The girls are rising. They clamber forth from deep pits in Juarez, the lunar slide of their hipbones canted and pocked. They scratch their way out of shallow holes in the Oregon forest, dirt staining the fractured moons of their fingernails. In Florida, saltwort coils round their feet, desperate to keep them there in the humid embrace of the swamp, but they rise nonetheless—the murky water ripples and then stills. Forty-three girls rise beside the Highway of Tears, causing a cold wind to push insistently at passing trucks. An army of girls are unlatching the trunks of abandoned cars and breaking through crawlspaces; they are coming from basements and oil drums and farmlands.
They make no sound as they rise.
None of this is true. Except—the dead girls are true, all of them. They have been raped and strangled, or bludgeoned, or shot. Some of them are found, eventually. Some vanish into the ether and stay there, accessible only as a dated photo and a brief blurb on a missing persons’ website. But the rising part, the reckoning, is just a story. The idea began as a grad school project, and then it transmuted into a horror story. Halfway through, I realized the endeavor was pointless: the reality is horror enough. Still, I suppose, I wanted to grant these women some kind of agency, put them in a parallel universe where retribution was possible. Can’t you almost see them? Look, they rasp. We are here.
Picture the basement crawlspace of your mind, the place where things pace and growl. I visit mine frequently, a library of murders and disappearances. The lighting is bad down here, naturally, but if you squint you can see them in life: little girls with cornrows, teenagers on the soccer field, middle-aged women twisting their hair up into makeshift buns. They bear names like Awilda and Rosa and Janteyl, Laura and Jalesa and Rachael. Some of them vanish from their office, or from school; others are found in garbage bags hundreds of miles away from their homes, or broken and bloody on the floors of their kitchens. There are cases car-engine-in-January-cold, where we have no real information, and there are cases littered with clues that nonetheless stutter and stall.
And then there are the Jane Does—the ghost girls. The Doe placeholder, affixed to those victims we cannot identify, is actually a remnant of antiquated British law, but when applied to women it seems both repellent and apropos; it calls to mind those who are hunted, all shuddering flesh and liquid eyes. It is this population that disturbs me the most, for someone, somewhere, must know who these women are, and yet their remains can go unidentified for decades and beyond. Of course, there are instances where the remains are unrecognizable, and the success rates on such cases is abysmal. On websites like the Doe Network, a volunteer organization whose mission is to “give the nameless back their names and return the missing to their families,” you can scroll through an endless procession of the nameless and negated. Occasionally, the Doe profiles will paint achingly detailed portraits of these women; there might be photographs of the heart-shaped lockets they wore, or observations about the color of their socks. There are often notes regarding their teeth; if the body is fresh enough, there will be information on the scars upon their skin, what kind of tattoos they have, if there were birthmarks.
But some of the cases featured on the Doe Network are particularly nightmarish in their very abstractness; consider the unidentified woman found in Tucson, Arizona in October 1965. Rather, consider her cranium and mandible, because that’s all that was left of her. Her profile is accompanied by several facial reconstructions, horrid in their silent, mannequin-like gaze. The only clues to her identity are a plain metal ring found among her remains and one distinguishing feature: “Lower jaw underdeveloped on the right side causing her mouth to close crookedly, which would be noticeable to those who knew her.” I picture this woman gamely applying her lipstick, evening out the crooked space with small, precise strokes.
And so I add to my mental library frequently, poring through crime sites and message boards. I scrutinize the pictures of missing women, hoping that perhaps I will recognize a Doe. This isn’t entirely ridiculous: there’s a legion of internet sleuths doing the same thing, and once in a while they do make identifications, or even help resolve cases. I’m not even particularly observant in everyday life, and yet magical thinking dictates I’ll remember a girl I saw ten years ago at a highway rest stop, all from a website photo.
I just want them to have their names back.
Hope Doe, age 8-11, African American. Hope’s headless body was found in the basement of an abandoned building in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1982. She may have been sexually assaulted; she was strangled, then decapitated. Hope wore a yellow sweater. Her nails were painted with red nail polish. She has never been identified; neither has her killer.
This doesn’t sound right, at all. It’s reductive, negating—no longer a child but a collection of tersely horrid observations. What about her breath, sour-sweet with grape bubblegum? That scrape on her knee, where she fell on the blacktop? What is this child’s name?
If you identify as a woman, you already knew about these crimes. Even if you’re not the type to research them, even if you never consciously think about them at all—you feel the possibilities in your very bones. You’re catcalled because you are walking down the street or you’ve found yourself leaving a bar to escape a wolf-jawed stranger, or your new boyfriend pushes you that one time until it starts to feel normal; all of these things remind you of how easy this is, to be hurt. How easy it is to die.
My sister and my mother and I knew this early on. Yes, we should all be wary of the ravenous stranger, but too often it’s the devil we know that gets us. It is the boyfriend, the husband, the father. The world is inverted; the hunting grounds are inside our homes. We are does, transfixed and trembling at the sight of the father’s hands wrapped round the mother’s throat. We are relieved when it’s over, relieved he didn’t kill her this time.
We don’t tell anyone. This is a family matter. We are bound by the knots of our own indoctrination: nice girls follow the rules, and nice women sleep in the beds they’ve made.
The Violence Policy Center reviewed findings from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report (from 2012) and extrapolated the following: for homicides in which the victim to offender relationship could be identified, 93 percent of female victims (1,487 out of 1,594) were murdered by a male they knew. Thirteen times as many females were murdered by a male they knew (1,487 victims) than were killed by male strangers (107 victims). For victims who knew their offenders, 62 percent (924) of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers.
