By Hayden Gnat and Isabelle Odeh
The true crime genre proudly represents true tales of crime that give a glimpse into real stories, however The Onion’s “A Very Fatal Murder” is all about comedy and satire and less about the truth. In the course of seven episodes, totaling roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, The Onion plays on the genre’s expectations and stereotypes in a fake murder case to provide commentary on the effect true crime has had on us as viewers. Through these episodes, we see a parody of a young girl’s brutal murder through an abundance of jokes and ad placements, allowing for a viewer to draw parallels between the real and the fake. The host, David Pascall, takes the stereotypical true crime genre and turns it into a big joke as he describes ways in which to create the perfect murder.
What creates the perfect murder you might ask? Well, this podcast offers up the answer that the perfect murder must include these factors:
- Commented on the ugly underbelly of the American Dream
- Decline in manufacturing
- Modern beauty standards
- The Gig Economy
- Factory Farming
- Saturated Fats
- The fragility of love
- The golden era of television
- CO2 Emissions
- The most important factor: no one has done a podcast on it
These multiple factors are brought up throughout the course of the season. We know what you’re thinking, and yes it is a long list, making finding a case an extreme obstacle. However, these are the main factors we find ourselves seeing sometimes within the true crime genre (seriously try and apply any of these factors with any case and you’ll be shocked by the results), or this could be something of a joke, David seems to think this is somewhat important for the listeners to understand. Through this list, David finds the perfect murder, or so he thinks, in the murder case of Hayley Price.
Hayley Price was described as a 17-year-old girl with clear skin, being a debate champion, prom queen, and a doting girlfriend. It’s worth mentioning that her father worked at the bottle cap factory. This is important to mention because this would be the place Hayley Price would be later murdered and found. This description is littered with David Pascall’s commentary on how this is the perfect murder and how it will benefit him in his own life. This plays on the true crime genre by showing how a few podcast hosts have seemed to benefit from the suffering and death of others, especially when these hosts lack tact and decency when creating their podcast episodes. This play on the true crime genre starts with the description of what is the perfect murder with David interjecting comments like, “she excelled at getting murdered,” “she was also dead,” and most agrigeous “what happened to Hayley Price and how can I get in on it?” Through these comments from David, we can see the intentional happiness that he feels that he found what he describes as “the perfect murder.”
For a podcast that focuses heavily on the extreme, the crime committed follows through with the promise of more is more. Hayley Price was shot three times, stabbed, choked, suffocated with a pillow, soaking wet due to being drowned, found with the same composition as Mars under her fingernails, and with her nails freshly painted fifteen minutes ago. With the help of “ETHL”(the Extremely Timely Homicide Locator), a Siri-type artificial-intelligence/computer program who makes true crime jokes, and finds the perfect murder. Hayley Price’s murder was perfect for David to “get in on.” The use of a technological entity to figure something out like the perfect murder is obviously a comedy tactic that provides a little bit of insight into the genre. Quite possibly this moment is referring to how podcasts hope to find the most salacious, click-worthy crime to appease the audience’s desire for more gore and betrayal. David Pascall portrays one of these fame-obsessed podcasters, even going as far as moving his entire life to Bluff Springs, Nebraska (the town where the crime was committed). Another point of commentary on the lengths in which podcasters are willing to go in search of fame and glory.
At the end of episode one (titled: “A Perfect Murder”) we meet the victim’s parents. Their portrayal of the cliched ‘grieving parents’ is filled with many funny moments and sheds light on the horrific ways some podcasts in the genre use ad placements and sponsors for monetary gain, instead of focusing on the victim and their story. David Pascall literally has the mother, as she’s bawling, read off a sponsor segment about the fictional subscription box: “Box Box”. This is a play on the way ads affect podcasts and interfere with the telling of a gruesome story just for a few extra bucks. This begs the question: Do ads have a place in podcasting? From our perspective, it’s okay for some, as long as they aren’t numerous and somewhat relate to the energy of the podcast. We think back to “Into The Dark” as a prime example of how to tastefully have ads in a podcast, while maintaining honor for those affected by the horrific crimes being committed. But “A Very Fatal Murder’ goes buck wild with the amount and types of ads that are deployed throughout. With the inclusion of Hayley’s mother and her teary reading of the sponsorship, we can gleam the insight that The Onion is mocking the emphasis other podcasts can make when it comes to ads and monetary gain.
