Alex Murdaugh updates attract cult-like true-crime following

October 29, 2021
The Murdaugh family murder drama has captured the online attention of users on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok while also spawning a number of popular true crime podcasts.
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The Alex Murdaugh saga appears to be the perfect recipe for a made-for-TV murder mystery — a backwoods-Southern-Gothic tale of death that is still unfolding. 

On the night of June 7, Alex Murdaugh, a prominent South Carolina attorney from a well-known family, reported finding his wife, Maggie, and youngest son, Paul, shot multiple times and killed. To date, no arrests have been made and little official information released.

The world learned about a fatal boat crash and alleged coverup, a second homicide investigation, embezzlement accusations, an admitted drug addiction, numerous civil suits and an  alleged insurance scheme.

This drama has attracted every form of news coverage, from print and radio to television, from small town S.C. Lowcountry newspapers to media outlets in New York and Europe. 

Dateline NBC will air a special episode at 9 p.m. Friday, and CBS 48 Hours will air at 10 p.m. Saturday featuring the case. Both episodes will include reporting and commentary from USA TODAY Network’s coverage of this story since 2015.

Money, murder, mystery: Another twist unfolds in case of former South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh

Oct. 22:911 calls released from Alex Murdaugh shooting — a botched insurance fraud scheme, police say

For state police, it’s a high-profile string of ongoing investigations.

For the rest of the world, the Murdaugh double homicide and subsequent saga has developed a cultlike following on social media. It also comes as the high-profile disappearance and death of Gabby Petito also attracted the attention of social media sleuths

“This is a tangled tale that hits all the bases in the popular imagination: a corn-pone mafia, mischief, murder, madness, magnolias, moonlight, moonshine, even marijuana if you dig deep enough,” said Roger Pinckney XI, a Lowcountry novelist who specializes in tales of dark adventure and Gullah hoodoo. “It’s perfect for the big screen. But movies have an ending, while this one just goes on and on, spreading and twining like kudzu vine, no ending – not even a beginning – in clear sight.”

The Murdaugh saga has sparked Twitter and Facebook feeds, memes, Tik Toks, podcasts and social media discussion groups. Online sleuths everywhere are digging into the case, looking for answers and sharing speculations and theories.

One true crime podcast, “The Murdaugh Murders – Impacts of Influence,” has over a million downloads and counting, while a second, “Murdaugh Murders Podcast,” is also trending nationally. 

“There are three elements to any good story – power, money and sex – and this has got all three if we look deep enough,” said Sam Crews, a Hampton County historian who knows the Murdaugh family well. “It’s exciting to people because there is this seemingly wealthy, attractive couple that had it all, and it comes unraveled. Then something new happens almost every week, but it wasn’t anything new that everybody in town (Hampton, S.C.) hadn’t been gossiping about for years.”

There are currently at least 14 private Facebook groups that are devoted solely to discussions of the Murdaugh cases. One group, “Murdaugh Murders – Case Discussion,” currently has 24,000 members. Another, “Horror in Hampton: The Murdaugh Mysteries,” has 16,000 members, while “Murdaugh Murders Theories and Speculations,” has 11,000 members. 

On Reddit, numerous groups are devoted solely to the topic of the Murdaugh double homicides and anything Murdaugh-related. 

“People want to believe that, if they put themselves into the narrative, maybe they can crack the case and assume the unlikely hero role,” said Kaitlyn Park, manager and lead analyst at the USC Social Media Insights Lab. “They hope that maybe they’ll find things law enforcement doesn’t have access to. They can’t join a search party, but people like to feel like they can help in other ways. Reddit, in particular, has a very avid true crime community, with people that hope to find things that law enforcement has missed.”

Twitter has been ripe with comments and content related to the Murdaugh cases:

Statistics show that some social media sites, such as Pinterest, Instagram and Tik Tok, are more popular with women than with men. The true crime genre is also more popular with women, Park says. People join these online true crime communities because, not only is there a shared interest, there is a sense of being a part of something and a sense of safety, with just a hint of danger and excitement.

“Subconsciously, as women, we think if we know these stories, and all the details, we can protect ourselves from something like this happening to us,” said Park. “In a sense, it makes us feel safer. But we also know the reality that something bad can happen, so that’s exciting.”

