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Make-Up and Murder: The Ethics of Monetising Murder on Social Media


Since 2014, with the release of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, true crime has certainly been booming. Netflix’s Making a Murderer, HBO’s Mind over Murder, and even the notorious Tiger King most of us consumed over lockdown, have ushered in a fascination with the grotesque and macabre, the sinister and sickening elements of just what the depths of humanity are capable of. It’s a cultural phenomenon, clearly - and it’s one social media hasn’t escaped.

In recent months, attention has been drawn to an overlap in the true crime and make-up communities on YouTube and TikTok. Content creators - often young, white women - sit in front of a camera and regale their audience with the details of Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer, or Ted Bundy’s charm, all while dolling themselves up with the latest Nyx palette and lending a casualness to their topic that often seems callous. 

So can I just tell you something really, really quickly? So for Halloween, I had two other ideas planned with, like, full body painting, you know, just trying to take it up a notch. And I was really overthinking it yesterday and I was like, I don’t know, because the next two stories I’m doing are like, pretty gruesome. And I just feel like painting my body while doing so, it doesn’t, I don’t know, I don’t know how I feel about it. You got to have boundaries somewhere. And I was just like, you know what, I don’t think, I should save it for, like, Tiktok or Instagram. 

I’m just telling you that because if my makeup looks are gonna be a flop, it’s because I changed everything last minute. But hey, we’re here for the stories and the makeup is an afterthought. 

So finally John would show his victims the finale, another trick he had, this one was called the rope trick. And the rope trick was essentially John tying a rope around their neck and then strangling them to death. It was no trick. He was murdering them. Yeah. And as John was performing this trick on different victims, he seemed to get progressively more and more aggressive. Some of them, he would just strangle with the rope, which is still awful. Not trying to say it’s not. For some of the victims, he would shove underwear deep into the victim’s throats, which would lead to them dying from asphyxiation before the rope trick came to play.

So yeah. It was a lot. It was a lot. So it went from John just sexually abusing and raping boys to now full-blown murder. Yup. He was loving it or something. [Bailey Sarian’s Devil In Disguise As A Killer Clown, YouTube)

Perhaps obviously, many people have interrogated the morality behind this content. Michelle Krasovitski discussed it last year, interviewing both consumers and academics on the phenomenon, and encouraging content creators to focus more on the victim. That way, their content remains more sensitive to the victim and doesn’t sensationalise the killer. In the same year, Samantha Selinger-Morris wrote about the problem with the tone of make-up and murder videos, and an article by Hannah Jackson in The Daily Beast pointed out the problem of racism in the true crime community in general, which carries through into these videos.

What worries me, though, is the monetisation element.

Creators on YouTube, with the level of subscribers that make-up and murder channels like Bailey Sarian, Brittney Vaughn, and Danielle Kirsty have, often are making rather a lot of money. Their traction on the platform opens them up to sponsorships, which require them to actively promote certain products in their videos (and YouTube advertising guidelines require them to be very upfront about this). Sponsorships can earn YouTubers a lot of money - between $10 to $50 per 1,000 views on a sponsored video - and so it makes sense why many content creators will take them on.

YouTuber Survey, 2019 (MyWorkfromHomeMoney.com)

But what happens when you’re making thousands of dollars out of murder? 

Most people who’ve looked at this true crime and make-up boom have focused on its ‘founder-of-sorts’, Bailey Sarian, who, with 6.44 million subscribers on YouTube, is probably the biggest contributor to the genre. Sarian takes sponsorships - for example, her video on John Wayne Gacy was sponsored by Express VPN, and her video on 
Jeffrey Dahmer by Casetify - and we might argue that taking these sponsorships isn’t exactly morally-sound. Sarian is making rather a lot of money from the violent deaths of these men’s victims, and, even if she isn’t directly disrespecting these people who have died (as Sara Pepin, another makeup and murder creator, made clear in an interview), surely making money off of recounting their deaths and the lives of their murderers in such a flippant manner is disrespectful. 

Sarian, however, seems to manage this monetisation element well. She keeps the ad part of the video separate, speaking about Express VPN in the John Wayne Gacy video before she dives into the subject matter, and Casetify before Dahmer. There’s at least some respect there; while it isn’t arguably ideal that any money at all is being made off of the pain of these victims, the explicit monetisation is being divorced from the content.

This doesn’t always happen. 

Hailey Elizabeth is a YouTuber whose content covers true crime (with the occasional sprinkle of a vlog). Her channel boasts 822k subscribers, and some of her most popular videos include deep-dives into the alleged child abuse in family vlogging channels (e.g. the Ace Family and 8 Passengers), the killing spree of Christine Paolilla, and the Rajneeshpuram cult - all while doing her makeup. 

