Many true crime enthusiasts look forward to the evening when they can unwind with a gripping docuseries, podcast, or an episode of a show like Dateline. But one minute Keith Morrison is narrating the details of a shocking murder and then…you wake up just in time to see the killer being sentenced in court.
How could you fall asleep when hearing the details of a gruesome crime, a family member recounting their tragedy, or a case where you really want to know how the investigation unfolded — and most importantly, who the criminal was?
If true crime stories lull you into a slumber, a variety of factors are at play, including the narrator’s or host’s voice and style and where and when you watch or listen. In fact, part of the reason you can get so sleepy may be due to the tradition of telling kids sometimes frightening stories at bedtime. Feeling relaxed enough to fall asleep can often be a reassuring outcome of listening to a true crime story.
A soothing voice can make you drowsy
If you can’t seem to stay awake for your podcast or show, part of the reason may be the voice of the narrator or podcaster. Even the most die-hard fans of Dateline’s Morrison, for example, admit that even they are often lulled to sleep by the famous crime correspondent’s “warm and rhythmic baritone,” which GQ likened to being “tucked in under a weighted blanket,” producing “the same chemical effect in the brain as testing out a mall-stand scalp massager.”
Many attendees of CrimeCon this spring in Las Vegas — an annual true crime convention that attracts thousands of armchair detectives — told BuzzFeed News that they deliberately listen to true crime shows or podcasts to fall asleep.
This includes self-described members of the Keith Morrison Fan Club, a quartet who traveled from Oregon to attend CrimeCon.
“I need some noise” to fall asleep, Tarah Renshaw, 30, told BuzzFeed News, “and there’s nothing I would rather listen to than Keith.”
Morrison himself is not the slightest bit offended, despite having spent months working on an episode his fans sleep through.
“No, no, it’s a compliment,” he insisted to BuzzFeed News in the greenroom prior to taking the stage at CrimeCon. When people watch Dateline at home, “We’re not there as company, we’re there as family,” he said. “You can fall asleep to family.”
The Calm meditation app is hoping to capitalize on this magic by enlisting Morrison to narrate one of the app’s “Sleep Stories”: “The Curious Case of the Overnight Oats,” a reimagining of the Goldilocks fairy tale.
“A lot of the children’s stories we tell kids at bedtime are monster stories.”
“You’ve been putting people to sleep for years, and now it’s deliberate,” Dateline correspondent Josh Mankiewicz told Morrison, his pseudo rival on the show, who responded with a hearty laugh.
This Is Monsters podcaster Jiles O’Neal has been told by a number of his listeners that they fall asleep during his shows.
“I think it’s more about my voice for people than anything else,” he told BuzzFeed News at his table at CrimeCon’s “Podcast Row.” “They think my voice is soothing.” And while many podcasts have cohosts and guests, O’Neal said that on This Is Monsters, “It’s just me. I just narrate the story. I don’t talk to other people. … I don’t get excited, I don’t scream. … I’m very consistently level. They can kind of drift off into my even tone.”
And if his listeners are dozing, O’Neal makes sure they won’t be jolted awake by ads. “I have some in-show ads I read and make sure when I get to those, that also stays level.”
This all makes sense to Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in sleep medicine practices at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. For example, he said he’s seen Reddit threads about people falling asleep to nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. “They’re familiar with it and it’s a soothing voice,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“With the crime story, I think it’d be the same thing, where the narrator is … describing something that is scary, but at the same time is not fluctuating the voice a lot as they’re describing it. So it can be soothing to you, and it’s reassuring because you’re familiar with it.”
When Ashley Donnelly, 31, who traveled to CrimeCon from Chicago with her 29-year-old sister-in-law Amber, falls asleep to true crime shows and podcasts, she said, “It has to be one where the narrator has a very calming voice … typically one with a single narrator.”
That is not the case with one of her favorite podcasts, Fruitloops, which is cohosted by two women. “They use a lot of sound effects and banter back and forth,” Donnelly said, so she’s never fallen asleep while listening to them.
Notably, both Fruitloops cohosts, Beth Williams and Wendy Williams, themselves fall asleep to other true crime podcasts. “I love listening to true crime podcasts to go to sleep,” Wendy Williams told BuzzFeed News. “It’s very helpful.”
How gruesome content can lull people to sleep
It’s easy to see why people can fall asleep to a dulcet voice telling the tale of a hungry little girl breaking into a bear family’s house and eating their porridge, but true crime narrators are often recounting the details of unthinkable violence.
Like Morrison, O’Neal hears from listeners that they fall asleep to his podcasts all the time. Unlike the crimes featured on shows like Dateline and 48 Hours, however, the subjects of O’Neal’s aptly named This Is Monsters podcast are “the worst people on the planet,” he said, including family annihilators, parents who kill their children, and a man accused of raping and torturing children.
“I cover horrible people,” O’Neal told BuzzFeed News. “And people are like, ‘I go to sleep with this,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh…OK.’”
“I try not to shame people … everybody's got their own thing,” he said, acknowledging that because of his podcasts, his own life “now revolves around horrible murderers.”
The phenomenon might be less surprising when you consider the tales kids are told when they’re tucked into bed at night — many not so benign as “Goldilocks.”
“A lot of the children’s stories we tell kids at bedtime are monster stories,” Pelayo, the sleep expert, told BuzzFeed News. “The stories are horrific stories — like, the witch is eating children! — and it’s what we tell them before they go to bed.”
Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, for example, “is a story about monsters, but kids can go to sleep to it all the time,” Pelayo said. “They ask for the story!”
“Typically the monsters are something to be scared of,” he said, but Wild Things shows “how you can conquer, how you can play with the monsters, you play in your dreams — like lucid dreaming in a sense.”
