CW: descriptions of violence.
It’s bizarre when Eleanor Neale replies to my first question. I’ve become so used to having her videos playing in the background, describing murders, kidnappings and missing persons’ cases. It’s incredibly odd to now hear her respond in real time. Still, this is a feeling common to many – with 1.6 million subscribers and nearly a quarter of a billion video views, Neale is one of the world’s most well-known true crime YouTubers.
Beyond views, Neale’s videos often have tangible impact. Her video on Jessie Blodgett, a nineteen-year-old singer and musician who was murdered in 2013, has been watched over 1.2 million times. The LOVE>hate Project, created by Jessie’s parents in 2016 to help victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, received an influx of donations after Neale referenced them in the video. Jessie’s father even reached out: “I remember her dad emailed me… he was just checking all the accounts. And he was like: ‘we had a huge influx of donations around last week, and I couldn’t figure out where on earth they were coming from’.” The LOVE>hate Project later featured Neale’s video on their website. Neale continues “I could tell how happy he was in this email. Sometimes I kind of forget the kind of impact that my videos have until it gets to something like that. My audience can raise hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds for particular causes. That really reminds me like why I do this.”
Such pressure – the knowledge that a victim’s friend or family member could be watching – must be intimidating. Sometimes, they may be shocked or horrified by what they see in the media. One episode of Netflix’s I Am A Killer explores the murder of Robert Mast. When family members were approached to participate in the show, Mast’s stepmother replied: “as a parent, a fellow human being, I beg you not to do this… PLEASE don’t do this!” Mast’s stepsister told TIME: “When we continue to give numbers to these shows, they keep making them. And real people living real lives keep getting re-traumatized every time.” Likewise, Lauren Bradford’s mother was murdered in 1991. In 2016, ITV aired The Secret, a drama series based on the “story” of the crime, despite resistance from Lauren and her family. Lauren wrote in the Guardian that “by calling it a story, they trivialise the reality of these events and dehumanise the impact that it has on those involved. Furthermore, careless oversights, such as the misspelling of my mum’s name in emails that I had to correct, go deeper than just a trivial mistake; this echoes a disrespect for the victims and disregard for accuracy. In telling these “stories”, they have to re-write truth to fit a narrative that gives the impression of an assumed complicity or even authorisation from the families, which is so often not the case… Truth is replaced with “good enough truth”; embellished and rewritten for entertainment”.
However, while TV documentaries have teams of researchers and PR officers who can navigate these difficult interactions, Neale is working with far fewer resources. She’s recently hired an editor to take up some of the workload while someone else makes her thumbnails (although she has the final approval, noting how some are “too movie poster for me”). While As much as Neale loves covering cases concerning serial killers, she’s had to limit these as they take her “about three weeks” to research. With a schedule which features multiple uploads each week, this is unsustainable. At the beginning of each video, Neale includes a disclaimer that she means no disrespect to the victims or their families and that all research has been obtained through reputable secondary sources. Regarding the disclaimer (which has now been replicated across the true crime YouTube community), she says “I did six videos without it. And there were so many people that commented ‘are you doing this for views?’… I don’t like that people are coming to my videos and thinking that of me when I started out just doing missing persons cases and the reason I was doing them was to get them out there”. Neale elaborates – “you do have to state your intentions. That’s the first time someone is hearing you and seeing you… They don’t know anything about you… You need to make it clear that you are just doing it to cover the case and give that victim justice in a way”. Can this be enough?
“It can be a little bit scary sometimes”. She pauses, then continues. “I’ve had so many cases where I’ve covered the case on YouTube, and then like one of the victim’s family members has emailed me: more often than not, they’re absolutely lovely. When I know that family members of these victims do see the videos, there is a huge pressure there – I’ve got to do the victim justice. I’ve got to tell their story accurately.”
One of Neale’s first videos covered the case of Alissa Turney. At the time, the seventeen-year-old’s disappearance was unsolved. Her sister, Sarah, used social media to campaign for justice. Sarah contacted Neale directly after seeing her video and explained that some of the evidence – which Neale had found through news reports – was wrong: “Her family have had this uphill battle with news outlets because they’ve always been printing things wrong about this case. And I said, ‘Look, I would love to redo this video with your input’. And I did; I took the video down. And I spoke with her sister and we completely redid the video”. In August 2020, Michael Turney – Sarah’s father and Alissa’s stepfather – was charged with Alissa’s murder. When announcing the grand jury indictment, the prosecutor addressed Sarah directly, praising her efforts. “Your perseverance and commitment to finding justice for your sister, Alissa, is a testament to the love of a sister,” she said. “Because of that love, Alissa’s light has never gone out.”
Neale tries to cover many cases relating to young women. “That is what young women who watch me respond best to, as scary as it is for them to hear all these horrific cases… I think back to when I was 16, 17, 18, and I used to walk home from my friend’s houses in the dark – they’d live two miles away from my house! I would never do that these days and I would hope that my little cousin and my friends’ little sisters wouldn’t do what we did”. In a sponsorship with sportswear brand Gymshark, Neale shared tips to stay safe while out running (such as removing information when sharing screenshots of routes on social media, location sharing, and running against traffic), while recognising that no level of precaution can guarantee protection. “That was literally my favourite sponsorship that I’ve ever done. It wasn’t as much about the brand, it was about what they stood for”. Neale tells me she wants to be a “friend” to viewers who is relatable and comforting. She seems more like this corner of the internet’s elder sister: ready with advice and concern for her fanbase, along with sympathy for those impacted by the cases she is covering.
