With the rise of True Crime podcasts, some cases become little cultural touchstones. Beginning podcasts and long-time Youtubers alike flit to cases like the Black Dahlia murder, the death of Natalie Woods, the Tamam Shud man, the mystery woman found partially cremated at a beach with all of the tags removed from her clothing – these cases are super interesting, and there’s a lot of detail to cover. This means that if, say, Buzzfeed unsolved covers Tamam Shud, there’s still uncovered content left for other podcasters to harvest, and Buzzfeed likely heard about the case from other podcasters, fans, and content creators in the first place.
However. There is a danger to having cases be popular touchstones, especially when they feature real people and real events. The lore of the case becomes more important than the case itself. Fans are watching carefully to see how your show does it, how you cover the police report, how you describe the body. They’re also watching to see if you break rank with the other true-crimers as far as the facts go. While cross-verification is important, it only happens if everyone is looking at the original sources. Not everyone does. They want to move fast when a case breaks, and for older cases, they can make their episode faster if they rely on other teams who have already done the research. If the first team to look at a case overlooked a detail, and the second team to look at it didn’t notice because they didn’t pore over the original source, that detail may as well poof out of existence in podcast world! A great many people after that are going to do the equivalent of citing links off the bottom of the Wikipedia page without verifying the information inside (Wikipedia is a great resource, but you do still have to consider the sources!) People who break rank after that and notice it get scrutinized, because surely, some of the big teams would have noticed first, right? When it’s revealed the big guys overlooked it, it’s just another opportunity to release more content clarifying.
Gathering accurate data is hard, so many people would rather piggyback off the people in front of them who do it first. The goal is to present an entertaining story, as well, and sometimes strategically omitting details makes it more ‘interesting’ if less accurate. Remember to take anything you hear off a podcast with a grain of salt, and just because people keep repeating it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true!
Elisa Lam – The Big One
Elisa Lam was famous for a short video that showed her entering an elevator that refused to shut for a minute or two while she moved slowly and strangely, like she was dancing. Her body was later recovered in a water tank at the top of a hotel she had been staying at after multiple people complained that the water pressure sucked and the water itself smelled/tasted funny. That elevator security video was the last video of her alive, and it went viral after the police released it while she was still only known as missing. These are the bare minimum, true facts about the case.
Other information came later, when it sparked discussions online, because it looked like she was peaking around the elevator doors to look for something – like something was after her. Some people began to speculate that Elisa had been followed, killed, and then dumped in the water tank by an unseen party, others believed she’d been targeted and possessed by something that told her to kill herself, and helped her lift the heavy doors of the water tank – either way, the death just felt wrong and weird.
This is not true, of course, and there’s no evidence to support another party’s involvement. What is true is that Elisa had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression (which we know from her blogs), and she was under a lot of internal pressure to do well in school. She was in college, and a major mental health event had forced her to drop some of her classes, which hurt her a lot. Some of the people around her said she tended to skip her bipolar medication accidentally or purposefully (we know she didn’t have the prescribed amount necessary to control symptoms at her death at least, from the autopsy report) – which is more likely responsible for the dancing and the looking around. While certain disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, don’t cause hallucinations in and of themselves, the medications used to treat them sometimes can as a side effect, and withdrawal often caused Elisa to struggle with hallucinations herself. The Wikipedia article features some interviews of people who said they saw her, and found her behavior strange – eyewitness accounts on such a public case aren’t often useful, but she was removed from the audience of a taped show due to erratic behavior, which was recorded and lines up with what other hotel guests said.
As far as being found in the cistern, the truth of the matter was that the tank wasn’t actually too heavy for one person to open, and it might have been open already when she got there anyway. She also didn’t close it behind her, and employees looking into the maintenance hatch were able to see her immediately. The door, while small, was not too small to fit an adult inside – the process of removing her from the tank required some equipment too big to fit through the hole, which is why they had to cut the tank open. People could move in and out of it just fine. Getting up to the top of the tank to access the door is the real mystery, as people don’t know how she did it to this day, but it was 19 days before they found her. The hotel was actually found not liable for her death because it was so unexplainable – if it were a matter of tripping and falling in, they’d be liable, but as it is, all we have is theories. Theories that state Elisa went out of her way to get into the tank, and whatever she used to get height to get into it was moved in those 19 days.
The Murder of Kitty – AKA the Bystander Effect Murder
If you’re an American, you’ve probably heard the case of Kitty Genovese, which is often touted as a case of the bystander effect leading to the death of a woman. Allegedly, 38 or so witnesses heard or saw her screaming for help… and nobody did. American psychology textbooks would use this case as an example for the next few decades, and as True Crime grew as a genre, Kitty’s murder would be featured in podcasts galore, often as a warning to women. (Warning of what? That’s for the podcasters to decide!)
There’s a handful of problems, however. Everybody who cites the case goes back to the original Times story where it’s stated that these witnesses heard or saw her and did nothing, even stating that people shouted down to the murderer, who was scared off and then circled back when they retreated to their apartments. Multiple people allegedly stated they didn’t want to get involved. However, the real number of people who actually saw what happened and also didn’t do something to stop it was two – one couple thought it was a lover’s quarrel, most of the others who could have seen what was happening from their windows didn’t even wake up. Kitty worked at a bar and was returning home after work, and it was the wee hours of the morning in a quiet, day-shift community. Not to mention, it was March in New York. Most people had their windows closed because it was still getting cold at night.
