The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror

I have my sister to thank for getting me hooked on horror in my adult life. However, my first memories of horror movies were cringing at friends’ houses, while we watched movies like When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. I was too proud at that time (I was 14) to admit that I hated them. I knew I would spend the next several weeks worried that I would somehow make the inconceivable mistake of heading back upstairs after the heart-stopping “the call is coming from inside the house” twist.

However, in my 20s, my little sister revealed to me that she loved I Know What You Did Last Summer, and for some reason, it was then that horror movies clicked with me. I started watching the oldies: Carrie, The Exorcist, Amityville Horror. I loved them. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the psychological aspect of horror. My two favorite horror movies of 2019 are Midsommar and Us. I like Midsommar because I am interested in cults, and for weeks after watching it, found myself wondering if Dani will reconsider her final choices after the dust settles. Us was so creepy that I actually felt unnerved by my own reflection for a whole weekend. Also, I could not get out of my mind, the movie’s slowed-down, spooky version of “I’ve Got Five on It”!

There are many theories regarding why people like horror. Some say it’s an outlet for anxieties or a way to cohabitate safely with our inner monsters. (The Babadook handles the latter in an interesting, literal way.) Game of Thrones, although not a proper horror narrative, definitely exhibits horror elements. I admit that, during the “crown of gold” scene in season one, I found myself cheering for the grisly demise of Daenerys’ abuser, although it was unnecessarily vicious. Despite Daenery’s coldness, a trait I normally find unsettling, I felt relief for the end of that particular torment and for the way she embraces her unique gift and personal power.

I think one of the main draws of horror is an acknowledgement of exaggerated (for many of us) true-life suffering. When watching horror, we don’t need to deconstruct the nuances of our ennui: Pain is barreling through the woods in the form of a blunt man with a chainsaw. 

There is also a shared experience when watching horror. A community outcry, a “Don’t go in the basement” moment. We watch people bungle down narrow hallways and trip over rocks, knowing we’d have done it differently. There’s a comfort in believing we’d survive to be the final girl.

I credit this same survivor-desire for true crime’s rise in popularity. Yes, the abnormality of violent, human behavior fascinates people, but I think the real draw to true crime stems from anxiety. It’s no surprise that women are the primary consumers of true crime stories. Humans are hard-wired to scan and prepare for danger, and most domestic and sexually-related murders are committed against women. The “sleeping with the enemy” motif is popular in true crime narratives. These stories uncover the telltale signs of future violence, missed or ignored by the victims. Women are too often groomed to dismiss their intuition, which leaves them vulnerable, but true crime stories not only validate our instincts but encourage us to use them.

True crime narratives offer inside information about potential, domestic horror; however, the stories that end with the perpetrator in prison, also provide relief. Although, just as in most horror movies, the danger is never really over. There have always been violent criminals on the loose, no matter the number that get locked away.

Today I will leave you with a murder ballad called “Twa Sisters” (Two Sisters), which is believed to have first appeared on a Scottish broadside in 1656. The ballad chronicles the tale of a woman who drowns her younger sister over the love of a man. There have been many versions of the tale. In some versions, a man finds her body and uses her bones and hair to create a harp; in other versions, it’s a fiddle. Sometimes, the elder sister is exposed as a murderer, and the younger sister is portrayed as completely innocent. Other times, she has taunted the elder sister with the fact that she has won the beloved’s affections.

This ballad points to another reason people are interested in such horrific acts. These narratives sometimes ask us to consider how “monsters” are made. Whether the younger sister taunts or not, she surely does not deserve to be murdered, and yet, we can all relate to jealousy and the desire for revenge. These narratives beg a question: under the right circumstances, might we be the monster?

My favorite version of “Two Sisters” is Gillian Welch’s “Wind and Rain.” I love the refrain, “Oh the dreadful wind and rain,” and the way it illuminates the degrees of this horror. In the end, when the younger sister’s body has been crafted into a fiddle, it does not explicitly expose her murderer nor mention the man she loves. It will only play “Oh the dreadful wind and rain.” The ending does not provide any true justice or quick healing but rather suggests that art’s transformative power lies not in transcendence, but in accepting the present, dark as it may be. 

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