Grisly Murders and Serial Killers? Ooh, Tell Me More

Posted May 19, 2018 12:12 a.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — A torrential downpour could not keep the murder-obsessed and crime-fixated young women from storming the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles this spring.

“It’s like the best cult ever,” said a fan in her late 20s, who was wearing Doc Martens boots and a T-shirt that read, “I’m a Karen!”

As the lights dimmed, about 2,000 rowdy fans, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, howled at a decibel suited to a Beyoncé set at Coachella. But they weren’t going gaga for a pop deity. Calling themselves Murderinos, they came to hear expletive-laden tales of brutal homicides told by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, the irreverent hosts of the wildly popular true-crime comedy podcast “My Favorite Murder.”

Standing on an empty stage, save for a small table with two bottles of water, the hosts sailed through the show’s breezy formula: Come for the frank and funny retellings of their “favorite” murder (today’s topic: the Los Feliz Murder Mansion from 1959), stay for the chatty non sequiturs (day drinking and Oregon cults).

“The common urban legend is that a father killed his whole family and himself on Christmas Eve in the 1950s. And that the house sat abandoned and nothing in the house had been touched or changed since that night,” Hardstark said.

Kilgariff jumped in. “Does anyone talk about the level of dust that would be on those things?” she said.

“It’s like abandonment porn,” Hardstark said.

“Yes, lots of people here are into abandonment porn,” Kilgariff said in her characteristic droll tone, which ignited loud giggles from the audience.

“Me, too,” Hardstark said.

“It’s second only to changing-room-shame porn,” Kilgariff said, before being drowned out by deafening laughter.

Alongside Jon Favreau and his fraternity of ex-White House aides at “Pod Save America” and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of “2 Dope Queens,” Hardstark and Kilgariff are part of a new breed of superstar podcasters who have cultivated a groupie-like fan base that will follow them to live performances.

The sold-out gig at the Orpheum in March was the halfway point of an 18-date international tour that kicked off in Las Vegas in January and wraps up next month in Glasgow, Scotland. For the past two years, “My Favorite Murder” has been a permanent fixture atop the iTunes podcast charts, drawing up to 19 million listeners a month.

Why Murder, and Why Now?

In many ways, the subversive charm of “MFM,” as die-hards abbreviate it, is today’s answer to riot grrrl, the DIY feminist punk movement of the 1990s. There is a Facebook fan page with 200,000 members and spinoff groups, including “Meowderinos” (for cat-loving fans) and “button bashes” (for pun-happy pin collectors) that meet in all 50 states, as well as throughout Britain and Australia.

“We as women have long felt we had to be cheerful and avoid heavy topics,” said Kendra Granniss, 28, a community support specialist from Brooklyn, who last year started “Murderinos and Mimosas,” a brunch with a dozen like-minded girlfriends. “Then came these two normal women, you know, just talking about murder. It was like, oh, we can talk about this and embrace the darker regions.”

The hosts are starting to play catch up with their newfound celebrity. This spring, they started a $39.99 membership program that includes T-shirts, message boards and other VIP goodies, and will publish an “autobiographical self-help book” this year. A second tour begins in September that will include a Halloween show at the 7,000-plus-seat Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

Hollywood has also come knocking. They have voiced characters for the Cartoon Network series “Craig of the Creek,” and in January, Hardstark appeared in an episode of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

“The sky is the limit here,” said Joseph Schwartz, an agent at United Talent Agency who represents the show. “Podcasters have an incredibly powerful bond with their listeners and can galvanize their audience unlike any other entertainers.”

Fascinated With Death

The day after their hometown performance, Kilgariff, 48, and Hardstark, 37, were decompressing on a well-worn couch in Hardstark’s duplex apartment in East Hollywood. A small room upstairs, furnished with cross-stitches and other Etsy crafts sent from fans, doubles as a makeshift studio where they record their weekly podcast.

