Women’s Obsession with Death: Millennial and Victorian time-traveling sisters

order-of-the-good-deathA reading list on this topic is at the bottom of the post!

If you haven’t noticed an uptick in the true crime obsession of late, you must be a prepper who lives in the wilderness of Wyoming (which doesn’t exist, stay woke) and doesn’t have internet or electricity or neighbors. And in that case, you might be a serial killer yourself. The explosion of true crime and horror podcasts has been serious. So has the increase of murderous television, mystery thriller novels, the popularity of witchcraft, and support for the death positive movement. But why? Who? What? How?

The who is easy…women. It’s always been women, honestly, but millennial women are viciously gobbling up all things violent crime and creepy lore. While I could point to something like the insane popularity of authors such as Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins, it really took shape with the phenomenon of Serial. From there we got the massive hit My Favorite Murder, a true crime podcast hosted by a comedian and a YouTuber turned Food Channel personality. Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark captured a moment. The shear volume of fan art, tattoos, and merch being generated…the memes!! Women tuning in felt like they were sitting down to a never ending glass of wine with their favorite girl friends, dishing about murder. The pod soon took off and became so much more than what it seemed. Karen and Georgia started using it as a way to preach about the benefits of therapy, self-care, and mental health awareness. They talk about women taking care of other women, and they face all of our worst nightmares with us. We cheer together when they tell the heroic tales of women breaking free from murderous men, or surviving against all odds. We cry with them when we lose another Sweet Baby Angel.

Soon, the different catchphrases from the show became a secret code for women. “Stay Sexy Don’t Get Murdered” —  said to women by other women on the train, at the bar, on the street, scrawled on bathroom walls — became a rallying call, a check to see if someone was ok, an offering of support, and an acknowledgement of togetherness even among strangers. Other catchphrases like “fuck politeness” and “toxic masculinity ruins the party again” look cute on shirts, but they also draw attention to serious issues that get women killed. Women embraced these Karen and Georgia and the light they shed on the dark pit that is our society.

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All of this started a kind of domino effect. We wanted more podcasts, more books, more content! When creepy shows came out on Netflix, we couldn’t wait to talk about them with our girlfriends. Young people (me and my fiance) are watching Dateline! Witchcraft has seen a recent resurgence in popularity because it connects feminine strength to the macabre and finds real power in that intersection. When we discovered new and fascinating groups like the Order of the Good Death, we dove in head first.

It is the death positive movement that I find most interesting in all of this, actually. Death salons have been popping up in all major cities, including Pittsburgh. People who work in the death industry (funeral directors, morticians, hospice workers, ER doctors and nurses, social workers, etc.) or who are just interested in talking about death get together every couple of months to do just that. The goal is to take the fear and stigma out of death, since it is something we are all going to do, and learn how best to have a “good death”. What is a good death? One that is positive, loving, empowering, and as painless as possible. It also means having all of your shit in order. Get your legal documents tidied up. Get your affairs right. Wrap up those loose ends.

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You can buy this badass shirt from them RIGHT NOW!

Don’t make this be a messy experience for the living and cause more trauma just because you don’t have the balls to admit to yourself that you are totally gonna croak one day. While I haven’t been able to make it to a salon yet, I really can’t wait to go. Many of my friends, especially in our Geek Girl Brunch crew, are involved. It was a GGB Brunchette who told me about the Order of the Good Death in the first place. Another Brunchette, who is a social worker in a hospital and helps families cope with the end of their loved ones’ lives, is training to be a death doula which I find so cool. But none of this, this attitude and this attraction of women toward death, is new at all.

It is my opinion that Millennial women are deeply connected with our Victorian sisters. During the Victorian era (1830s to early 1900s), new technologies and social changes made death and violence very familiar things. The industrial revolution gave rise to cities, which threw people in close quarters where a plethora of factors lead to death by disease, accident, or malice. Here are some examples: Jack the Ripper, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and smallpox in general (so gross). The world was dark and rapidly changing. And women had very little power during that time. They were very restricted socially and politically. It was rare that a woman had anything resembling comfortable agency over herself and her life.