Two people failed Kitty, not 38. Kitty’s case was one of the ones that finally got the 911 system pushed out to New Yorkers, as the instructions for calling the police weren’t consistent or as easy as the simple 911. One of the people who didn’t do anything actually called a friend for advice, which seems bizarre now, but he was likely in shock as he did actually see the stabbing take place – it might have been the only number he could remember in the moment.
The true crime community spends almost no time at all sincerely listening to the family of the deceased because it’s just not what pulls in viewers. If anyone’s offended by the lighthearted treatment of their loved one’s death, you won’t hear it from the people doing the treatment in the first place. If you know of the Bianca Devins case (use discretion when looking her up – many of the results are of the crime scene and that’s not how her family wanted her remembered) you’ll know that her family specifically requested that the pictures of her taken after her death were not shared, and the True Crime community did it anyway: gruesome details are shocking and horrifying and engaging. This is treated with a sort of dramatic irony because it’s a misconception that Bianca wanted to be internet famous. ‘Well, she wasn’t famous in life, but she will be in death’. The problem is that she didn’t want to be internet famous.
Besides the obvious issues with the treatment of her case, there’s also several issues within the basic description of the girl that true crimers reach for: that she was pretty, that she had tons of Instagram followers, that she was liked by everyone who knew her, a textbook popular girl. It’s only partially true, however. She often fought agoraphobia as well as general anxiety, and while she was known for being exceptionally friendly and standing up for the little guy among those who actually knew her, she did spend quite a lot of time lurking online, not promoting herself. Only her friends had her Instagram handle. She was just a pretty girl who liked to lurk in forums and got catfished by an older man who then murdered her, and people took leaps from there.
Dyatlov Pass (May Be A Bit Graphic – Read at Own Risk)
The true facts about the case are that a group of young hikers ventured out onto a trail, set up camp for the night, and then were found dead later after they seemingly cut their way out of their tent and fled into the night.
This is where the story gets a bit fuzzy. The bodies of the hikers were found scattered around the site, in various states that didn’t seem to make sense together. Most of them were not dressed correctly for the weather, 6 were officially declared to have died of hypothermia, and the rest seemed to have died from physical trauma, including to the chest and head. Adding to the mystery was radioactivity discovered on their clothing. Their tent was slashed open with something sharp – some theorists say it was from the outside looking to get in, but it’s generally accepted (and marks inside the tent from incomplete cuts also suggest) that the group inside the tent, for some reason, cut their way out and then fled into the subzero night.
There are numerous theories, from Sasquatch encounters to supernatural forces at work to murder sprees to blizzard conditions and infrasound to smoke, and the real reason why they cut their way out of the tent may never be known. But. Other true facts about the case aren’t nearly so mysterious.
Firstly, finding the bodies with soft pieces (eyes, tongue, etc.) missing isn’t unusual for bodies discovered out in the wild. Animals go for what’s easy to eat first, as morbid as that sounds! As far as physical trauma goes, the area was rocky and difficult to climb – an avalanche was declared the official cause because the damage to the relevant bodies was too severe for another human to have done it. Before you get excited, two of the hypothermia deaths were discovered next to a large cedar tree, which had broken branches all the way to five meters above the ground, quite some distance away from the original camp, and the lethal injury deaths were found in a ravine filled with rocks (and rock-hard ice in the coldest part of winter). Slipping or having the snow avalanche out from under you, without the proper clothing, is a better explanation than space weapon or radiation monster.
Secondly, speaking of the radiation, two of the people at the scene had worked or were working for facilities with radioactive materials. The radiation levels on the clothes are often severely overstated when podcasts talk about this case, they want it to sound like those pieces were scattered everywhere and that they were glowing. The truth is a handful of articles, when closely measured, showed radioactivity. The radioactivity was vaguely above baseline, as well. Thirdly, we’ll never know what really happened for them to slash their way out of their tent, but there are multiple good theories, ranging from the official statement “they heard an avalanche a ways away and they panicked” to the slightly less believable “the loud, howling wind’s infrasound triggered their fight or flight reflex”. It’s entirely possible for otherwise competent hikers to make mistakes, as well! Acting like these totally normal people who did regularly hike would never make mistakes is convenient for people trying to sell a mystery, but it’s not realistic.
If you’d like to see more, this is the video I originally saw on the incident, one of the things that inspired this article in the first place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8RigxxiilI
I’m not certain how believable it is that it was the stove’s fault (Lemmino, the video’s author, suggests the camp stove is to blame), but from the picture, the description of cooked food, and their state of undress, it’s at least passable as a theory that the stove got too hot or reignited in the night and smoked them out. Choosing to walk a mile away afterwards to get to a forest sounds to me like something you’d do if you feared an avalanche coming down where you just were, but neither of us can prove definitively either of these things happened – either theory would prevent them from coming back to their tent for their stuff right away, either for the smoke or the instability of the snow. The remaining hypothermia deaths being found at different distances away from the tree with the snapped branches suggests that the three of them were trying to get back to the tent, while the other two stayed behind next to the fire – all of them, being dressed improperly, froze to death.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8RigxxiilI (and sources)