When they started the show in 2016, it was in the middle of a true-crime gold rush spurred on by podcasts like “Serial” and the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.” But they ditched the genre’s dry investigative tone in favor of wry humor and a focus on the overlooked (mostly female) victims of infamous (mostly male) killers like Ronnie Lee Gardner or the Golden State Killer, who was recently arrested.

“Even ‘victim’ can be such a throwaway word because it implies they didn’t have a family or life,” Hardstark said, as she petted one of her three cats. “There’s no reason this couldn’t be any of us.” Part of the show’s appeal is the way it oscillates between loquacious sympathy and blunt wisecracks. There’s also the rubbernecking details from the murders themselves. In Episode 114, which aired in March, about the Hillside Stranglers, a pair of bloodthirsty cousins who petrified Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Kilgariff recites some of the gory evidence:

On Nov. 20, 1977, a 9-year-old boy finds the bodies of two girls in a trash heap on a hillside near Dodgers Stadium — it’s so horrible — 12-year-old Dolly Cepeda and 14-year-old Sonja Johnson ... The bodies when they were found — it had been a week later — said they were decomposed, but the police could still tell they had been strangled and raped.

The popularity of their gabby, female-driven perspective has birthed similarly themed programs, including “Wine and Crime,” and think pieces in magazines like the Atlantic (“How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group”).

Its empathetic viewpoint also resonated in the wake of #MeToo. In an episode devoted to the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Kilgariff joked that “toxic masculinity ruins the party again.” It quickly became a Murderino rallying cry and is emblazoned on all kinds of merchandise, from greeting cards to coffee mugs.

There is a scientific explanation behind the show’s success. A study published in 2010 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that women use “tales of rape, murder and serial killers” as a way to process the dark persistence of misogynistic violence in society at large.

Some academics worry that the podcast’s popularity perpetuates skewed narratives on victimhood. “True crime is really more of a fantasy genre,” said Jean Murley, an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College in New York, who wrote a book about the public’s curiosity with criminals. “This cavalier attitude that young pretty white women are at great risk of being killed all the time just produces misplaced fear and anxiety.”

It’s not all scare tactics, however. Despite, or maybe because of, the grisly subject matter, the two talk freely about their personal lives, like friends at Sunday brunch.

Hardstark has been frank about her anxiety and depression, and Kilgariff has talked about her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease. They frequently mention that they see a joint therapist (in addition to attending one-on-one sessions).

“We’re both from California rural families where talking about mental health was second nature and not something to be ashamed of,” Hardstark said. “In the same way people don’t talk about murders a whole lot, people don’t talk about how hard the struggle is to live a happy life.” Fittingly, both women offer psychoanalytic explanations for their lifelong fascination with the macabre. Growing up in Irvine, California, in the 1980s, Hardstark said she was struck by how the women Ted Bundy kidnapped looked like her mother. Kilgariff, who grew up about seven hours away by car in Petaluma, California, said her mother, a psychiatric nurse, used to diagnose the mental disorders of strangers they passed on the street as a kind of game.

After dropping out of community college, Kilgariff went on to become a television writer with credits on “Baskets” and “Portlandia,” while Hardstark ended up as a quirky Cooking Channel host known for concocting “the McNuggetini,” a vodka cocktail with a ketchup rim and chicken tender garnish.

Although they ran in similar social circles, it wasn’t until a 2015 Halloween party that they discovered their shared passion. Kilgariff, who was dressed as a scrub nurse, was recounting a gruesome car accident at South by Southwest, where a car plowed into a crowd and killed four.

“Everyone just started walking away horrified,” she said. But Hardstark, who was dressed as musician Glenn Danzig, wanted to hear every last gory detail. A month later, over a five-hour lunch, the idea for “My Favorite Murder” was born.

“We’re just having conversations about people who got murdered,” Kilgariff said, before gulping down her last sip of coffee at their home studio.

Hardstark looked over at her co-host affectionately. “The only way we know how to deal with the horrors of life is through humor,” she said.

Then they both blurted out in unison, “Thank God.”