Episode two (titled: “What I know and What I Don’t Know Yet) is a look into the investigation surrounding this “perfect murder”. We meet all of the ‘typical’ key persons in any true crime case. We have the local police force, the boyfriend, a local school teacher, the African American man who was walking the street at the time and an array of other suspects. The police force is as stereotypical as you could imagine, being as unreliable and corrupt as many other depictions in the genre. We also get this really funny idea of podcasters being the only true way to solving crime from our narrator, ironic since he is literally a podcaster. But this does point to this notion that some podcasters may have in the genre of this savior complex/idea of bringing “justice”. This episode ends with the pointing to a new suspect, after everyone’s alibis check out. The only “possible” suspect could be W.O. Calloway. Though it’s pointed out that Calloway has an alibi and could have in no way committed the crime, David Pascall already wrote out his name on a white board in huge block letters so Calloway must have committed the crime. Or at least that’s what they want you to believe. This is an obvious reference to the ‘murder boards’ that are infamous in the genre and showing how this podcast isn;t afraid to make jumps in logic to fit their own narrative.
Episode three (titled: “Calloway Day”) takes a look at Calloway Day. Calloway Day is a carnival day set to celebrate the man behind the whole town. No one has ever seen this elusive man, who sends assistance to grab things for him. We learn about the pet shop that Hayley worked at, and how Bryan, the boyfriend, gets a tattoo of Hayley riding a skateboard, eating ice cream, and flipping the bird.. Still ruling out Bryan, David feels Calloway is the one behind the murder, considering he never makes his apperance known, and that he is the most powerful man behind the scenes. As David runs around town trying to find Calloway, we get a sense of the whole “the powerful man” is the one stereotype. Unable to catch the most powerful man around town fights into the tension surrounding this case. David seems set that Calloway is the one behind this murder and makes it a goal to unravel this man to show that he is the one. After all the interviews of the suspects, ruling them out one by one, David jumps to his own conclusions, but makes his own narrative and focuses on Calloway. This is a common misconception that follows podcasters as they focus around a case. They take what they hear, and they twist and turn it into a narrative that they can push towards the audience in order to make themselves seem like they know exactly what they’re talking about. They try to make themselves seem credible and solve the case that others couldn’t solve.
Episode four, (titled: “The Official Story”) focuses on the night of the murder. This is where we receive the details surrounding Hayley’s death. On May 9th, Hayley and Bryan were supposed to meet in a field to see the stars. Hayley arrives before Bryan, due to him letting her know that he was going to be late. Bryan is planning a promposal, which is why he is late. Hayley tells him not to come however. That is when she is stabbed, shot, drowned, hair cut, and nails painted. The listeners get the exact details, as we’re told around 1:15 am she is beaten and brought to the bottle cap factory. By 1:20 am she was dead by stabbing, drowning, shot, had a haircut, and her nails painted. David wants to understand whether or not it was possible to die from all these inflicted wounds, so he sets up a test.David builds a replica bottle cap factory, which takes five months. With the help of the Nebraska interns, he replicates the crime starting with the shooting. He has an intern shoot another intern. The shot intern dies, and the intern who shot her is sentenced to prison for the murder. David wonders why is Calloway free if he could get away with the shooting and murder of Hayley? David continues to test the murder, next by asking haricut expert Joey Sharp. Joey believes whoever cut Hayley’s hair is a mastermind. David still thinks it’s Calloway, as the nail polish is revealed to be Wet n’ Wild “Midnight Plum”. Calloway has his own beauty brand called “Wet”. David focuses on Calloway, because now he shows motive against a brand that is his competitor. Through this episode we get the stereotypical sense of how cops or investigators go into trying to recreate the crime to see if the killing is accurate. Through a more satirical way, considering David uses interns to do the dirty work, and doesn’t care, we get a sense that David is doing anything he can to solve this crime. At the end of the episode we get a bombshell; it has been 10 years since the death of Hayley.
