true crime.

Authors in the Romantic time period (roughly the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s) explored the sublime in tandem with new understanding of what would later become psychology. With this background laid out, the Victorian era picked up a few years later building upon that which had been done by the Romantics with an even stronger interest in psychology. Robert Browning perfected the dramatic monologue by giving more depth to the characters he wrote. His ability to dive into the minds of the characters that he writes is compelling, if not a little disturbing. In fact, “distasteful and creepiness are common in Browning’s dramatic monologue” (Ross, 70). It is easy to think that Browning is expressing deep, sinister thoughts through the characters he creates, but this is not so. Instead, his interest in exploring the character’s psyche, especially those who committed a crime, challenges readers to ask why the character did what they did. Though the focus on internal motive has a clear link to what modern audiences easily identify as psychology, at Browning’s time it was much more muddled. There was much discord about what psychology encompassed, what its purpose was, making it a “diffuse and contentious field” (Stolte, 188). People had to look inside the mind to get outside of the limits of thinking that they had previously operated under, and it made many very uncomfortable. In this sense, even the emergence of psychology as a science, though in its infancy, was a sublime experience. No one can truly understand someone else’s thoughts and experiences: they are unique to them. So even when searching for and finding answers as to how another person’s mind operates, there is still uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 6.35.24 PM

Victorian-era depiction of the unsolved Bath murder, 1893.

In “Porphyria’s Lover,” a false sense of security is created in the opening. Porphyria rushes in and “shut the cold out and the storm,/ And kneeled and made the cheerless grate/ Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (Browning, 1325). It is cozy and intimate how she then removes her wet layers and snuggles up to the speaker. She is obviously completely at ease with her male companion, and when she looks up at him he expresses how “at last I knew/ Porphyria worshipped me” (Browning, 1325). The stage is set here. The reader sees this sweet, tender scene between two people who have a relationship with real feelings. Before your heart can warm too much, though, the speaker begins to show the cracks in his psyche. After Porphyria looks at him with love and adoration, he is immediately unsure what to do. Then his answer comes in the form of wrapping her hair around her neck and strangling her, which he wastes no time in doing. Browning reveals the inner workings of the murderer’s mind, and why he would kill a woman who loved him through the speaker’s desire to preserve Porphyria in that moment. Instead of risking her eventually feeling differently, he could just kill her and ensure that she didn’t have to opportunity to. This is very much a sublime scene. We can see why, according to the speaker, he would want to murder Porphyria, but we are simultaneously unnerved that there are people whose minds lead them to this outcome.

True crime consumed today has much in common with the works done by Victorian authors such as Robert Browning. For example, in “The Staircase,” a documentary available to stream on Netflix, good portions of each episode continuously ask the question of “why?” What is the motive for wealthy white man with a beautiful wife and a seemingly happy marriage to murder her after many years? There are countless interviews with the accused husband, critical looks into the past and revealing searches through private personal belongings seeking to answer the question. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that he had no involvement and has had to go through the trauma of being on trial for a murder that he didn’t commit, found guilty of it, and had to mourn alone in a jail cell for the rest of his life for no reason. It seems that because it is so hard to fathom how someone like Michael Peterson could flip and commit such a heinous act, the audience devours information in order to find some explanation.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 3.59.25 PM

6-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey’s was murdered in the late 1990’s. Her case is one of the most talked about as it remains unsolved.

Just as in “Porphyria’s Lover,” this is where the sublime is involved. Murder falls tidily into the category of things that minds don’t quite understand. Sure, given a little background about the killer’s abusive childhood or tendency toward violence from a young age or history of mental illness you can have a fuller picture of what may have driven them to the crime. But the inherent part of the human mind that hopes, if not demands that most people are good in order to survive still trips over itself when confronted with a murder. Plenty of people have tragic childhoods or a dark secret or schizophrenia and never kill another person, let alone someone they love. Yet it happens because names like Michael Peterson and O.J. Simpson go down in infamy for a murder they either did or didn’t commit. Other notable cases that captivated America was that of the tragic murder of JonBenét Ramsey. There are countless theories on who murdered her, and people have devoted obscene amounts of time and effort into formulating different reasons as to why.

So many questions surround the act of murder, which transports the mind to an unsettling place and results in a sublime experience. Minds are slippery and impossible to grasp: how can we be expected to understand another mind when our own prods at places we aren’t quite sure we want to explore? Though Victorian England may seem like an unexpected place for interest in crime and murders to arise and be written about, perhaps all of the rules and restrictions on society led to some of the crimes. That paired with the continued study of psychology and more interconnectedness from industrialization made for the perfect conditions for writing about murder. Audiences today are just as eager to consume this content, but have the advantage of technology to aid in the amount and accessibility. To solve this mystery that I proposed at the beginning: no, people now are not more interested in crime and the motives behind it. People now are just able to get to it easier, and we can thank all of the repression in Victorian England for fueling the fire and giving us creepy, psychopathic killers to analyze. And as long as husbands keep murdering their wives (forever), we can rest assured that there will be plenty of content.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature vol 2B, edited by David Damrosch, Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, 1325-1326.

Ross, Catherine. “Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover.” The Explicator, Vol. 60, No. 2, 2002, pp. 68-72. Taylor & Francis, doi: doi.org/10.1080/00144940209597659. Accessed 29 November 2018.

Stolte, Tyson. “‘And Graves Give Up Themselves”: The Old Curiosity Shop, Victorian Psychology, and the Nature of Future Life.” Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 42, No. 2, 2014, pp. 187-207. ProQuest, doi: https://0-literature-proquest-com.library.uark.edu/searchFulltext.do?id=R05214997&divLevel=0&trailId=166EB237B3D&area=criticism&forward=critref_ft&browse=true. Accessed 1 December 2018.

Images

Illustrated Police Budget. Vignettes on the Bath Mystery. 1893, bathchronicle.com. https://www.bathchronicle.co.uk/news/bath-news/brutal-unsolved-victorian-murder-bath-1022905.

Ramsey, JonBenét. Photo of JonBenét Ramsey. crimemuseum.com. https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/cold-cases/jonbenet-ramsey/

The Staircase on Netflix. 2018, netflix.com. https://www.netflix.com/search?q=the%20staircase&jbv=80233441&jbp=0&jbr=0