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It was in early 2017 when Elizabeth Munro realized that cross-stitch and coffee mugs were infiltrating her murder scene. As an admin for the podcast My Favorite Murder’s Facebook group of 233,000-plus fans, Munro was accustomed to approving posts about killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy — but now people were posting about beading, stitching, and hand-lettering right alongside their tales of death and destruction.
“We were starting to get daily posts from folks showing off their [products], and it was starting to get overwhelming,” says Munro. “We tried herding people to a specific thread where they could share links, but it just grew out of control.” Bowled over by the boom in crime-themed crafts, Munro and the other admins decided to create one weekly post for sellers to publicize their items, which turned out to be a huge hit. Today, the crafts are an integral part of the podcast’s community.
While murder-themed wares can be purchased across the web, there’s been a notable spike in recent years, and much of it is available on Etsy. There, in that wonderland of handmade jewelry and vintage wedding dresses, you’ll find T-shirts that say “Talk Murder to Me,” crime scene-themed hair ties, serial killer wine glasses, serial killer coffee mugs, serial killer soaps (vegan!), and more Ted Bundy pins than a denim jacket could possibly support.
Lest you think you’re a freak for that one time you Googled “cute serial killer dress holiday office party appropriate,” know that searches for “crime-related” items spike every November and December, according to the team at Etsy, presumably because everyone’s trying to buy their mom a nice Ed Gein-themed light-switch plate for the holidays. And the demand for crime-themed crafts is only growing. Etsy says it’s witnessed a 31.6 percent increase this year in searches for murder- and crime-related products, compared to last year. In other words, you’re not not a weirdo for owning a Lizzie Borden soy candle. You’re just not alone.
“It all started because I wanted something cute but serial killer-related to hang on my own wall,” says Erin Avey, who runs the Etsy store Killer Kross Stitching (tagline: “All things murder and death but in cross stitch form!”). When Avey found a cross-stitch pattern featuring pixelated Marvel characters, it got her thinking about creating something similar for serial killers. Thus, her Alphabet Killers collection was born: 26 adorable cross-stitch patterns of the world’s worst monsters. A is for Aileen! B is for Bundy! And so on and so forth until Z, which stands — as any true crime fan should know — for Zodiac (“Would look great in either a 5 inch hoop or a 5x7 frame”).
The link between murder and commerce is nothing new, of course. In 1830, you could buy a “penny blood” booklet full of salacious crime tales. In 1908, people snatched up bones from the yard of serial killer Belle Gunness and sold postcards of her victims’ body parts. In 2001, the murder market blew up when eBay banned murderabilia — products that famous criminals have actually made, touched, or, um, grown — forcing murderabilia sellers to get their own websites.
“Every year, I have an increase in sales, an increase in profits,” says Eric Holler of serialkillersink.net, who has been selling murderabilia since the mid-’90s. “It’s not mainstream — but it’s more mainstream than it was 10 years ago.”
But with this recent spike in true crime wares, the aesthetic has changed. Murder is distinctly cute now. The penny bloods were intentionally gory and awful; when the heavy-hitter serial killers of the ’70s exploded into the news, black humor entered into murder consumption (think: T-shirts made for Bundy’s execution that say “Burn Bundy Burn” or a radio host playing “Another Kid in the Crawl” to the tune of “Another Brick in the Wall” when John Wayne Gacy was caught). The murderabilia boom took objects that those now-famous serial killers were producing in prison (say, 20 inches of Charles Manson’s greasy brown hair) and shipped them right back to the people who had been reading the headlines all along.
Some of the Etsy products, with their flowing scripts and floral backgrounds, seem worlds away from all that. In fact, many of them are so cute, so twee, so girly, so seemingly harmless that your houseguests might not even notice they’re drying their hands on an embroidered Charles Manson-themed dish towel until they take a second look.
Both the hair and the dish towel are being sold because of their thrilling proximity to horror, yes, but the difference in proximity is huge. (As is the price tag: An original John Wayne Gacy painting will run you thousands of dollars, Holler notes; a button based on that same painting is $2.50.)
The immediacy of the crime is totally removed from the equation on Etsy, which is how the cuteness has room to creep in. In fact, for sellers like Avey, the cuteness is an integral part of the whole operation: For example, her “K is for Kemper” pattern combines “a craft that your grandmother would do” with “a man who killed his mother and did unspeakable things to her decapitated head.” A quick glance at the cross-stitch wouldn’t reveal any of the latter, though.
