In the early morning hours of August 26th, 1986, Jennifer Levin left Dorrian’s Red Hand, then a favorite watering hole of the underage Upper East Side elite, with Robert Chambers. The well-liked, beautiful Levin was bound for junior college in Boston the following week. But shortly after dawn, her brutally strangled body was found in Central Park. Chambers, 19, would later tell police he’d accidentally killed 18-year-old Levin in self-defense when she’d initiated “rough sex.” Tabloids labelled the slaying the “Preppy Murder,” and romanticized Chambers as a handsome, Kennedy-like figure destined for greatness, while Levin was posthumously slut-shamed. (“How Jennifer Courted Death”, read one Daily News headline.) Chambers’ defense doubled-down on Jennifer’s supposedly promiscuous reputation, subpoenaing the Levin family for their late daughter’s so-called “sex diary,” which never existed – all she had was an appointment notebook. Her killer pled guilty to manslaughter and served 15 years in prison.
At 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday, there is no crowd of over-privileged teenage drinkers at Dorrian’s Red Hand. That’s not to say it’s dead: About 15 people, mostly families with children, eat omelets and drink coffee off red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Televisions play college basketball games on mute as Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” is piped through the sound system. The brick walls plastered with vintage photos and advertisements don’t scream “murder” so much as “TGI Fridays.”
Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the hosts of the insanely popular comedy podcast My Favorite Murder, sit around a table taking in the scenery, which numbers far fewer Sperry Top-Siders and polo shirts with upturned collars than it must have 30 years ago. Though neither of them have been to Dorrian’s before, Kilgariff and Hardstark know the setting well – they covered the murder on an early episode of their show. As is standard practice on My Favorite Murder, the hosts treated Jennifer Levin with the respect they believe every victim is entitled to, excoriating the misogyny that characterized both the media coverage of her death and the legal proceedings that followed. As for Levin’s fictitious sex diary, Kilgariff said, “Hey, guess what? Even if that was true, you don’t get to murder her.”
“I kind of expected more frat boys,” Kilgariff, 47, observes of Dorrian’s, as a woman changes her baby on a nearby bench. Hardstark, 36, agrees. “I thought it would be…sports bar-y?” she says. “This is charming.” The effervescent chemistry between them – what makes My Favorite Murder such an addictive listen – is even more infectious in person. Both residents of Los Angeles, they’ve come to New York City to perform a sold-out live show at the Beacon Theater.
Before she achieved comedy-murder podcast stardom, you may have seen Hardstark on the Cooking Channel, cohosting Drinks with Alie and Georgia. She met Kilgariff, a veteran standup comic, television writer and actress known for Mr. Show With Bob and David and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, at a Halloween party in 2015. Kilgariff, who was dressed as a scrub nurse, found herself describing the terrible car crash – a motorist plowing into a crowd of dozens of people – she’d witnessed at South by Southwest. She realized far too late into what she thought was a fascinating story that this was not going over well.
“They’re having this great time and I’m like, ‘I witnessed thirty people get run down by a car,’ and people are just like, ‘…what?'” But then Hardstark, dressed as Glenn Danzig, came running from across the party. “Oh my god, I need to hear every word. Tell me everything,'” she said. They’ve been friends ever since.
The first episode of My Favorite Murder dropped in January 2016. The show’s conversational structure came naturally, with each woman recounting the story of a “favorite murder” – including biographical information about the killers and victims, as well as details about the ensuing investigation – in every episode. “It’s not ‘favorite,’ like, I love this murder,” Hardstark says. “It’s the one I really want to talk to you about, because it’s so insane.”
As each host takes a turn spinning an unsettling tale, the account is typically punctuated by groans of horror, gasps, laughs, and incredulous questions on the part of the other, who is – like the listener – hearing all this for the first time. While they do research their murders in advance, they refuse to feel beholden to every fact, exact date, or pronunciation. For one thing, this is a comedy podcast. And for another, “We’re not newscasters. We can barely read. I don’t know the states,” Kilgariff says. “We’re both community college dropouts,” adds Hardstark. “I feel like that says everything you need to know.”