One of her most recent videos covers the Matthew De Gruchy case. De Gruchy killed his mother and siblings after a domestic argument in 1996, and was in 2019 after spending 23 years in prison. Elizabeth titles her treatment of this case to maximise clicks - commonly known as ‘clickbait’:

Screenshot from Hailey Elizabeth's Murdered His Family After His Mom Wouldn't Let Him Use The Car: Matthew De Gruchy (https://youtu.be/8FbAtykhQzA)

Hailey Elizabeth tends to do sponsorship breaks in her videos, much like Bailey Sarian, but she does these in a slightly different way. Instead of setting the sponsorship element apart at the beginning of her video, like Sarian, Elizabeth inserts the sponsorship segments into the content of the video. In this video, we go from the search for a murder weapon and interviews to an advertisement for the mobile app Best Fiends. Then, we go from a discussion of the note found that proved the murder was premeditated, to an advert for life insurance - perhaps the most tasteless part of this video of all. 

I just want to reiterate that for a second. In a video discussing the brutal murders of a woman and two of her children by a member of their family - the people shown below - Hailey Elizabeth, in her true crime discussion of the case, advertises a mobile game and life insurance. It’s almost beyond belief. 

NSW Police

While it may seem tasteless to many for anyone to be monetising off of the murders of other human beings, it is certainly even more tasteless for someone to advertise something as painfully morbid as life insurance while doing so. The fact that the mention of this life insurance is sandwiched within the case, right after the discussion of the murder weapon and De Gruchy’s murder ‘checklist’, which read, amongst other things, ‘cut somewhere with knife’, makes it all far worse. This is bizarre, and it certainly isn’t appropriate. 

I found myself wondering how someone could justify monetising to such an extent - and through such advertising - and still sleep at night. 

So I reached out to Hailey. And, as of yet, I have received no response.

And this is part of the problem. There seems to be a culture on the internet, amongst YouTube and TikTok true crime content of this specific type, of preventing criticism. A lot of female creators explain it as reclaiming true crime, as protecting themselves by knowing about what men can do to their (often female) victims - and this has been the explanation given behind this boom in make-up and true crime, too. But that isn’t explanation enough.

As Charlotte Columbo has said: ‘you can’t justify your way out of accountability'. These women are, in bizarre fashion, doing themselves up in the latest Nyx eyeshadow and earning money off of the traumas of victims and their loved ones - loved ones who are, often, still alive. 

There are correct ways to deal with true crime content. This isn’t one of them, and it’s time that these creators took some responsibility for the harm that they could be causing. Even if that’s so little responsibility as thinking before taking a sponsor on. 

‘Alrighty. Have a good day.’ 

Anna Coopey
4th year undergraduate student in Classics at The University of St Andrews in Scotland. Keen writer and researcher on a number of topics, varying from Modern Greek literature to revolutionary theory. 
Twitter: @anna_coopey 

Works Cited:
Why We Love to Watch YouTubers Discuss True Crime and Apply Their MakeUp (2021) from i-D - https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/y3dnz5/youtube-true-crime-makeup-tutorial
The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime (2018) from Vulture - https://www.vulture.com/2018/08/true-crime-ethics.html
YouTuber Bailey Sarian On Murders, Mysteries, Makeup, and More (2021) from Nylon - https://www.nylon.com/beauty/favorite-follow-bailey-sarian-youtube-makeup-artist-murder-mystery-makeup
The Bizarre and Unsettling Rise of True-Crime Makeup Videos on YouTube and TikTok (2021) from The Daily Beast - https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-bizarre-and-unsettling-rise-of-true-crime-makeup-videos-on-youtube-and-tiktok
The Ethical Dilemmas of the True Crime Genre (2022) - https://scholarworks.uark.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1071&context=mktguht
Criticising True Crime Culture Isn’t Sexist (2022) from i-D - https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/g5vgpw/criticising-true-crime-culture-isnt-sexist
Murdered his Family after his Mom Wouldn’t Let Him use the Car: Matthew De Gruchy (2022) - https://youtu.be/8FbAtykhQzA
Devil In Disguise As A Killer Clown - John Wayne Gacy Was INSANE | Mystery & Makeup Bailey Sarian (2021) - https://youtu.be/qSmyimnMOBo

Make-Up and Murder: The Ethics of Monetising Murder on Social Media Reviewed by Anna Coopey on Friday, August 05, 2022 Rating: 5
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