The true-crime magazine’s grubbiest era, when lurid photoshoots and outrageous headlines grabbed an eager – and mostly female – audience.
True crime magazines have been around almost as long as mass-market publishing, feeding an insatiable public desire for sensationalism. These are magazines that are a long way from the more respectable and considered true-crime writing, eschewing any detailed analysis of cases in favour of lurid detail and a description of events that often has only a passing relationship with the facts.
The golden age of the true-crime magazine – the 1940s and 1950s – featuring impressive, classic cover art from a variety of artists, very much in the style of pulp novels of the era. But by the late 1960s, the style had changed to take advantage of loosening public morals, and increasingly featured photoshoots in which women in varying states of undress were terrorised by masked ruffians, while the headlines became ever more outrageous – the crimes in question were increasingly sexual, with rape and kidnapping competing with murder in the outrages stakes. By the 1970s and into the 1980s, the covers were often thinly disguised bondage shoots, yet these magazines remained a mid-shelf staple of drug stores and newsagents, while arguably more wholesome magazines like Playboy were either banished to the top shelf or banned entirely.
The unspoken truth of the true detective magazine is that the main audience for these sensationalised tales of rape and torture, marketed with luridly sexually violent imagery, were – indeed, still are – women. Go figure. Presumably, these magazines spoke to the sort of fantasies and a desire to confront taboo ideas that went unspoken in polite society.
The true-crime magazine is no longer as popular as it was – in many ways, the new wave of women’s magazines like Take a Break offered the same sort of sensationalist stories (just look at the headlines splashed across the covers of most magazines in the women’s section of newsagents and supermarkets) in a more respectable – and more hypocritical – package. The covers for the surviving publications have been considerably toned down, while newer titles have avoided the staged shoots entirely in favour of news photos of actual killers, and have tried to take a more serious approach to the subject, not that they are fooling anyone, of course – this is still cashing in on a morbid fascination.
But the most outrageous era of true crime magazine covers is a somewhat forgotten one, not as fondly remembered as the classic art that preceded it and often seen now as the height of sexism, bad taste and political incorrectness. I think it’s fair to say that we’re unlikely to see magazine covers like these returning to the shelves any time soon…