Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark are taking the summer off. They’re hanging out in Los Angeles, probably wearing matching caftans and decadently eating chicken fingers by Kilgariff’s pool. And why shouldn’t they? Since starting the wildly popular true crime podcast My Favorite Murder in early 2016, the hosts have not had a vacation.
That’s not to say they haven’t traveled. Hardstark overcame an extreme fear of flying so the pair could tour in Australia, Europe and Canada, doing live recordings in front of thousands of their “murderino” devotees and fan club — Fan Cult — members. Together, they’ve retold hundreds of stories of gruesome deaths, topped podcast charts, and launched their own podcast network. In May, the duo published a joint memoir, Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide. Like the podcast, the book offers funny, feminist advice for survival — both in the sense of not getting killed and just, like, getting a job and working through your personal shit so you can pay your bills and have friends.
As they finished a brief book tour, before they slipped off the radar for some much-needed relaxation, the duo spoke with Rolling Stone about their writing processes, self-defense strategies, and what they owe their listeners.
What was your mission in writing this book?
Kilgariff: I’d say getting it done and not being financially penniless for not getting it done, that was my goal.
Hardstark: Not letting a ton of people down by not finishing it was a big goal.
I see the conversation of the ethics of the true crime genre coming up more often — how it can be exploitative to use a tragic death for entertainment through storytelling, and the way certain retellings can glorify the criminal over the victim. How do you see your responsibilities to victims and survivors of the crimes you talk about, and how do you try to meet them?
Hardstark: We definitely have a responsibility. When I tell the story of someone’s awful fate I try to honor them, and make sure I’m not victim-blaming. And there’s this whole thing of people being “obsessed with serial killers” — so making it clear we’re not obsessed with serial killers, we are fascinated by the extremes that human beings can go to and how fucking awful human beings can be and also knowing that by the grace of God I haven’t been murdered, so it could happen to anyone.
A few years ago, even if you were “obsessed” with serial killers, it didn’t feel like as big a deal. Why do you think that’s changed?
Kilgariff: I think that’s living in the social media digital age, where the way people present their thoughts is constantly being edited, and criticized, and commented on. Back in the Nineties, it was “Look at Ed Gein,” “Look at John Wayne Gacy,” and that was how we all knew it. It was how it was presented. Most of the time we were looking at it through those edgy zines and it was all very underground-feeling and punk-rock-feeling. But I think the more it came to the fore, the more people started to understand that you’re not fascinated with Ted Bundy as an individual to have dinner with, you’re fascinated by what he lacks or how his brain has gone so terribly wrong that he attacks other human beings. It’s not the personality parade it used to be. Now it’s the honest examination of like, what is it in people that makes them want to hurt other people? How much of it do you have? How much of it does that guy sitting next to you on the bus have?
Georgia, in the book, your most memorable section was the chapter about the photographer who pressured you to take your shirt off during a shoot. You described just kind of getting through the interaction and feeling lucky to get away from him safely. Do you think you handled it as best you could at the time? What would you tell your younger self now?
Hardstark: Writing it really was hard because it was kind of like I was working through it as I was doing it. I hadn’t thought much about it, I hadn’t really told anyone, and there was this underlying current of shame around it, so if I was going to tell the truth and tell the whole story and tell it not just as a third-person narrative, I had to really get deep inside of it. It wasn’t a great place to be. But in working through it, I think I did realize that even though the chapter’s called “Fuck Politness,” there’s times in your life when you just can’t and you have to keep yourself safe. Today, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into the situation but I think at the time, I did the best I could with what I had done. The thing I worked through and told myself in therapy was that I wasn’t at fault for making a bad decision. Everyone does, and it’s ok.
At least one of you has talked about using this podcast as exposure therapy: talking about murder in detail so you won’t be scared of it anymore. Is it working? Since starting the podcast three years ago, do you think you’re less afraid of being murdered or more, or the same?
Kilgariff: That was Georgia. I don’t really think of it that way. Anything can happen to anybody and I’m no more scared of getting murdered than I am getting cancer or getting hit by a bus. We’re all gonna check out soon so why be scared of just the one thing when there’s so many choices?
Hardstark: I’m scared of all of them equally. My anxiety doesn’t discriminate when it comes to negative things that can befall me or the people I love. There’s something about my psyche, though — and I think a lot of murderinos feel this way — where the more information I am given and the more I understand something — in this case the horror of true crime — the more you’re saved a little. Your anxiety is right: these things do happen, but maybe you’ve armed yourself with some knowledge and maybe you’ll make the decision not to go up a mountain with a strange photographer because of that.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a heyday of serial killers and faces on milk cartons that we don’t see as frequently, firsthand, today. Will Generation Z have a different relationship to true crime than you’ve had?
Hardstark: We grew up with “stranger danger,” learning not to talk to strangers and who to look out for. It was always this Jeffrey-Dahmer-looking guy. What we now know and hopefully the younger generation is being taught is the majority of people who will hurt you are people you know.
Kilgariff: It is that thing of people opening their eyes to statistics. People make shirts and wear them to our shows that say, “The husband did it,” because we’ve all watched enough 20/20 and Nightline to know that it’s usually the husband that did it! Cops know it, and now we know it, too. I just think it’s people getting savvy.
What are your plans for this vacation?
Kilgariff: I’m doing a lot of wearing a caftan by the pool. A real The Graduate aesthetic for me this summer. I think I’m just like, making people come to my house and not doing anything and relaxing.
Hardstark: My goals for the summer are hanging out by Karen’s pool. So we’re in a good place.
When you do come back to work, what’s next?
Hardstark: I’m excited to go back to just recording. We haven’t had our new offices or recording studio set up, and we’ve been so busy touring that we haven’t been able to concentrate on the reason we’re in this insane, incredible position, which is the podcast, so maybe a little less touring and a little more recording.
Kilgariff: And then I guess I would say we’re really going to focus on touring when we get back from vacation and it’s going to be almost all touring. I have to counteract Georgia’s anti-touring messaging with a really strong touring message.
Hardstark: No it’s gonna be fine — I’ll be there as a hologram.