Neale doesn’t often speak about the impact of researching – often gory, often intimately personal – crimes on a regular basis. “At this point, I’ve pretty much kind of been able to separate my work from my brain. And if I couldn’t have done that would have made me ill – if I couldn’t pull up that kind of shield, when I started researching, then it would really, really affect me”. She pauses. Her usually bubbly tone, referenced in innumerable YouTube comments in contrast to the grim subject matter of her videos, is sombre now. “I’ve gone through stages where I’ve been like an anxious mess… and then I can’t leave the house for a week…. I’ll be walking down the street when it’s kind of dark and all the cases that I’ve ever covered will be running through my brain”.
She’s stopped covering certain cases due to the impact on her own mental health; children’s cases remind her of her four-year-old nephew, who occasionally features in her videos. “These children lost their lives so traumatically”, she says, “I feel like it is important to tell their stories. But, at the same time, those were the ones that got me choked up every time… In every case of a young boy, I would relate it to my nephew. And every time I would just cry.” Speaking to BBC Sounds, Neale elaborated: “I get all the emotion out as I am researching [but] I remember I was researching the Jamie Bulger case which is one of the worst cases I have ever heard of in my life,” she recalls. “I remember I cried so much as I was researching that case.”
For viewers too, there’s a potentially negative impact when consuming excessive true crime content. Erin Parisi, a mental health counsellor who specialises in true crime coverage, told INSIDER: “For someone who has their own trauma, especially of a violent or sexually violent nature, it can be really triggering to listen to stories that are similar, or even that don’t seem similar on the surface. For some, it could be like picking a scab off of a wound over and over and over again… never giving it enough time to heal”. Amanda Vicary, an associate professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, echoed this sentiment in the Huffington Post: “Women may want to learn about crime because they fear being a victim themselves, but then with every podcast they listen to or book they read, they are just learning about another woman who was kidnapped or killed, which can then increase the fear even more”. Neale has received countless messages from young female fans (her typical demographic) who feel overwhelmed by bingeing her videos. For someone whose income relies on consistent viewers and regular channel growth, her response is surprising: “Every single time someone says that I say ‘please, please do if it’s affecting your mental state, take a step away. Don’t watch any true crime content’. Sometimes I wish I could take a break from it – as much as I love my job and as much as I feel like it benefits people. Sometimes I wish I could shut off true crime and have a happy month and then go back to it. So, I really encourage my viewers to do that to take a break every now and again. Otherwise, you’ll end up thinking the whole world is just doom and gloom all the time.”
While streaming services have led to an explosion in the amount of content available for viewers (Sky has now launched its own channel purely devoted to the genre), this isn’t a new phenomenon. Capote’s In Cold Blood is a classic of American literature, while the serials of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were greatly influenced by the British public obsessively tracking true crime cases in daily papers. True crime books have also been wildly popular for decades. A 2006 survey found it was the fastest growing literary genre; Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song even won a Pulitzer Prize. A 1993 survey conducted by Publishers Weekly found that true crime novels performed better when they focused on more gory content – with serial killers doing especially well. A direct link to the case can be viewed as even better, lending the text some form of authority. Helter Skelter, the best-selling true crime book of all time, was written by the lead Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (alongside Curt Gentry). Similarly, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me focuses on the writer’s personal relationship with Ted Bundy. True crime YouTubers are limited by the platform’s guidelines regarding graphic content and often have no relationship to the cases they’re covering. What, then, is the allure? Neale believes there’s a level of intimacy unique to YouTube. “It is so much more relatable and aware. I’m literally just a northern girl sat in my bedroom”, leading to content feeling like a “conversation” rather than being primarily “produced and edited”. This level of access and relatability cannot be replicated by documentaries. Similarly, there’s a sense of community – which Neale describes as “respectful” above all else – within her subscriber base, with viewers able to theorise and change their minds based on new evidence in real time.
The freedom of YouTube also allows creators to focus on ‘smaller’ stories. While there is a grim level of awareness regarding cases which are likely to increase engagement – Neale confesses that “the videos in which there is a young, white female in the thumbnail do twice as well as any other case” – there is also the opportunity to highlight lesser known cases. She cites a recent video covering the kidnap and murder of Latisha Frazier – “oh my god, it was awful. She was killed by all of her friends. She was lured there and killed, and I couldn’t find any videos… And I was like… ‘right, okay, I’m going to tell this story’”. More generally, a focus on sensationalising cases means that “people’s everyday stories don’t get told – like the ones where someone is killed by their partner in their home. It’s not as juicy as something else. And that’s one of the sad things that I’ve realised while I’ve been doing this job is that if people like me and my peers don’t tell the ones that don’t get the documentaries or the Netflix series, then they don’t get told. And I like to say that in the start of my videos where I cover smaller cases.
“These ones are being told on my channel because no one else will tell them and I want to tell that story.”