It may seem counterintuitive to listen to podcasts about gruesome murders as a sleep aid, but Pelayo pointed out people are often hearing them in bed — “where they feel safe.”
“For many people, the bedroom is their sanctuary. So they may feel safe as they’re hearing these crazy stories … and don’t feel personally threatened by the story. They’re entertained by them.”
This seems to validate a theory shared by Minnie Williams, the sister of the Fruitloops true crime podcast cohost Beth Williams. “It makes you in some ways feel safe because you’re in your bed or your chair or whatever, and you’re listening to something horrific that went on and happened to somebody else and you are in your space, very safe,” she told BuzzFeed News at their Podcast Row table at CrimeCon. “And so it’s almost kind of like, Well, I’m in a little bubble, and this stuff’s out there.”
Sleep may be more likely if the story is a familiar one
And then there are cases that are so familiar to true crime fans that they become almost desensitized to the violence — even if the podcast or TV show centers, for example, on a serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 men and boys.
“I’ve heard so much about the John Wayne Gacy murders — my mom actually grew up in the area where it happened and everything — so I feel really bad to say that, like, I’ve heard the details so many times that I can kind of put that in the background,” said Donnelly, the true crime fan from Chicago, about her ability to doze off to episodes featuring the “killer clown.”
Conversely, Pelayo suggested that people who aren’t avid true crime consumers are unlikely to drift off to sleep if they tune in at bedtime. “Because then it’s a novelty and that’ll keep you awake, because then you’re curious: How’s it turn out? But if you’ve heard several of these when you’re awake, you know more or less the pattern, you know what to expect, you know you can rewind that later. That familiarity is what helps you fall asleep to it.”
You can just pick up where you left (dozed) off
Unless they fell asleep out of boredom, most snoozers will pick up where they left off. Katy Sproat, 33, another Keith Morrison Fan Club member, said that when she falls asleep in the middle of true crime shows, she usually returns to watch the ending. “My mom watches them too,” she said, “so we eventually finish them. Like, ‘Did you watch this one?’ And like, ‘Half of it…?’”
Some people don’t bother rewinding and instead go directly to the source to find out the resolution.
Dateline correspondent Dennis Murphy told BuzzFeed News, “I had a guy in church who said, ‘What happened in Arkansas — who killed her?’”
Mankiewicz has the same experience, although he is skeptical that people conk out during Dateline’s new episodes on Friday night (despite evidence to the contrary — for example, I had to watch their genuinely riveting Sherri Papini episode in four segments because I kept falling asleep). “They’re talking about one of the repeats that they saw in their bedroom and then fell asleep and they want me to tell them how it ends,” Mankiewicz said.
Correspondent Andrea Canning added, “Yeah, and you get a lot [saying], ‘I fell asleep. Where can I watch it?’”
The storytelling is important too: It has to engage your mind
For Fruitloops cohost Wendy Willliams, it’s as much about the storytelling and sense of security as it is people with soothing voices.
“I feel like it’s really comforting. I hate to say it but I — when you hear about somebody’s worst day, it’s hard to remember what was so terrible about your own life. I feel bad saying that, but that’s my truth,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“And yeah, it just carries you away, the storytelling,” she added.
Her Fruitloops cohost, Beth Williams, said, “Personally, I listen to history documentaries to fall asleep, specifically because of the voice. But if it’s too lively, like if there’s gunshots or whatever, then I can’t do it.”
“I am interested in history — it’s not that it’s boring,” she added. Instead, “it engages your mind, so you’re not thinking about other things that maybe are stressing you out, like the workday tomorrow, you gotta do this for the kids, or whatever.”
“It allows your mind to go internal,” her sister, Minnie, said.
Beth Williams agreed. “You’re thinking about something else, and it’s soothing.”
It can be comforting to know someone is on the case
Donnelly said she suspects that people fall asleep because “there’s typically a resolution and you know somebody’s handling it.”
This was echoed by Minnie Williams. “It’s comforting knowing somebody’s out there trying to figure this stuff out, like some forensics person who’s out there working on something, you know, and making the world a better place. So to me that’s also soothing. Like somebody’s taking care of it, you know?”
“It’s like there’s a real-life Batman or Spider-Man,” Wendy Williams said.
So is it unhealthy to fall asleep to true crime shows?
Pelayo, who literally wrote a manual called How to Sleep, said it’s normal — and often healthy — to fall asleep to true crime shows and podcasts, especially if they allay circular thinking and help you sleep through the night.
“Throughout history, people slept in all kinds of unusual ways,” he pointed out, including bedtime stories and the evolution of pillows and mattresses.
“The drive to sleep is so powerful,” Pelayo said, “people fall asleep in conversation and, say, really sleep-deprived people fall asleep driving their cars.”
(That’s not to say it’s dangerous to listen to true crime podcasts while driving — in fact, that’s when many people listen to them, CrimeCon attendees told BuzzFeed News. Driving while drowsy can be deadly regardless.)
Despite some unquestionably disturbing true crime content, Pelayo notes, “People will voluntarily listen to these recordings and these shows because that’s what they’re familiar with. And I think that’s why it’s working for them.”
“But if a patient says to me, like, ‘I wake up in the middle of the night, I can’t get back to sleep, my mind is racing,’ then I would discourage them from listening to something like this in the beginning of the night. Instead, I want them to take some time away from the bedroom to give some thoughts to the things that are on their mind that are causing circular thinking.”
The most important thing is that people fall asleep and then sleep through the night.
“If it doesn’t bother you the next day,” Pelayo said, “then you’re OK.”