And often, Pelayo said, “the child is hearing the story by somebody who’s protecting them — their parents, for example.”
"When you hear about somebody’s worst day, it’s hard to remember what was so terrible about your own life."
It may seem counterintuitive to listen to podcasts about gruesome murders as a sleep aid, but Pelayo pointed out people are often hearing them in bed — “where they feel safe.”
“For many people, the bedroom is their sanctuary. So they may feel safe as they’re hearing these crazy stories … and don’t feel personally threatened by the story. They’re entertained by them.”
This seems to validate a theory shared by Minnie Williams, the sister of the Fruitloops true crime podcast cohost Beth Williams. “It makes you in some ways feel safe because you’re in your bed or your chair or whatever, and you’re listening to something horrific that went on and happened to somebody else and you are in your space, very safe,” she told BuzzFeed News at their Podcast Row table at CrimeCon. “And so it’s almost kind of like, Well, I’m in a little bubble, and this stuff’s out there.”
Sleep may be more likely if the story is a familiar one
And then there are cases that are so familiar to true crime fans that they become almost desensitized to the violence — even if the podcast or TV show centers, for example, on a serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 men and boys.
“I’ve heard so much about the John Wayne Gacy murders — my mom actually grew up in the area where it happened and everything — so I feel really bad to say that, like, I’ve heard the details so many times that I can kind of put that in the background,” said Donnelly, the true crime fan from Chicago, about her ability to doze off to episodes featuring the “killer clown.”
Conversely, Pelayo suggested that people who aren’t avid true crime consumers are unlikely to drift off to sleep if they tune in at bedtime. “Because then it’s a novelty and that'll keep you awake, because then you’re curious: How’s it turn out? But if you’ve heard several of these when you’re awake, you know more or less the pattern, you know what to expect, you know you can rewind that later. That familiarity is what helps you fall asleep to it.”
You can just pick up where you left (dozed) off
Unless they fell asleep out of boredom, most snoozers will pick up where they left off. Katy Sproat, 33, another Keith Morrison Fan Club member, said that when she falls asleep in the middle of true crime shows, she usually returns to watch the ending. “My mom watches them too,” she said, “so we eventually finish them. Like, ‘Did you watch this one?’ And like, ‘Half of it...?’”
Some people don’t bother rewinding and instead go directly to the source to find out the resolution.
Dateline correspondent Dennis Murphy told BuzzFeed News, “I had a guy in church who said, ‘What happened in Arkansas — who killed her?’"
Mankiewicz has the same experience, although he is skeptical that people conk out during Dateline’s new episodes on Friday night (despite evidence to the contrary — for example, I had to watch their genuinely riveting Sherri Papini episode in four segments because I kept falling asleep). “They’re talking about one of the repeats that they saw in their bedroom and then fell asleep and they want me to tell them how it ends,” Mankiewicz said.
Correspondent Andrea Canning added, “Yeah, and you get a lot [saying], ‘I fell asleep. Where can I watch it?’”
The storytelling is important too: It has to engage your mind
For Fruitloops cohost Wendy Williams, it’s as much about the storytelling and sense of security as it is people with soothing voices.
“I feel like it’s really comforting. I hate to say it but I — when you hear about somebody’s worst day, it’s hard to remember what was so terrible about your own life. I feel bad saying that, but that’s my truth,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“And yeah, it just carries you away, the storytelling,” she added.
Her Fruitloops cohost, Beth Williams, said, “Personally, I listen to history documentaries to fall asleep, specifically because of the voice. But if it’s too lively, like if there's gunshots or whatever, then I can’t do it.”
“I am interested in history — it’s not that it’s boring,” she added. Instead, “it engages your mind, so you’re not thinking about other things that maybe are stressing you out, like the workday tomorrow, you gotta do this for the kids, or whatever.”
“It allows your mind to go internal,” her sister, Minnie, said.
Beth Williams agreed. “You’re thinking about something else, and it’s soothing.”
It can be comforting to know someone is on the case
Donnelly said she suspects that people fall asleep because “there’s typically a resolution and you know somebody’s handling it.”
This was echoed by Minnie Williams. “It’s comforting knowing somebody's out there trying to figure this stuff out, like some forensics person who's out there working on something, you know, and making the world a better place. So to me that’s also soothing. Like somebody’s taking care of it, you know?”
“It’s like there’s a real-life Batman or Spider-Man,” Wendy Williams said.
So is it unhealthy to fall asleep to true crime shows?
Pelayo, who literally wrote a manual called How to Sleep, said it’s normal — and often healthy — to fall asleep to true crime shows and podcasts, especially if they allay circular thinking and help you sleep through the night.
“Throughout history, people slept in all kinds of unusual ways,” he pointed out, including bedtime stories and the evolution of pillows and mattresses.
“The drive to sleep is so powerful,” Pelayo said, “people fall asleep in conversation and, say, really sleep-deprived people fall asleep driving their cars.”
(That’s not to say it’s dangerous to listen to true crime podcasts while driving — in fact, that’s when many people listen to them, CrimeCon attendees told BuzzFeed News. Driving while drowsy can be deadly regardless.)
Despite some unquestionably disturbing true crime content, Pelayo notes, “People will voluntarily listen to these recordings and these shows because that's what they're familiar with. And I think that’s why it’s working for them.”
“But if a patient says to me, like, ‘I wake up in the middle of the night, I can’t get back to sleep, my mind is racing,’ then I would discourage them from listening to something like this in the beginning of the night. Instead, I want them to take some time away from the bedroom to give some thoughts to the things that are on their mind that are causing circular thinking.”
The most important thing is that people fall asleep and then sleep through the night.
“If it doesn’t bother you the next day,” Pelayo said, “then you’re OK.”