My Favorite Murder can be graphic, but it’s never gory for gore’s sake – and even its darkest moments are lightened by Karen and Georgia’s effortlessly funny banter and genuine empathy for those affected by these crimes. It’s not unlike the audio equivalent of squinting through your fingers at a slasher film. “Two friends telling each other a fucked-up story,” says Kilgariff. “[That’s] essentially what the name of this podcast should be.”
But My Favorite Murder is more than a podcast – it’s turned into something like a movement. The podcast’s private Facebook group currently numbers more than 132,000 Murderinos – the name fans have given themselves – and is filled with tribute art (including My Favorite Murder-inspired tattoos), crime-related news, inside jokes and even hair-raising first-person accounts of survival. Hardstark warmly characterizes it as a safe space, “a community of shit that you’re not supposed to talk about in polite society, which everyone fuckin’ thinks about constantly.”
There are more than 800 listings for My Favorite Murder memorabilia on Etsy, from embroidered samplers, jewelry and greeting cards, to bingo cards, wine glasses and lipstick – even sculptures of Kilgariff and Hardstark. Many of the host’s blood-streaked koans have found new life on T-shirts and even mock inspirational posters designed by fans: “Pepper Spray First, Ask Questions Later,” “Lock Your Fucking Door,” “Don’t Get in That Trunk,” “Call Your Dad, You’re in a Cult,” “Stay Out of the Forest,” and their customary signoff, “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered.”
Abbreviated “SSDGM” by fans, “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered” crystallizes the podcast’s overall emphasis on vigilance and self-defense. It’s a reminder that the nice young man with his arm in a sling asking for help carrying something to his car could be the second coming of Ted Bundy – or that you’re entitled to your fear that he might be. And, more broadly, that you don’t owe anyone anything that comes at the expense of your own safety or well-being.
Spend some quality time in the Facebook group and you’ll discover that every Murderino has his or her own origin story. For Hardstark, Stephen King catalyzed her interest in the macabre. She’d steal her older brother’s copies of the author’s horror novels – Misery in particular stuck with her. Kilgariff, for her part, vividly remembers finding a copy of The Amityville Horror in the library of her Catholic grammar school. When she went to check it out, the librarian-nun was scandalized, which of course made the book all the more irresistible. She’d go on to borrow it three more times. “It made me feel like I want to know the things that people won’t talk about,” Kilgariff says. “I want to talk about the things that people don’t think you’re allowed to talk about.”
Kilgariff believes that true-crime fans find power in facing their fears. Besides The Amityville Horror, she remembers paging through another forbidden book as a child, this one about John Wayne Gacy. “I remember seeing a map of where the bodies were buried in his house, having crazy chills, and then turning the first page – like, can I read the story of how those bodies got into that house?” she says. “It’s basically looking at something and going, ‘This is the scariest humanity has to offer.'” In a moment like that, you can choose to pretend these horrors aren’t real, that they never happened. Or you can try to emotionally inoculate yourself, learning everything you can about them.
What’s most radical about My Favorite Murder is how it recasts the victims in these stories – who are often women – as real people, so much more than chalk-outline plot devices on a common TV procedural. Whatever their choices or life circumstances, the laughs never come at their expense. They deserved so much better. “People talk about how women may or may not be responsible for their own deaths, instead of, ‘Who is this motherfucker that could do this?'” Kilgariff says.
This cocktail of irreverence and sensitivity makes the podcast particularly appealing for female listeners, who are encouraged in no uncertain terms to fight back, protect themselves, and take control – and that it’s not their fault if they can’t. “I think it’s hard to toe the line between warning people, especially women, to be aware of their surroundings – you know, make healthy, smart choices – and victim-blaming,” Hardstark says. “Like, ‘Why did you walk down an alley by yourself?’ That’s not the reason she got murdered. The reason is that there was a fucking murderer there.”