But lest this appear a bit precious, (the desire for the lost women to regain their names, the lucky status as a survivor rather than a victim of abuse) know this: something inside me writhes in discomfitingly thrilling recognition at each photo, each case description—how gruesomely compelling, how damningly, nihilistically entertaining. These cases are horror movies that can never be turned off, and I watch them with an avidity that is difficult to process.
Preoccupation with murder seeds itself in a certain varietal of people. It is not for everyone; for example, it is not for my husband. He thinks this obsession is unhealthy, possibly damaging. I have tried to explain to him why I consume these stories so avidly, but it doesn’t connect. “It’s comforting,” I say. “Confirmation the world is totally fucked.” There is a willful, childlike obstinacy about this point of view, because it is comforting to wallow in warmly nihilistic waters. He argues that this perspective is skewed, that I am looking at this disproportionately, that there is good but I refuse to see it. Truthfully, I’m glad he lacks a brain like mine, a rusty whirring thing always calculating and catastrophizing. And so, I try to restrain the flow of horrible stories; I don’t wish to infect him.
Instead, I turn to like-minded vultures that will circle the bodies with me. There is my sister—OMFG, she texts, did you hear about those three women in Florida—and a good friend who graciously lends me her copy of Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation. This is a bible for ghouls, essentially– a fat guide to forensic pathology featuring gunshot wounds and skin slippage and third degree burns, picture after picture of utter, abject horror. I’d like a copy of this book for every room in my house. It tells me that we are all walking, talking bags of meat, ready to spoil and tear and leak with small provocation, and nowhere is this clearer than in these photos. As a reminder of one’s mortality, it’s supreme; my version of “dance like no one is watching,” except it’s more like “dance while you can before someone shoots you in the head and leaves your corpse in the woods.”
My book-lending friend and I present cases to each other like delicacies. Shameless in this pursuit, we are crows in the pasture, pecking out the tender-jellied eyeballs of lambs. Our shared enthusiasm for these particular grotesqueries might push past the normative, but if we’re strictly talking female murder victims, we’re in good company. Listen to any reporter’s voice quicken as they report a girl’s body was found. Witness the plethora of abduction and murder TV shows and the advent of countless podcasts, ones with names like True Crime Garage and My Favorite Murder. Collectively we love to wallow in this narrative, salivating over the most salacious bits. The problem is we don’t fully admit this part; instead, we insist there is only utility here, lessons that teach the art of self-preservation, or we tell ourselves we watch and listen to honor the dead. And then we turn it off and go make dinner because a girl’s always being killed somewhere and we still have to eat.
Implicit within this milieu is a weird kind of objectification, a glorification of the perceived frailty and purity of women and girls. Salacious details are reported in ways that highlight this —a girl’s wrists bound with her own underwear, a woman strangled until her voice is silenced, and of course rape, rape, and more rape. Think Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, in her cerement of plastic; a silent angel with violet-tinged skin. She functions as patron saint of the dead girls: passive, perfect, silent beauty. The reality of actual dead girls isn’t quite as pretty, but the fascination remains. We fetishize female bodies in death, much as we do in life. Does this mean we are all horrible ghouls, feasting on the dead? Is it an inherently anti-feminist act, one that takes pain and suffering and alchemizes it into entertainment?
This ghoulishness is certainly present, yes; for some people, the consumption of the female body is part and parcel of the true crime genre. But then there are those that truly try to help, the aforementioned Web sleuths who pore over documents and comb corners of the Web, trying to match Does and contact families. It’s a noble (if often fruitless) task. People like this tell the stories of the dead over and over again, ensuring the narrative is not forgotten. At its heart, this strikes me as pure hope, something tiny and brave trying to not get swallowed up by the darkness.
When I try and unpack my personal predilection towards the genre, I come up with a formula that looks something like this: one part base fascination with deviant behavior and psyche—my attempt to pick apart predacious behavior and trace it back to the source; one part recognition, the metallic taste in my mouth that reminds me I could have been one of those girls, that my mother might still be one someday; one part familiarity (it’s a long story, but I have a deceased quasi-family member who committed murder) and one part recognition, because I know how violence sparks and flares and recedes so fast that it burns everything up with its heat. I have experienced utter powerlessness at another’s hand, and so I think “I know you” when I read about the girl that vanished, leaving only her car, or the mother’s body that washed up on the beach. It is membership in a grim club that none of us asked for. There is, to be sure, an element of voyeurism and rubbernecking, but even this bears the weight of recognition: such violence feels like home, where many of us have to live.
An underpinning of this, one that roils just below the surface, is my determination to never be hurt by anyone again. I think the more I know, the more I study the circumstances, the angles—that somehow I can avoid a similar fate.
As if I could stop it. As if anybody could.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the rapacious crow and the mourning sister. How do these disparate halves adhere? I think of the Irish and Welsh sin eaters of the 18th and 19th century, professional mourners hired to absolve the sins of the deceased. At the deathbed, the deceased’s loved ones would prepare a meal and pass the plate over the body; the sin eater would consume that meal, therefore absolving the dead’s sin. It’s hauntingly beautiful, really, except that the sin eaters lived in abject poverty and were severely ostracized for their work. How repellent—the filling of one’s belly with darkness and secrets, and yet such noble work. Someone has to be a repository for all the things that cannot be borne. Perhaps our attraction to murder is modernity’s answer to sin eating. We consume these deaths, these vanishings—an act limned with both greed and grace.
Amity Bitzel writes and teaches in Central PA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and the Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore, and some of her fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in Snap Judgement, This American Life, xojane, weheartthis, and Hobart. She is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Bone Palace Ballet.