When I was 16 years old, two of my coworkers at the local public pool told me about the Witches’ Castle. The eerie, supposedly haunted structure was located in Utica, Indiana, just a few miles away from my hometown. The two girls were stunned that I’d never heard of it, especially since it was one stop on the all-night torture-and-beating spree of 12-year-old Shanda Sharer in 1992 – a night that ended with her brutal murder. The Witches’ Castle already had lore surrounding it, but after Shanda’s murder, it became a local legend.
Like any adventurous teen girls in this situation would do, the three of us planned an after-work trip to the Witches’ Castle to see it for ourselves. There, in some shallow woods on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, were the stone remains of an old, creepy set of small buildings. Weather-beaten and overgrown, the crumbling structures immediately gave me an unsettled feeling. Shanda’s murder had been 12 years ago, but knowing that she’d been brought to this spot and beaten was enough to make it feel weird – maybe even wrong – to be there.
After I got home that evening, the first thing I did was ask my mom if she remembered the story of Shanda’s murder, an event I had never heard of before that summer. She remembered it pretty well and told me a book had been written about it. I immediately found and read the book. Then I found another book. I had to know everything I could about Shanda Sharer and the four teenage girls, ages 15 to 17, who killed her.
Shanda’s murder was the crime that got me hooked on crime. I don’t know if it was her young age, the fact that her killers were the same age as my friends and me, or the proximity to my hometown, but I was fixated on what happened to Shanda and why. I wondered how disturbing my Internet search history would look to anyone else. I searched for articles about the trials, about Shanda’s family, about when the killers would be released from prison. (Update on January 11, 2017: The third of the four killers was released.) I looked for photos of Shanda and her killers that might not have been included in the books I read. I wanted to know what our local papers said about this tragedy back in 1992. Was I a full-on weirdo?
I remained fascinated with true crime throughout my teen and young adult years. I discovered Dateline murder stories on NBC, Lifetime movies based on real murders, and the infamous Snapped on Oxygen. While I am a highly anxious person, I found that, for some reason, watching this stuff was somehow relaxing – almost calming – to me.
I know. It sounds weird. You think I’m a creep.
But I’m not the only one who feels a sense of calm or relief when consuming true crime stories. In fact, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, hosts of the wildly popular My Favorite Murder podcast, also talk about crime stories having a calming effect for some people who suffer from anxiety. In an email interview with Andrea Marks of The Atlantic, Hardstark said, “It’s a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you.” My Favorite Murder is part of the wave of true-crime programming that has rushed to the forefront of pop culture in recent years, but the surprising thing about it is that it isn’t a true-crime drama podcast. It’s a comedy podcast.
As one host reads the story of a murder, the other host reacts. There’s riffing, some making fun of super evil murderers, and witty, often laugh-out-loud funny commentary. Marks argues that “simply talking about murder in this context may soothe listeners’ fear of being killed.” The subjects discussed on this show are often so terrible and so frightening that we have to laugh. Because if we focus on how awful these events really are, we could be consumed by fear. Facing these stories and learning all about the people involved can actually take some of the fear out of the equation.
Since the early days of podcasts, I’ve used them as a way to calm myself and center my thoughts. I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and sometimes I have a hard time quieting the obsessive part of my brain. Podcasts have been a way for me to turn my focus to something else, which ultimately calms me. I typically listen to podcasts that tell a story, and if those stories are funny or full or twists and turns, even better. My Favorite Murder gives me both – and a set of hosts who are open about mental health. And they acknowledge that it’s okay to be fascinated with the macabre. They’ve even created a community around it.
This community of listeners, called Murderinos, makes each person who listens to the podcast feel not only “normal,” but good. Not just good, but welcome. Accepted. It’s like having a built-in support group. Together we can celebrate our interests, no matter how unsavory they seem.
We know there’s much more to this than murder. We are aware of the very real consequences of crime, and Karen and Georgia make it a point to give advice on how to avoid getting murdered. Though their advice often sounds funny (“Get a job. Buy your own shit. Stay out of the forest.”), listeners are drawn to it because, as Marks puts it: “It makes sense that women would be particularly interested in increasing their chances of survival.” That’s why I love Karen and Georgia’s advice so much. My favorite aphorism of theirs is “Fuck politeness.”
People, and, I’d argue, women in particular, can be put in dangerous situations out of their fear of being rude. “Fuck politeness” is an empowering statement that reminds us that our own safety comes before hurting someone else’s feelings.
As I’ve listened to My Favorite Murder over the past two years, I’ve thought back to Shanda Sharer’s story. One thing that always struck me about this story is how four relatively average teenage girls could have beaten, tortured, and burned a young girl over a middle-school flirtation. Of Shanda’s four killers, only one girl, Melinda Loveless, had a personal connection to their victim. Of the other three, one seems to have been fascinated with harming others, and the other two appear to have been mostly swept along and encouraged to participate out of fear.
The most tragic thing about Shanda’s story is that there were countless opportunities for any one of the four girls to put a stop to what was happening. There were times they were in someone’s house while Shanda was alive in the trunk of the car. Someone could have told a parent. While they stopped at a gas station to get the gasoline that they’d eventually pour on Shanda, she was still alive in the trunk. Someone could have easily alerted another person to what was happening and saved Shanda’s life. There were opportunities for someone to step up, say “Fuck politeness,” and prevent an unspeakable tragedy. But no one did.
This is why an outlet like My Favorite Murder, although it might seem strange, is so important to listeners. We’ve heard countless stories like Shanda’s and know the kind of evil that can happen if we don’t make ourselves aware of it. The world is a scary place. My Favorite Murder encourages people to acknowledge that fear. To stand up against it. To exorcise it through exposure to it. To laugh in the face of evil. To say “Fuck politeness.” To save your own life or someone else’s.