It’s been known for some time that women are bigger true-crime fans than men are (really, it’s science – a 2010 study says as much), but My Favorite Murder has made it not just acceptable for women to openly express their fondness for the grisly genre, but downright empowering.
“I’m not gonna be the one to put it together,” says Hardstark. “But there’s gotta be some kind of connection between wanting to be in control of our bodies and then talking about women who get murdered and have no control, because some fucking guy feels like he has the authority to take her life. It’s just so fucking unfair, on so many levels, to know that my body can be overpowered and decided on and taken advantage of.”
The night of their show at the Beacon, the sheer volume of people on the sidewalk in front of the theater is overwhelming. Most of them are women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, and many are decked out in official My Favorite Murder swag. A girl of about 12 poses for a photo, beaming, in front of the marquee. Someone shouts “Let’s go Murderinos!” and the crowd erupts.
The mood inside is just as giddy. Fans swap stories of their favorite murders and sip from plastic wine glasses at their seats. At 8:30, the podcast’s haunting theme, sung by Kilgariff, wafts through the theater. When the two women finally appear on stage, both in black dresses, the applause is deafening.
The theme of the night is New York-based slayings: For Georgia’s murder, she selects the bizarre case of the “Harlem Kevorkian,” and Karen takes on the turn-of-the-century serial killer Lizzie Halliday. Then they call on a fan who tweeted at them to share his “hometown murder.” This young man, Patrick, seated in the Beacon’s upper balcony, takes nearly a minute to run down to the ground level. “I’ve fallen asleep to your voices so many times,” he tells them when he finally reaches the stage.
It’s counterintuitive that My Favorite Murder should be soothing, but Kilgariff and Hardstark have heard feedback like this from many listeners. They get it. “I’ve had anxiety my whole life and I think in a lot of ways it causes you to overanalyze and over-prepare,” Hardstark said over bruch. “Yes, the world is super fucked up. I don’t have the capacity to lie to myself and say it’s not. I go to therapy and she won’t let me do that. So [getting into true crime] is kind of like, here are the basic things you can do, to arm yourself with information. You’re doing your due diligence. And that kind of calms my anxiety – as does pills.”
Mental health comes up frequently on My Favorite Murder. Kilgariff and Hardstark are both in therapy, and they’ve addressed their experiences with anxiety, depression and substance abuse on the podcast. To their surprise and delight, these conversations have had a profound impact on some of their audience members. “There are all these people that we meet, especially young women, who are like, ‘Because of you I got a therapist and it’s helped me so much,'” Kilgariff says.
Once the Beacon’s house lights go up, the fans who purchased VIP tickets stay behind to meet Kilgariff and Hardstark. One woman waits to talk to them holding a note – she’s written down her favorite murder, the 2005 death of Jennifer Parks from Randolph, New Jersey, to share with Karen and Georgia. It’s a terrible story, and she knows it well: This shy, kind 16-year-old girl was beaten and stabbed by her neighbors – brothers aged 14 and 18 – who then dismembered her body to fit it inside a trunk. It’s a story that deeply affected this woman’s mother when it was in the news, she says, and now she too carries Jennifer’s memory with her, eager to keep it alive.
Murderinos know the feeling, as well as the unlikely kinship that exchanging tales of tragedy can bring. My Favorite Murder teaches that embracing our morbid interests can make us stronger and bring us together. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of, as the hosts insisted back at Dorrian’s Red Hand over brunch – and that’s exactly the message they hope to pass on to their audience. “As a middle-aged lady,” Kilgraff says, “that’s all I want the young girls to know: You get to like what you want, and you get to do what you want and say what you want.”
“And not apologize for it,” Georgia says. “And not feel bad. I mean, please,” adds Karen.
“Yeah,” Georgia agrees, bursting into laughter. “Fuck everyone.”