The only light in the house comes from the television set. Unsolved Mysteries is on, and Robert Stack’s perfectly spooky voice invites us to join him. “Perhaps you will be able to help solve a mystery,” he says.
It feels like monsters are lurking in the trees, watching me.
My best friend Jessalyn and I are home alone. We’re 13 years old and mature enough to be left unsupervised. But watching Unsolved Mysteries puts us on edge: story after story of people being killed or disappearing makes it feel dangerous to be on our own. I live on a quiet suburban street, next door to an elementary school, but something about the quietness bothers me. It feels like monsters are lurking in the trees, watching me.
As we’re watching a horrible story unfold on screen, there’s a loud bang on the big picture window in my living room. Our heads whip around to face each other. We get very quiet and still as we wait for the sound to come again. A few seconds later, it happens: BANG!
We are terrified. The window is at street level and the intruder can peek through the blinds to see two teenage girls alone, no adults in sight. Fear clouds my brain. I think it’s strange that a killer would announce himself by knocking on the window, but I assume he does it to torture us.
“Dad! Someone’s outside!”
A plan is formulated in whispers. Neither of us thinks to call 911. Instead, Jessalyn grabs a knife from the kitchen and I move close to the window. I pretend to yell to my father as if he’s in another room, just out of sight and ready to protect us. “Dad! Someone’s outside!”
We hear the crunching of footsteps along the side of the house and then he’s testing the knob on the back door. In a great whoosh, the door swings open. Both of us are screaming.
We’re about to be murdered, and we’ve barely lived at all. High school is still months away, nothing more than an exciting idea at the end of summer.
I didn’t die that night, but it has become one of the few times in my life when I experienced true, heart-pounding fear. When I think about that night, I remember what it felt like to have nothing but a piece of glass between myself and a dangerous stranger. It’s like waking up from a nightmare at its most terrifying moment. Your heart keeps beating, pounding in your chest. But once you’ve caught your breath and realized you’re safe, there’s an urge to dive back in, to experience the burst of fear again. Riding the edge between safety and fear.
That moment is when I decided to become an expert on murder. Actual murder, as in true crime stories.
I can tell you about H.H. Holmes (he was America’s first serial killer and built his own murder mansion in late 1800s Chicago) or Albert Fish (a cannibal who claimed to kill 100 children and was known to have inserted flowers into his urethra). These facts take up space in my brain and rattle around every time I walk home from my subway stop late at night, or every time my roommate is out of town. I will never live in a first floor apartment because someone could simply walk right up to my window and look inside, or worse, let themselves in.
One night, I’m home alone and my phone starts ringing shortly after 11 pm. It’s an anonymous number, so I ignore the call. They call a second time. On the third call, I answer.
“Hello, I have a food delivery for Cristina.” He’s got a scratchy voice, and sounds out of breath.
“I think there’s been a mistake. I didn’t order anything.”
“Yes, you did. It’s already been charged to you. Just come outside and get it.”
The caller is persistent. “Come outside,” he pleads.
I hang up, shaken and too scared to look outside. I decide that if someone knocks on the door I’m calling 911.
Minutes pass and nothing happens, but my adrenaline is still pumping. Am I making something out of nothing again? Why is murder always the first thought on my mind?
I’m a little giddy — nerves on edge. I’m fascinated by the fear, but also wanting to laugh. Is this an unhealthy obsession? I convince myself it’s not, because I can still laugh at myself.
I discover a podcast called My Favorite Murder
Sitting there alone, I need to find someone who feels the same way. So I turn to the internet. That’s when I discover a podcast called My Favorite Murder. Finding it makes me feel understood in a strange and thrilling way. It’s hosted by two comedians, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, who share the same fascination with stories about killers. The way they talk about murder, with a mix of disbelief and dark humor, is exactly how I’ve thought about it my entire life.
Through the podcast, a Facebook group was formed that currently has over 36,000 members. New members join every day, thankful for a place to talk about their morbid curiosities without fear of being judged. “So what’s your hometown murder?” people will ask.
“So what’s your hometown murder?”
There are hundreds of responses.
When we’re young and someone from our hometown is killed, the story becomes a part of our identity. It’s the story that’s close to home, maybe right next door, the one that makes you wonder if it could have been you.
Those kinds of stories stay with you forever, and this one is mine.
The back door swings open, and Jessalyn and I are screaming. A man enters the kitchen and calls out to us. “Hello?”
It’s my father’s voice.
“Was that you outside?” I ask, anger quickly overtaking my relief that we aren’t about to die as 13-year-old nerds watching Unsolved Mysteries on a hot summer night.
But my dad is angry too. He had been trying to get our attention so we’d come outside and help him carry things in from the car, and why he didn’t just come inside and ask us to do this is still a mystery to me.
His reason doesn’t matter, though. The bad thing we feared didn’t happen, only now I understood that it could happen. I promised never to watch Unsolved Mysteries while home alone again, but of course I didn’t keep that promise.
True crime stories are countless, and I was ready to learn them all.