The cuteness is a way to control the horror; we can put it in a 5-by-7 frame and hang it on our wall and move on with our lives, brushing past evil every day without losing our minds.
No matter how cute or gruesome the object, every true crime seller has to draw their own line in the sand when figuring out what they’ll sell and what they won’t. Holler, for example, won’t sell serial killers’ foot shavings. (Don’t ask.) Etsy does not allow “items that commemorate or honor serial killers” (though what commemorates a serial killer is rather subjective: A Ted Bundy pin that says “Lady Killer”? A Ted Bundy pin that says “Taken by Bundy” in romantic pink script?).
Part of the figuring-out, then, is about the permissibility of the products, and part of it is about personal taste. But another part of it is about the desires of the audience. They might think they want the most authentic crime thing ever — but do they?
“Most of my stuff is sort of authentic, but I’ve tweaked all of it to package it for an online audience,” says Brian Sharp, whose store, Enigmatic Press, sells evidence labels and coroner reports as digital downloads, which his customers then use for film props and party favors. Sharp used to work as a prop master and production designer, creating crime-themed paperwork for various films. When an injury took him out of the film world, he decided to turn his collection of props into Etsy downloads. There was just one problem: Authentic crime documents are awfully boring.
“If I’m going to do a greeting card, I want it to look like a government file of some kind, but the real stuff is very institutional,” says Sharp. “I’ve had better luck when I’ve taken a set of paperwork — incident reports, FBI printouts, a fingerprint sheet — and put an aged background on it and given it an old English font. That seems to excite people a bit.”
In a strange way, then, the Etsy seller becomes the filter between us and the real world of true crime. We want Kemper on our wall and Bundy on our jean jacket, but in order to do that, we need some distance between us and the killer. Some of that distance is created by the police, the media, and the law. But these days, some of it is created by crafters and makers, who take the names and statistics and body counts of our most famous criminals and turn the whole thing into … merch.
“The more we see something as myth, the more it’s marketable,” says Sharp. “In commerce, we don’t necessarily try to invoke [true fear or anxiety] unless we’re selling a security system of some kind. All of the true crime stuff that permeates American culture? If we felt that was actually a threat, we would have barbed wire around our homes and would start digging a moat around our house.”
The backstories may be bloody, but there’s a communal element to the whole scene that perhaps only true crime fans understand. “I’m like a hawk on high alert when I’m on the street, constantly looking for My Favorite Murder-related merch,” says Munro. Since the My Favorite Murder community is full of acronyms and inside jokes, wearing the merch becomes a way of signaling that you’re part of a secret club.
The insider vibe isn’t exclusive to the podcast, either. A beige Volkswagen pin is just a beige Volkswagen to most people — except for your fellow Bundyphiles, who know all about the missing front seat and the mask in the trunk.
Of course, by producing and wearing these crafts — by boiling down serial killers and cult leaders to their most iconic elements, making them cute, and thus trying to control them — sellers risk getting pulled off Etsy, and buyers risk offending people. In a way, all of this serial killer merch is a form of rubbernecking, and let’s be honest: Your grandma will never approve. But that’s the world of true crime, a messy space that fans are already comfortable inhabiting.
“We as women who love to talk about serial killers don’t have to keep it in anymore — we don’t have to hide the slightly less palatable side of ourselves,” says Avery. “If someone thinks we’re weird and strange, it doesn’t matter, because we know there is a huge group of badass ladies [out there] that will take us into their conversations about Ted Bundy like we’ve been friends since second grade.”
That’s all well and good, you might think, but at the end of the day, how can young women bear to own something that conjures up someone like Bundy, who killed people just like them? One argument is that true crime fans — who are mostly female — view murder both as an object of curiosity and something to actively protect themselves against. It’s like a vaccine: A weakened form of the toxin can immunize you against that toxin.
Given that duality, these murderous emblems — Bundy’s Volkswagen, Manson’s silhouette, Kemper’s glasses, Gacy’s clownish smile — represent both the wearer’s biggest fear and their talisman against that fear. The beige Volkswagen pin is a wink to other true crime fans, yes. But it’s also a reminder to stay far away from handsome men with sociopathic eyes.