“Because of this, we can explore these true stories, with these dark elements, and we are able to safely satisfy our curiosity at a distance,” she added. “We start to connect with these stories, and connect with these characters, or we vilify these characters. And we can immerse ourselves into these stories through our digital screens, without the danger of being directly involved.”

There are numerous Murdaugh-related Tik Toks out there, some created by social media influencers with millions of followers.

There are also YouTube videos, including one that already has 10,800 views, and another reviewing Alex Murdaugh’s 911 call the night he reported finding his dead wife and son for credibility.

Why are we obsessed with the Murdaugh murder saga?

Because it has all the classic storytelling elements,

“This is classic drama,” Grant said. “There are even elements of Greek tragedy in this, such as the mother and son being murdered together.”

People are also fascinated by tales of woe when they happen to those perceived as rich and powerful, the professor added. 

“People are fascinated by stories where the rich and powerful are brought down to size,” said Grant. “Nothing satisfies the soul more than seeing someone who is rich and powerful, who got there by questionable means, lose it because of their malfeasance.” 

The uncertainly of what happens next, and the fast pace at which events have transpired, also lends itself to the strong magnetism of this story.

Within the space of one week, the public learned that Murdaugh had reportedly been shot in the head, then it learned of his drug addiction, followed almost immediately by accusations that he had stolen money from his law firm. 

“You have to have uncertainty,” added Grant. “Something happened, and we don’t know exactly what happened, and there is a new twist to it almost ever week. It’s truly like episodic television. It’s like with every episode, there is a new plot twist. What’s going to come next? Are we going to find there was a butler involved? Come back next week! The big question is, where is it going to end?”

Another impactful element is that this story is happening while our nation and world are still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“With all the uncertainty around us, having something to distracts us is a powerful force. While this story certainly had legs, it is even stronger in this environment,” added Grant. 

Park has done extensive analytical studies of the phenomenon of true crime at the USC Social Media Insights Lab, as well as what she calls “social media sleuthing,” and their impacts in the real world.

“Our fascination with true crime is not anything new,” said Park. “Throughout history, there has always been an attraction to mysteries. But it used to be a niche thing. Now it’s a mainstream interest.”

The impacts of a social media frenzy 

The intense interest from online true crime lovers can have a variety of impacts, said Park. She mentions the recent Gabby Petito case, where information uncovered or shared by social media sleuths actually contributed to the case, and even helped find another missing person, while drawing attention to scores of other missing persons cases. She called social media the “ultimate milk carton” and the “ultimate Amber Alert” for missing persons cases.

If true crime sleuths can help solve cases, there is also a negative side when police can’t control the narrative and the flow of information to the public. 

“Misinformation can block out valid tips,” Park countered. “All this proliferation of information can make it difficult for law enforcement to comb through it all. You’ve got some people that want their 15 minutes of fame, who exploit true tragedies, and this can also hurt the families involved. 

Park mentioned the case of the Boston Marathon Bomber, in which social media led to misidentification of suspects, and possibly to copycat cases. 

Intense social media scrutiny and commentary can also be harmful to the people and communities close to these crime stories. Park mentioned the Elisa Lam case, where a young lady was found dead in a water tank atop a hotel. That case was officially ruled an accidental drowning, but not before allegations of foul play had a negative impact on the families involved, the investigating officers, and even the hotel employees.

“It is great to hold law enforcement accountable, but sometimes people thought they were doing good, but in the end did more harm. The media coverage that comes along with this intense social media scrutiny can be very traumatic, not just for the people involved but for the communities. It should be important that the people in these cases are ultimately not exploited.”

Widespread Internet attention can particularly be devastating to a small rural area like Hampton County, with a population of less than 19,000 people, a usually quiet place where most families know each other.

“People are persistent on social media, and things that can stay hidden in small communities can’t stay hidden for long when the online true crime community gets involved,” Park said. “Hampton County is not used to this type of publicity.”

“Innocent people are being brought into a situation where they may not have had an involvement. Online, people have created cinematic versions of events, in this sleepy Southern town, and made characters out of its people, and that can be harmful.”

“What happens when all this goes away?” she added “I don’t think everything and everyone returns to normal.”

Contributing: Carol Motsinger, Daniel Gross and Abraham Kenmore



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Life is like a running cycle right! I am a news editor at TIMES. Collecting News is my passion. Because my visitors have the right to know the truth and perfectly.

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