Episode five, (titled: “Did My Police Department Miss Something?”) is a two-part episode, where David Pascall takes a deep dive into the police force that he now leads. These episodes are produced roughly around ten years later. This is really a nod to how some documentaries after initial success might get a second season and there’s always a segment of what’s happened to their lives after the initial documentary. We learn that David has taken over as police chief in Bluff Springs. As any viewer would expect, David is manipulating the system and contributing to the corrupt system he still critiques today as a podcaster. We learn that David is collecting two paychecks as police chief and as a podcaster, and he’s making quite a bit of money for someone who lives in Nebraska. But it does show his obvious motive to continue to make podcast episodes about a murder he hasn’t solved. He needs this money. He wastes millions in police funding to drive big cars and shoot loud guns. We also get the inclusion of someone who died during the interim, that loss being Hayley’s boyfriend Bryan. David Pascall was involved in his death and we get a comical moment of David forgetting that he was the police chief and the person who would be in charge in an incident of this magnitude. This episode shows how David is manipulating the system for his own personal gain. In the first half of the episode it is revealed that there was a piece of evidence that was overlooked: a signed letter from W.O. Calloway. This new piece of evidence is heavily looked at in the second part of the episode. This is where we get, arguably, the best interview in the entire podcast. We hear a live interview/confrontation with W.O. Calloway, who is revealed to be an eccentric hermit who has physical evidence of his alibi. Episode 5, Part 2 ends with the notion that the case is back to square one, that we should throw everything we knew away to get a fresh perspective on the case.
The very last episode (titled: “Game Changer”) ends the podcast with the shocking revelation; the killer is ETHL, the genius computer. Or at least the interns who were desperate enough to go along with ETHL’s plan. During this episode, David is down to zero suspects as he heads back to New York to find himself once again. Having spent ten years in Nebraska, he feels he must return and go through some things before he could end this case. This is where we understand how podcasters don’t get a lot of credit for the work they do. David isn’t recognized by anyone, and more importantly no one knows about Hayley Price. What work are podcasts truly doing? How many cases go unheard? How many of these people’s stories have been lost in the attempt to garner fame in the true crime genre? David Pascal completely ignores how ETHL, a program he and his team designed, was responsible for the death of an innocent teenager, who’s story he goes on to use for his own personal gain. But instead he goes on to connect how Hayley’s death is the result of the ugly underbelly of middle America. He blames the viewer’s insatiable hunger for violence and true crime stories. Who’s to blame? The viewer or those who create to fulfill those desires? The podcast ends on an audio clip from Hayley Price, which is another common trope in the genre. A lot of documentaries and podcasts use these rare clips to garner lots of sympathy, so by including this clip, we get only a glimpse at who Hayley Price truly was.
One of the biggest features throughout the entire season would be the use of ads. We briefly touched on this, but we would be remiss not to mention how these ads are the highlight of any episode. From the typical ‘fresh-food’ subscription box to thanking many various sponsors, we get this commentary on how other podcasts in the genre don’t really relate to the content that’s being discussed, but rather used for, once again, monetary gain. A personal favorite would be the promotion of another podcast called: “Two Guys Eating Bagels So Close to the Mic” – we would totally tune in to that! It’s totally worth it just to go back and listen to these ads alone.
In short, this podcast is a fast-paced listen that focuses on commenting on the genre’s tropes and expectations to shed light on some dark spots in the way we interpret the genre and what we value as listeners. This podcast is all about high highs and low lows. With a short runtime and flooding of details, this podcast highlights the ways in which the genre could/needs to improve upon. This podcast definitely takes risks and makes a lot of jumps in conclusion, but by doing so, we see how the genre can sometimes places entertainment value higher than shedding light on the victims. So if comedy and entertainment are your thing then this podcast would be right up your alley, but if you’re looking for something that’s more credible and really offers a fresh perspective on a cold case, then this production from The Onion may not be for you.