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.
Alex Murdaugh was a South Carolina lawyer from a well-respected family who reported that his wife Maggie and their youngest son Paul were shot and killed on the evening of June 7. There have been no arrests and not much information.
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.
A special Episode of Dateline NBC will be broadcast at 9 p.m. on Friday. CBS 48 Hours will show the case at 10 p.m. Saturday. Both episodes will include reporting and commentary from USA TODAY Network’s coverage of this story since 2015.
Money and murder: Alex Murdaugh, a former South Carolina Attorney, is another twist in the story
October 22nd:911 calls released from Alex Murdaugh shooting — a botched insurance fraud scheme, police say
It’s an ongoing string of high-profile investigations for the state police.
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 ideal for big-screen viewing. 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.”
Twitter, Facebook, and podcasts have been abuzz with the Murdaugh story. All over the internet, sleuths are looking for clues to this mystery and sharing their 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. People find it exciting because of the wealthy, beautiful couple who seem to have it all. Then it unravels. Every week something is new, but this wasn’t news that the entire town (Hampton S.C.), had heard about.
There are at most 14 private Facebook groups dedicated solely to 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 to find something law enforcement does not have. While they cannot join a search party or help others, many people feel that they could. Reddit is home to a large true crime community. People are eager to uncover things that the law has not.
There have been many comments on Twitter and other content about the Murdaugh case:
According to statistics, some social media platforms, like Pinterest, Instagram, and Tik Tok are much more popular among women than they are 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.
Park said that subconsciously as women, our brains believe knowing these stories and all details will help us protect against things like this. It makes us feel more secure in a certain sense. We also understand that bad things can happen so it’s thrilling.
This allows us to explore the true stories and dark parts of these stories. We can also satisfy our curiosity from a safe distance,” she said. We either connect to these stories and feel connected with them, or we denigrate 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 is Murdaugh the Murdaugh Murder Saga so important?
Because of its classic storytelling elements
Grant declared, “This is classic tragedy.” This story has elements of Greek tragedy such as the killings of mother and child together.
Professor explains that stories of woe are often a fascination for people who happen to be wealthy and powerful.
Grant stated that stories about the rich and powerful being reduced to size fascinate people. Nothing is more satisfying than watching someone rich and powerful lose their wealth due to malfeasance.
This story is a strong magnetism because of the uncertainty of the future and the rapid pace of events.
In just one week, Murdaugh was reportedly shot in the head. The public then learned about his drug abuse and almost instantly, he was accused of having stolen funds from his law office.
Grant added, “You need to be uncertain.” We don’t always know the exact cause of an event, so we aren’t sure what to do next. It is like watching episodic television. As with each episode, every plot twist is added. Is there a plot twist in store? Is it possible that there is a butler? Keep checking back next week. It is important to ask, “Where will it 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 so much uncertainty, it is important to have something that distracts us. Grant said that this story had legs but was even more compelling in this context.
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.
Park stated that “our fascination with true crimes isn’t something new.” Park said that mystery has been a fascination throughout history. This was once a niche interest. This is now mainstream.
A social media frenzy can have devastating effects
Park said that the intense attention of true crime fans online can have many different impacts. Park mentions Gabby Petito’s case. This case was a result of information shared or uncovered by social media sleuths. It helped to find another missing person and brought attention to scores more missing persons cases. Social media was, she said, the “ultimate milk container” and “ultimate Amber Alert for missing persons cases.
While true crime sleuths may be able to solve some cases, the negative aspect of police not being able to control narratives and information flow is not uncommon.
Park responded that misinformation could block valid tips. Law enforcement can find it hard to sort through the information because of all this proliferation. Some people want to be famous, while others exploit real tragedies. This can cause serious harm for the family.
Park spoke of the Boston Marathon Bomber. In this case, social media enabled misidentifications of suspects as well as copycat cases.
Social media commentary and scrutiny can be detrimental to those who are close to these crimes. Park also mentioned the Elisa-Lam case in which a young woman was discovered dead inside a tank on top of 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. It can be extremely traumatizing for not only the victims but also for communities to see all the media attention and social media monitoring. 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. This type of publicity isn’t something Hampton County enjoys.”
People are being forced to take part in situations that they might not have been involved with. 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 will happen when all of this is gone?” She added, “I don’t believe everything and everybody returns to normal.”
Carol Motsinger (Contributing), Daniel Gross, and Abraham Kenmore