Why we can’t look away from ‘Dirty John’ and other scintillating True Crime stories

Everyone does something in private that they don’t talk about. I’m not talking about anything gross or menacing – just a secret obsession that may not be something to shout from the rooftops. For all intents and purposes take Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw, who liked to stand in her kitchen to read the newest issue of Vogue, while eating grape jelly on saltine crackers. A little strange, but harmless nonetheless.

True crime is that kind of guilty pleasure for many, and has been around in many forms for longer than you’d imagine.

For one example, Truman Capote’s 1966 novel In Cold Blood details the grisly 1959 murders of the Clutter family in their rural Kansas farm home. It was an instant sensation, and 50 years after it’s publication was pulled from the pages and made into an award-winning film not only about the murders, but the about the men tried, convicted, and ultimately put to death for committing such a heinous act.

In the 1990’s the cases of OJ Simpson and the Menendez Brothers, respectively, brought the drama out of the courtroom and into our living rooms. These widely-watched trials became their own televised courtroom phenomenons, and even 30 years later are still a part of pop culture. Each has been recently turned into it’s own respective multi-episode anthology, not to mention The People vs OJ Simpson managed to clean up spectacularly during awards season.

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What’s more, the horrific and still unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year old JonBenét Ramsey continues to haunt us. So much so that 20 years after her death, Netflix produced it’s own documentary to explore how those closest to her could have potentially been responsible.

But why are these cases, now long out of the public spotlight, still continuing to creep back into our psyche? These cases are so fraught with tragedy and suspicion they turn ordinary people into home detectives who pour over case files, check message boards, and share theories with each other.

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If you were one of the millions who listened to the first season of the 2014 Serial podcast, you’re familiar with how easy it is to get wrapped up in the life and death of a stranger, and his or her assassin(s). So when a new podcast called Dirty John started making the rounds, it was only a matter of time before it became a cultural phenomenon, especially amongst the true crime community, who was looking for something to fill the void after Serial took it’s bows.

Dirty John is the true story of how a 55-year-old con man seduced his way into the life of a successful Orange Country divorcée.

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To interior designer and mother of four Debra Newell, John Meehan was simply a handsome anesthesiologist she met online. Though he was rather intense, he was attentive, and seemed genuinely interested in her. John led her to believe he was taken by her beauty and kind nature. But in reality, her children were grown up, she was a respected member of OC society, and she had money.

John was a bit of a project for Debra. She bought him clothes, and even let him move in with her after only 6 weeks of dating. But her children saw right through him, and it wasn’t long before the truth about John – his time in prison, his obsession with vengeance and the ease of which he coerced and manipulated women – began to dull his exterior. He was a liar, a stalker, a thief, and a con-artist. Though Debra tried to break things off with him once, he managed to find his way back into her life and unfortunately, the lives of her daughters.

Told in six parts, Dirty John is a story about deception, but more even more so, about survival.

Dirty John is produced by the LA Times and the Wondery podcast network, and I had a chance to speak with Wondery’s founder, Hernan Lopez. The podcast is only in it’s 8th week since it’s debut, but to say that Dirty John is being well-received, with upwards of 5 million downloads, would be an understatement. We talked about why tales such as these are fascinating the public as podcasts when there are so many mediums that let us scratch that voyeuristic itch.

In our current world view, audio is taking a backseat in our daily lives. Rarely do we even listen to our friend’s Instagram videos that they have to include “Sound ON” and the speaker emoji in the caption so that we know it’s worth our time.

But sound is actually where the emotion comes from.

When I asked Wondery’s Hernan Lopez about this phenomenon, and why podcasts are still worth our time, he said “People who are not listening to podcasts are missing out, because sound is actually where the emotion comes from. Most people don’t realize that of our senses, sound is the first one to be perceived.” He added, “Because of that, a lot of the emotional information that we receive from the world comes from sound. One easy way for anybody to experience that is to watch a horror movie at home and turn the sound off. You will find that it’s not scary at all.”

With stories like Dirty John, that take place over multiple episodes at a time, the listener is choosing to actively spend several hours with the characters and the narrator. We’re weaving ourselves into the tale, and for true crime listeners, we’re living out a horror that isn’t our own, but we still empathize with it.

“You get immersed into the story, feeling that you’re there, almost as if you were a fly on the wall. You feel that you are experiencing the emotions of the characters in the story, in a way that I think is even more powerful than you do when you watch a good movie or a television show,” says Lopez.

Emotion is just one of the underlying attractions to Dirty John, because with a relationship as troubled as Debra and John’s, there’s bound to be some aspects that most people can sympathize with. And in some cases have experience with:

“It was a story that had so many angles to it because you have a relationship, a family story, it is a love story after all and it’s a story about deception and self-deception. You have greed, you have faith and forgiveness.”

So while the draw to Dirty John may be the salaciousness of Meehan’s crimes, they’re not what keeps you listening for hours on end.

It’s the empathy you have for Debra, a woman in love and who’s struggling as a mother to keep her family together, while giving this man the benefit of the doubt. After all, how many of us have stayed in a toxic relationship for far too long, even when we know there’s more bad in it than good?

“So many different aspects of the story are relatable to some people in the audience. The one angle that people found most fascinating is that everybody can relate to the one moment that you have the facts in front of you and you still cannot see through them.” Which is exactly what happened to Debra. John’s violent temper was apparent in the texts and emails he sent Debra’s family members, warning them to stay away from her. She knew he was a manipulator, and an effective one too, and yet…

“She had all the facts in front of her but still was in love and, as one of the subjects posted, ‘the heart is a different organ’ so she chose to believe her heart, and that was something that everybody can relate to.”

So whether or not you listen to Dirty John with an open, empathetic heart is your call. But do listen – because if nothing else, true crime serves as a cautionary tale for these troubled times.

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