CW: violence, death, mentions of torture 

We all have unhealthy or questionable obsessions, and, for me, this used to be true crime. It started with a casual click on a recommended YouTube video; little did I know, that simple action would plunge me into a dark and addictive abyss. Soon, I found myself ensnared in a relentless cycle, devouring one documentary after another. Each would recount the chilling tales of victims (often young women like myself) falling prey to the most heinous acts imaginable. Despite the nightmares and creeping sense of paranoia that inevitably followed, I couldn’t tear myself away. It was as if I were compelled by some morbid curiosity, driven by the haunting question: what if it were me? How will I recognise the signs of danger without immersing myself in these grisly accounts? It doesn’t seem impossible considering the horrifying number of violent crimes against women, with the UK Femicide Census reporting roughly 100 femicides a year. 

But this obsession, this insatiable hunger for the macabre, has exacted a heavy toll on my mental health. After each deep dive into yet another murder case, I’m left hollow, consumed by a pervasive sense of dread and anxiety.

Among the countless tragedies that have left an indelible mark on my psyche, one in particular stands out. In February 2023, 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, a transgender girl, was senselessly killed in a park in Cheshire. She was brutally stabbed 28 times by Eddie Ratcliffe and Scarlett Jenkinson, two teenagers. I still recall the shock and horror when news of Brianna’s death first broke on the BBC. Yet, it wasn’t until recently, as the 18 day trial of her killers drew to a close, that I found myself drawn back into the harrowing details of her story. 

It was a chance encounter on TikTok that ignited this obsession, a fleeting twenty second video leading me down a rabbit hole of illicit information. Despite the anonymity order shielding the identities of Brianna’s murderers (their names were only revealed at sentencing), the internet had begun buzzing with speculations and rumours. Images of the accused, their faces obscured by blurry school photos only accessible by fellow students, circulated clandestinely and sent shivers down my spine. It was a nauseating reminder of the voyeuristic culture that thrives on the exploitation of tragedy.

The revelation that one of Brianna’s attackers, Scarlett Jenkinson, was someone she considered to be her friend, only adds another layer of horror to the case. As someone who battled anxiety and depression, Brianna’s outing that day was likely a rare attempt at socialising, making the betrayal even more devastating. It is unfathomable to even comprehend the sheer terror Brianna must have experienced in her final moments.

Both Jenkinson and Ratcliffe have been convicted of murder and have been detained at his majesty’s pleasure for a minimum of 22 and 20 years respectively. 

The premeditation and cruelty of the attack are chilling. The fact that both perpetrators had meticulously planned her murder, even going as far as to create a “kill list”, speaks to a disturbing fascination with violence, torture, and death. Jenkinson’s exposure to depraved content on the dark web (and her subsequent desire to carry out these fantasies herself) undoubtedly played a role in desensitising them to the gravity of their actions. Although the police did not initially consider Brianna’s murder to be a hate crime (with the kill list suggesting that if not Brianna, another victim would’ve fallen prey), it was eventually acknowledged that the murder was in part driven by transphobia, citing transphobic messages exchanged between the killers. They enjoyed the thrill of killing someone, both for the sake of it and to fulfil their hateful fantasies. Ultimately, it was a combination of all of these factors, and the influence of the internet on Brianna’s death serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers that lurk online, especially for impressionable young minds. 

What is perhaps most unsettling is the lack of remorse displayed by Jenkinson and Ratcliffe. Their callous indifference, coupled with a twisted sense of pride in their actions, supersedes all comprehension. They are wolves’ in sheep’s clothing, despite their attempts to downplay their culpability by portraying themselves as naive schoolchildren. They are not solely misguided youths, but cold-blooded killers who knowingly extinguished a bright and promising life. The media’s initial portrayal of them as “highly intelligent” individuals without a history of criminal behaviour only underscores the chilling reality that evil can lurk beneath the facade of normalcy. 

The case reminded me a lot of a novel that I’d read recently called Penance by Eliza Clark. After reading her debut novel Boy Parts (which has since become TikTok famous for being the female equivalent of American Psycho), I was excited to dive into her latest book. After the murder of 16-year-old Joan Wilson in the fictional Crow-on-Sea, we follow unreliable narrator Alec Z. Carelli, a journalist, who investigates the case almost a decade since the murder. Written in the style of a nonfiction true crime book, the novel interweaves the faux true crime narratives with fanfiction, articles, podcast transcripts and interviews amongst other mediums. The perpetrators are a trio of teenage girls, who Joan had thought were her friends: in reality, they were seeking revenge and bullying after believing that they felt betrayed by Joan. 

Though not based on any true crime cases in particular, there are undoubtedly some parallels between Clark’s murder case and that of Brianna Ghey. Much like Brianna’s perpetrators, Clark’s exploration of the influence of online platforms in shaping the minds of young murderers resonates with the modern landscape, where exposure to disturbing content can numb individuals to torture and encourage such behaviour. Joan Wilson’s murderers displayed obsessions with the Columbine shooters, and regularly engaged in fanfiction regarding the killers.

In an interview with Authors On The Air, Eliza Clark explained that she entered Penance as a “casual consumer” of true crime, yet ended it as a “critical consumer”. Clark confronts the voyeuristic nature of true crime culture, challenging readers to also become critical of media that often sensationalises tragedy for entertainment, and her shift in attitude reflects a growing awareness of the ethical implications surrounding the portrayal of real life crimes. While faux true crime narratives may offer a semblance of distance from the actual events, they still draw inspiration from real-world tragedies, blurring the line between fiction and reality.

The question of why individuals are drawn to consuming such macabre content despite its unsettling effects is complex. Although some may seek a heightened sense of awareness or desire for justice, others, like me, may be driven by a morbid fascination or a need for validation of their own fears. However, indulging in these obsessions can ultimately exacerbate anxieties and perpetuate unhealthy thought patterns. This is prevalent in my life, as having BPD and anxiety make me particularly susceptible to paranoid delusions. I certainly won’t want the burden of believing that my life is in danger every time I leave my room and true crime simply isn’t healthy for me. 

While I feel deep sympathy and sorrow for victims such as Brianna Ghey, it is equally important to safeguard your own mental health and resist the allure of sensationalism. For me, this means taking steps such as deleting news apps off my phone to consciously challenge rational fears to maintain perspective amidst the barrage of dramatised media coverage. 

Ultimately, confronting the pervasive influence of insensitive media is essential to fostering a culture that values sensitivity, respect, and ethical reporting. It’s a journey toward reclaiming agency over our own mental health and refrain from the fear mongering tactics that seek to exploit vulnerability for profit. 

My heart goes out to Brianna Ghey, who had so much to live for.