Ready for ‘Murder Under the Mistletoe’? How True Crime Shows Celebrate the Holidays

·5 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It’s less than 30 days until Christmas and Daphne Woolsoncroft has too many holiday murders to fit her programming schedule.

Woolsoncroft, who co-hosts the true crime podcast Going West with her partner Heath Merryman, likes to cover grisly cases set during the cheerful season.

“We think of the holidays as this cozy time, and when something horrible happens, that makes [a case] more interesting,” Woolsoncroft told The Daily Beast. “It just hits harder, because it is this time of joy.”

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Last year, the podcast featured the tale of the Martin family, who disappeared in 1958 while shopping for a Christmas tree, and Jonelle Matthews, a 12-year-old Colorado girl who went missing in 1984 after returning home from singing Christmas carols at a nursing home.

In 2019, Going West covered the devastating case dubbed the “Covina massacre,” in which a 45-year-old man dressed in a Santa suit killed nine members of his ex-wife’s family during a mass shooting.

“With the Beryl Atherton case (a grisly 1950 Massachusetts murder), the setting made the story feel a little more film noir,” Merryman, the co-host, said. “The story sets up like a thriller novel; there’s a huge storm coming into town, and it’s the holidays. They didn’t discover her body until after the storm settled—there was something historical and classic about it. Not to take away from the fact that she was a real human being, because we are also talking about the DNA testing that might be able to solve this case, which is something we’re interested in doing.”

Going West is certainly not the only true crime show that attempts to inject a dose of holiday cheer into a revolving schedule of serial killers, spousal murders, and other gruesome, real life stories. Oxygen has aired the unbelievably titled docuseries Homicide for the Holidays since 2016.

It’s a classic true crime formula: interview surviving victims, cops and attorneys who worked on the case, add in a few cheesy reenactments for some character, plus a smooth-voiced narrator who takes us along on the ride.

A representative for Oxygen was unable to provide a producer or executive to comment to The Daily Beast on the show, but noted that this season debuts on Dec. 6, and will air four episodes that week, with titles like “The Last Thanksgiving,” “Six Slays of Christmas,” “Killing of the Christmas Tree Farmers,” and “Murder Under the Mistletoe.”

In a preview for this season, a Midwestern detective—who looks to be straight out of central casting—deadpans to the camera, “There’s no question this [murder] would take the shine off of the Christmas holidays.” “It’s astonishing that these killings would take place right at Christmas time,” another cop says to the camera, as background music crescendos into a chorus of festive bells.

Consider Christmas killings or Thanksgiving slashings just another niche in the oversaturated ever-popular true crime genre. As The Ringer reported in July, citing statistics from streaming data company Parrot Analytics, documentaries are “the fastest-growing segment of the streaming industry,” with true crime being “the biggest documentary subgenre” and one that is “growing faster than nearly all of the others.”

So it makes sense some of that gore would bleed into the holidays. Last year, Australian YouTuber Bella Fiori released “The 12 Days of Christmas,” where she released a different December-themed case leading up to the holiday. (Fiori did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.) Investigation Discovery, the most popular true crime channel on TV, will air a “Black Friday marathon” this week, in an effort to draw more subscribers into its streaming service.

Scott Bonn, PhD, is a criminologist and author who has contributed his expertise to some true crime documentaries. He calls holiday true crime shows “essentially exploitation.”

“True crime is a cultural phenomenon and, let’s face it, it’s an entertainment commodity,” Bonn said. “We’ve got an extremely crowded market right now, with so many networks devoted entirely to true crime and a litany of podcasts. So you need to stand out, create a reason for people to tune in. So they’re taking advantage of a time of year that is sacred and using it as marketing.”

Bonn has never taken part in a true crime documentary or series that has been centered around a holiday. “True crime is something of an evergreen genre, and I am fascinated by it myself,” he said. “But there is a fine line that is frequently crossed between what I might call objective, socially-conscious programming and pure sensationalism and exploitation. A lot of the time, [holiday] programming falls into the realm of exploitation.”

Dawn K. Cecil, a professor and criminology chair at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, agrees that these shows exist primarily due to “marketing and competition.” She added that stories involving friends and family are usually the most popular of all real-life murder stories.

“These stories show us the ultimate betrayal and revolve around easy-to-understand motives such as revenge, greed, love, lust, and jealousy,” Cecil said. “And in the fact of hanging out with family at the holidays which can be stressful, some of the audience may enjoy these stories because it shows them that their families are not that bad.”

Woolsoncroft agreed that a lot of true crime is sensationalist. She wants listeners to get a sense of the subjects of her stories as real people, not just victims. A good portion of each episode is dedicated to detailing a victim’s background and the life they led before their murder.

“A lot of people do exploit cases in a gross and disturbing way, where you forget that this is a real story,” Woolsoncroft said. “But with holiday stories, these are still tragedies and still happened to people. I don’t see it as exploitative just because a story is being told at the same time of the year that it happened. It should still be out there.”

The Going West hosts plan to take a few breaks in their bi-weekly schedule to air something other than Christmas stories. “Nobody wants to hear only about the holidays during December,” Woolsoncroft said. “There are so many cases to air, which is kind of disturbing. Sometimes we wonder to ourselves, are we ever going to run out? It’s so sad to think: No, we’re not.”

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