Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Humanities

Advisor 1

Dr. Kette Thomas

Committee Member 1

Dr. Diane Shoos

Committee Member 2

Dr. Marilyn Cooper

Committee Member 3

Dr. Adam Feltz


This dissertation examines the consumption of crime narratives in America, from seventeenth century execution sermons to the contemporary genre of true crime. These crime narratives serve to encourage orientation of the community toward the figures involved, including criminal and victim, and adapt with changing cultural and social norms. In responding to situations that have disrupted communal order, the crime narrative functions as a restoration ritual that aids members of the community responding to and recovering from the presented threat: a crime or transgression of taboo. While early religious texts focused on the figure of the criminal, a community member that has been misplaced or given power that he should not possess, secular texts began to incorporate and establish the role of the victim within the crime narratives. These texts present us with the genesis of putting the victims’ innocence on trial along with the question of the criminal’s guilt. It relies on interpretative formats of the victims’ biographies to support the criminal’s actions and even earn them acquittals in court. Every aspect of the victim – from body to biography and including race, class, and gender – functions as clues and evidence to both identify the criminal and label the victim as complicit in his/her own demise. The ritual thus functions to reinforce preestablished notions of guilt, innocence, and justice.

The contemporary true crime genre, often thought to have originated in the twentieth century, instead draws on these historical texts, their orientations toward criminal and victim, and their function as restoration ritual, creating the true crime genre as the contemporary reenactment or response to communal upheaval. The attitudes present within contemporary true crime reflect the long history of the consumption of crime narratives on American soil. Best-selling true crime books such as In Cold Blood (1966), Helter Skelter (1974), and The Stranger Beside Me (1980) support this established communal orientation toward criminals and victims. The more recent Green River, Running Red (2004) serves as an example of how embedded these beliefs and orientations have become, proving their adherence to the ritual and reinforcing its role of affirming cultural beliefs in justice, guilt, and redemption, regardless of the criminal’s or victim’s individual identity or relative situation.