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Caitlin Doughty: mortician, author, and founder of the Order of the Good Death. Caitlin is responsible for the death positive movement. Picture from Chicago Magazine.

This is not so different from today. While we have finally gained long overdue rights after hard-fought battles, we continue to fight for more rights owed us and others. We are globally connected, which can be overwhelming. Technology is advancing at a terrifying rate. We live stream violent protests in Catalan, we watch on the news as our Native American brothers and sisters are battered with all manner of weapons just for protecting their water, we weep with mothers who use social media to morn their black sons, shot to death by cops. We anxiously watch the news and Twitter for updates on legislation that could take away our rights to control what is done to our own bodies; legislation that protects us from predation #metoo; legislation that declares us equal and human. We watch people die shitty pointless deaths daily on scales we could never have imagined. We see carnage and pain all over the world every minute. And we are very aware that people in power do not want us to have any. Women feel like they are being pushed into a dark place, but it is my firm belief that we thrive in those places.

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But let me get back to my point. Victorian women, starting with the Fox sisters, gave rise to Spiritualism in the US. Spiritualism, to grotesquely simplify it, is what Long Island Medium is all about. But back in the Victorian era is was serious business. It grew like wildfire, much like the Murderinos did. What they believe is that they can directly commune with the spirits, no godly intermediary necessary, and that women are uniquely disposed to be natural mediums. Everything that was seen as a woman’s weakness in Victorian society was actually to a woman’s advantage in Spiritualism, making them good conduits for the spirits. Spiritualism was made up of pretty much all women, and it included heavy-hitting Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It was a religion where men weren’t top-dog, and women were able to carve out respect and freedom in a way they hadn’t been able to before.

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The Fox Sisters

Spiritualism was a spring-board into the first major feminist movement in this country, and I see things lining up in an interesting way today to mimic that vibe. Feminist action has increased since the 2016 election. The defeat of Hillary Clinton was hugely symbolic, if not straight up traumatizing, to many of us. We are looking for a safe way to release our rage, connect in a way that excludes men, and face the darkness with some strength. We have embraced death as a reality and talk about it fully with each other. We aren’t scared. I could see serious action being born in these circles. If some asshole tries to get us to get in his rape van we know to “fuck politeness” and get out of there, and if some dick-wad tries to drug a fellow sexy Murderino at a party, we know to intervene and declare LOUDLY that “toxic masculinity ruins the party again,” and…in all seriousness…if we see a Murderino being followed or harassed, we known to take her aside and advise her to “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” and then walk her home. And that leads to larger and larger political action, because we gain confidence, knowledge, and a strong support system.

There is a lot of analysis out there (some listed below) that says this “new” obsession is unhealthy and dangerous, that women are statistically less likely to be killed than men so it’s pointless, that it makes women more scared and ups our anxiety. I don’t see that. An anxious person is never truly getting over their anxiety in the first place, so I thank you not to talk to me about the struggles of others if you don’t experience it yourself. And women might not not get murdered more than men (I don’t know if I believe that), but we suffer so much daily violence and intrusion. This goes beyond murder and extends to just sitting on the bus, going to work, applying for a job, trying to find childcare, etc. This love of true crime and dark spirits gives us a network to communicate in where, hilariously, we feel safe.

0c48ed230eebc4295cc4788d271594d8Women are finding their power in the dark again. What used to threaten us is now our entertainment. How badass is that? So, because I am me, I put together a reading list about this general topic. What follows is a list of books and articles that I find super interesting that talk about Victorian women and their love of ghosts and its connection to feminism, and also about the connection modern women feel to similar topics. I also threw in some about death. Enjoy, and please share any good reads of your own on this topic!

  1. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England by Alex Ownes
  2. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Ann Braude
  3. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism by Barbara Weisberg
  4. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith
  5. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel
  6. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
  7. On Living by Kerry Egan
  8. “The Spiritualist Origins of Ghostbusters” by Colin Dickey
  9. “How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group” by Andrea Marks
  10. “Why Are Women Obsessed With True Crime?” by Anna Dorn
  11. “I Went To A Haunted Hotel To Find Out Why Women Are So Obsessed With Seeing Ghosts” by Gabrielle Moss

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