Serial Killers
Jessica Akridge/The Anniston Star

Their names echo through the centuries (Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy).

Their deeds are the definition of madness (Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson).

They are the reason we fear walking into our homes alone at night (Richard Ramirez, Dennis Rader).

They are why we fear our children aren’t safe in their own beds (JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart).

They are the reason we are wary of our neighbors (Marie Hilley).

They have made clowns creepy (John Wayne Gacy) and turned heroes into monsters (O.J. Simpson).

Because of them, we know that beautiful, young women (Casey Anthony) and kindly old men (Albert Fish) can have murderous hearts.

They are our real-life bogeymen, and we can’t get enough of them.

"We’re all afraid of the monster under the bed, but we still look to see if it’s really there," said Joseph Scott Morgan, associate professor of applied forensics at Jacksonville State University. "It’s human nature."

Before he was named the Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics at JSU, Morgan was one of the South’s leading crime scene investigators, working in New Orleans and Atlanta.

Morgan has been the on-air forensics expert for CNN’s Headline News and has appeared with Nancy Grace upwards of 50 times, discussing such high-profile cases as Jodi Arias/Travis Alexander and George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin. He doesn’t get paid for these appearances; his goal is to inspire the future.

"I always took the position that someone’s daddy or momma would be watching this show, and maybe they have a kid who was interested in true crime and wanted to major in forensics," Morgan said. "Well, JSU’s got one of the oldest investigative forensics programs in the nation, so if me being on these shows promotes JSU, it’s all worth it."

On Feb. 13, producers for Investigation Discovery (the TV network that specializes in true crime) will visit JSU’s Houston Cole Library to air a never-before-seen episode of "The Killing Season." Afterward, they’ll take questions from the audience.

"It should be of great interest to true crime fans, web sleuths, and those interested in investigations/forensics," Morgan said. "The producer’s contact folks have advised that we are the only university in the Southeast to be hosting this program."

Investigation Discovery was also in Anniston in December filming for an upcoming show about Calhoun County’s most notorious murderer, Audrey Marie Hilley, better known as the "Black Widow."

‘TV has become our campfire’

Growing up in Louisiana, Morgan was fascinated by his grandmother’s stories, especially one in particular. It was around the 1920s, and she and her older sister were sent to the jail with a basket of food for a woman who’d killed her husband with a butcher knife.

"I remember Granny sitting at the table and talking about that childlike fear she had of walking down the street toward the jail," Morgan said. "I was fascinated by this.

"As a small child … that guttural bile, that nervousness that would rise up in you, not only to see this woman, but to see this place, these cells where they’d keep humans. It was something I couldn’t imagine."

In his memoir, "Blood Beneath My Feet," Morgan writes about his family and his career as a death investigator. In his years of dealing with death, he’s come to understand why people are fascinated with stories about humanity’s dark side.

"My perspective is as a Southerner, and I think dwelling within every Southerner is a storyteller. It’s in our nature, and the TV has become our campfire. That’s where we weave our tales," he said.

True crime stories can provide valuable insight, but good storytelling requires nuance, something TV shows often lack.

"These stories are better than politics," he said. "These things, these types of stories, were told over and over by my grandparents. And you could learn a lot about not only the people, but the place and time and community they inhabit … you don’t really get that with the Discovery Channel."

Unless he’s on a panel discussing a case, true crime isn’t Morgan’s favorite type of TV show.

"I don’t really get it," he said. "Honestly, I’d rather watch reruns of ‘Seinfeld.’"

Portrait of a true crime addict

Joy Patty of Piedmont doesn’t mind being called a true crime addict. It’s a fair assessment, given that her favorite TV shows start with "Crime Watch Daily" on Fox followed by "Forensic Files" on CNN.

"Quite often I realize I have already seen one, but I go ahead and watch again because I can’t remember ‘who done it,’" she said.

Patty recently finished a book about Rabbittown’s own Viola Hyatt, who, in 1958, shot and killed Lee and Emmett Harper, chopped up their bodies and tossed the pieces across St. Clair and Etowah counties.

"I’ve never thought about whether it was OK to like or not," said the 75-year-old Patty. "I’m a fairly curious person about anything that’s going on in the world, and like to learn all I can."

For people like Patty, it’s a good time for true crime.

"I know the number of stories available have really increased over the years," she said. "So have our TV channels."

The king of true-crime channels

It’s not just television that’s attempting to satisfy our appetite for crime stories.

In its first season, the online podcast "Serial" became a runaway hit. "Serial" investigated the January 1999 murder of Baltimore-area high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of Adnan Syed in 2000. According to Apple, "Serial" is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in the history of iTunes.

HBO’s documentary "The Jinx" grabbed headlines in 2015 when accused murderer Robert Durst went to the bathroom and forgot his microphone was on. The film crew recorded what sounded like his confession when Durst said, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

Netflix’s "Making a Murderer" and "The Amanda Knox Story," as well as dueling primetime TV shows about the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the O.J. Simpson trial, were all commercially — if not always critically — successful.

But nobody does true crime like Investigation Discovery. With shows like "Wives With Knives," "Homicide Hunter," "Nightmare Next Door" and "Evil-in-Law," ID offers true crime programming 24/7.

According to Adweek, ID is "better than any other U.S. broadcast or cable network at grabbing viewers and keeping them tuned in" — for about an hour a day, on average — longer than the average kid spends watching Disney Junior.

‘It’ll make you paranoid’

In 1989, Jessica Walker of Hobson City was 17 years old and watching "America’s Most Wanted" when she thought she recognized her mother’s boyfriend. She was babysitting at the time, and was convinced that the man she called "Donnie" was wanted for murder in another state.

"I knew it was him," Walker said. "I didn’t like him much, so it just made sense."

Walker went as far as dialing the show’s hotline before chickening out. Good thing she did, else the cops might have paid a visit to the man she would soon call "Dad" and who would one day walk her down the aisle.

"We joke about it now, but sometimes I still wonder," Walker said with a laugh. "Turns out he was a pretty great guy."

While her father-to-be was in the clear, Walker’s fascination with true crime shows has remained.

"I love all of them. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s true," she said. "You watch enough of those shows, you start to think everybody’s a murderer or is hiding some deep, dark secret. It’ll make you paranoid … but that’s not necessarily a bad thing." 

Brett Buckner is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star. Contact him at brettbuckner@ymail.com.