The Nancy Drew Syndrome

By Hilary Winston

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The Nancy Drew Syndrome:

A few Christmases ago, my mom bought me a hammer. Not just any hammer but the kind you use if you’re submerged underwater in a car and the pressure becomes so great that breaking the window is nearly impossible. My mom saw it and thought, Now this is what Hilary wants for Christmas. It makes sense. I’ve seen enough Dateline NBC episodes to know that if you meet the wrong guy on the internet, he could knock you out, send your car into a lake and cash in on that quickie insurance policy. But if you wake up—just in the nick of time—and find that hammer among all the crap in your backseat, you could survive. Thank you, Mom!

My guess is no matter how many guys you meet on the internet, the chances of your being submerged in water in your vehicle are pretty slim. But there’s clearly a market for this, which I think has to do with the phenomenon of female fear. We are obsessed with being afraid. I know I am. If I’m trying to get something done on a Saturday and I flip past Dateline, 48 Hours, Snapped, I Killed My BFF, Cold Case Files or I (Almost) Got Away With It, then I can kiss any plans good-bye. And if it’s a marathon? I’ll be on the couch with my two cats, eating frozen Thin Mints all weekend. I was once late to a wedding because I was on the edge of my hotel bed, waiting to find out if a woman was in on her own kidnapping. She was! What a twist! Dateline host Keith Morrison’s voice is like the bass music in a porno to me. I will listen to him talk about any crime. Anytime.

Dateline is my favorite true-crime show. And I see my life and my friends’ lives in terms of Dateline episodes. I had a friend who went out with a guy she later discovered was a rare-book thief. She did some postdate googling, and there it was. He had taken a plea deal to avoid jail time and was helping the FBI locate other rare-book thieves. Where does he locate them? Match.com?

It’s hard not to think you’re constantly being “Datelined.” I was once robbed by a guy I met via online dating. We met at a public place, per my request, for a drink. He spent a few rounds telling me he’d seen UFOs and believed aliens were living among us. He was a devout Buddhist and said Buddhists have been hanging out with aliens for centuries. Apparently they’re pretty cool. He said our government was keeping it secret. He was crazy but cute, so I nodded and kept saying, “Yeah, totally. Makes sense. The government, right?” Then he asked if I wanted to get something to eat. And I did. But it meant getting into his car. Now, everyone who has ever seen even one episode of Dateline knows you don’t get into a random guy’s car, especially not a guy who has been ranting about UFOs, but I’d been drinking. We got into his car and I checked to make sure the passenger door opened from the inside so I could jump out if I needed to. I also kept my cell phone in my hand. But I didn’t need to jump out of the moving car or phone a friend. We had a burrito and he drove me home. My gut was right; he was a harmless alien-loving hippie. But when he dropped me off, I loaned him a copy of one of my favorite movies, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And then never heard from him again. Stolen. My DVD was stolen! Maybe he was abducted by aliens, or maybe he wasn’t that into me. Probably the former. It wouldn’t have made the most dynamic Dateline, but Keith Morrison could have done something with it. The episode could have been titled “He’s Just Not That Into UFOs.”

Dateline episode titles say it all: “Secrets in Pleasant Grove,” “Secrets in Seattle,” “Flying High at Cocktail Cove.” Datelining can happen anywhere, anytime: “In the Dead of Night,” “In the Middle of the Night” and—don’t think you’re safe when the sun comes up—“In Broad Daylight.” You want to have fun at the mall this weekend? Think again: “Terror at the Mall.” Don’t think it could happen to you? “It Could Happen to You.” There is “No Safe Place.” “The Mystery in the Master Bedroom.” “Death and the Dentist.” “Murder at Sam Donaldson’s Ranch”? There is even Datelining at Sam Donaldson’s ranch!

Guys hate my addiction to true-crime shows, but to me they’re like adult Nancy Drew mysteries. You enjoy being as smart as Nancy and solving the crime. But more important, Nancy is always okay in the end. And therein lies the reason women love true-crime shows. I believe if I hear a story, it can’t happen to me. Would any of us ever go anywhere with a van der Sloot–esque guy again? Nope. We have seen evil interrupted by a few commercial breaks, but we have seen it and gained power over it. So as long as there is a predator to catch, I’ll be watching.


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