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153

[The following contains spoilers.]

The Paragon Collective is a commercial podcasting house that is based in Los Angeles. It was founded by Alexander Aldea and The NoSleep Podcast numbers amongst its titles. Paragon’s ambition and innovation are fully on display in one of its latest audiodramas, The Heads of Sierra Blanca, as is its appetite to receive a cut of the same market in thrillers that televisionmakers such as Netflix presently dominate. The Heads of Sierra Blanca lives up to what is required here, in that it is a slickly-made product, without anything homespun or informal to it. Yet one should not be deterred by the corporate slickness, since this podcast is at heart brilliantly intelligent and intellectually playful. This can be seen, from the outset, in how it has been marketed.

The fake investigative podcast is now like an old tupperware mould that has turned out jelly upon jelly. The Black Tapes (2015-) was perhaps the first major instance of its usage. This show had borrowed the format of the massively popular true-crime podcast Serial to graft realism onto a story that was otherwise as obviously fictional as The X-Files. The BBC got in on this game in 2018 with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Sometimes such a podcast can be constructed so carefully as to be, if not believable exactly, then still very interesting and admirable. This was the case with 2017’s The Polybius Conspiracy.

The Heads of Sierra Blanca has popped up in our own world as a real thing. Its cast and writers cannot exist and so they are naturally never mentioned. Magdalena Salas and Monica Rodriguez are investigating three murders in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Their true-crime podcast supposedly complements or even enhances the work of the Hudspeth County Sherriff, Arvin Gardner, who lacks the media skills to exploit the most useful resource that any detective can access these days: us. The podcast is meant to live hand-to-mouth on titbits of information that have been sent in by its listeners.

There are two corroborating websites and even a “tip line” that you can call to briefly, thrillingly, dip a toe into this show’s world. The found fiction is always interwoven with analyses of real-life serial killers and psychopathic behaviours. It is as if this podcast is always carrying armfuls of camouflage about its person. There are also interviews with a genuine crime expert, Johann Hari, although listeners from the UK might espy the gentlest of allusions to the podcast’s bogusness here. Hari’s high-flying career had been shot down in flames in 2011 after he had been suspended from The Independent newspaper for plagiarism and, yes, making things up.

An advanced wave of listeners were dutifully fooled into thinking that The Heads of Sierra Blanca was a real true-crime podcast, if in many cases only for a matter of minutes. Their aggrieved reactions still generated useful headlines and publicity for the show. Such listeners had soon converged around the complaint that the show “sounded scripted,” although I am not sure that there is any true-crime podcast out there in which all of the presenters and interviewees babble away spontaneously. As Distractify reported, “Listeners felt duped and disrespected by the way The Heads of Sierra Blanca was marketed.”

It was here that the podcast’s playfulness had turned, with a shark-like suavity, upon these disappointed listeners and suddenly flashed the teeth of its satire. These listeners had wanted real death, a real beheading and real blood to have been spilt. To update that famous disclaimer, they had wanted real human beings to have been harmed in the making of this podcast. The podcast had not just tricked them about its fictional status – it had tricked them into openly divulging their own barbarity.

The guilty secret of this barbarity becomes the meat and drink that The Heads of Sierra Blanca feasts upon. It is a show in which the serial killer and the investigating detectives are absorbed in an intense mating dance, in which they will shed their own identities and finally merge with one another. From the beginning, the killer’s modus operandi had reflected something of the quality of a criminal investigation. When a detective is at work, one clue will typically lead to the next, on a trail that will trickle all the way up to the ultimate revelation of the culprit’s identity. Such a trail operates just like the Rube Goldberg machine that had decapitated the killer’s first victim, Lorena Salas.

There is likewise an inappropriate, claustrophobic sympathy at play when the daughter of one suspect, Wayne Doyle, opens up his bedroom to the detectives. It would be the equivalent of Doctor Watson inviting Professor Moriarty in to inspect Sherlock Holmes’ private chambers while the detective was out shopping. This scenario is rendered weirder and more illogical by the fact that Wayne is one of the podcast’s most enthusiastic supporters. Whilst some early listeners had complained that this podcast was “not real,” Wayne will unexpectedly come across his own life and the reality of his own home within its escapism.

Belying this podcast’s central motif of decapitation, there is actually a rush of blood that accords with the idea of connecting tissues. Symbolically, the USA would appear to be the head here, or the cool, conscious side of the story, whilst the lands below in Mexico represent unconscious violent urges. These are never severed, however, and it is never possible for them to be. The horror turns out to be indiscriminate and everywhere and always nearer than one thinks.

Had Lorena been simply poisoned or gunned down, then her niece, Magdalena, would not have fallen so passionately in love with the anonymous killer. Magdalena states repeatedly that she is inspired by the need to secure justice for her aunt and every time that she makes this statement we are struck by its palpable dishonesty. In an irony that is either deliberate or highly fortuitous, the promotional material that Magdalena has supposedly created cannot even agree upon the spelling of the victim’s name (is it Sallas or Salas?) Magdalena finds the killer so captivating because he is psychologically exotic and fabulously violent – because he is a superman and a showman. Far from threatening to stop the killer’s work, her passion will in fact cause him to resume it. He will become rather like an underachieving artist who is being suddenly bankrolled by a wealthy sponsor.

It is necessary for the consequent satire to function that we remain detached from the allure of the Rubedec Killer. We probably indeed never share in it. When audio of his voice is played in the first episode, he sounds excruciatingly pompous and boorish. We can no doubt picture the sort of specimen of an American suburban male who is behind these killings. The same sort that always is – one of those depleted, cynical, middle-aged men with a truck and a basement and a life of soulless loneliness. It is hard to become interested in such a character and capturing them would be rather like impersonally exterminating a particular rat.

In true-crime scenarios, the victim and their suffering are always as safely distant from us as any tiny figure is on a scaffold. The Heads of Sierra Blanca eventually experiences a radical foreshortening of this distance. The usual role that is given to the detective in a final episode – that of speaking at great length and triumphantly explaining everything – is instead turned over to the killer. We become afflicted by a disconcerting double vision, now viewing the latest victim on the scaffold from an immense distance but being simultaneously aware of how familiar she had seemed to us only moments ago.

If she can make such a leap, then it has surely not been guaranteed as impossible that a similar surprise teleporting cannot befall us too. But our acute insecurity here will not necessarily allow us to unpeel ourselves from the voyeurism that is the true pathology of true-crime. In the Red Room, true-crime has at last erupted into flower. We can no longer remain snobbishly repelled by Wayne Doyle’s ranch, with its gruesome posters on the walls and its squalid piles of true-crime paraphernalia, because maybe from an outsider’s perspective our own home looks just the same. The Rubedec Killer is never present during the murders that he commits, in using his chain-reaction contraption to deliver the conclusive chop. He has melted away but we are still here and still riveted, alone in the room.