“Why is the Gabby Petito tragedy receiving so much attention from the press?” members of the press have asked themselves repeatedly since last week. Though the answers have been predictably dull, they’re predictably dull answers to the wrong question. Instead, the question is why Americans are so interested in this particular case?
See, the media’s relationship with its audience is no different than Hollywood’s relationship with its viewers. As frightening as that sounds, it’s true. Media outlets cover stories that people want to see. The press pitch stories to their audiences on-air, then determine whether to continue with it based on the audience’s level of interest. And Americans responded to the case of Gabby Petito immediately. Look at the podcast charts — true crime podcasts have surpassed news shows for the first time since the pandemic.
So why do we care more about Gabby Petito’s tragedy than other missing person cases, all of which are heartbreaking? Because audiences are drawn into stories with a unique setting, interesting elements, a sympathetic victim, an ominous ending, and most importantly, a villain. The Gabby Petito saga is the type of story HBO, Netflix, and crime novelists spend years trying to form.
It’s true that that part of the reason many have concerned themselves with the Gabby Petito story is that she’s pretty. The general public has a weakness for attractive women. Petito’s notable smile is appealing. She was also small in stature and weighed 100 pounds — she looked particularly vulnerable. We can’t imagine someone beating and killing her.
Most fictional murder mystery stories feature an attractive female to incite audience sympathies. Remember Twin Peaks, the gold standard of murder mysteries? When the show aired in the early ’90s, viewers were drawn to the innocence of Laura Palmer. She had an infectious and sincere smile that made the audience feel as though they knew her after her murder.
Petito’s traits mirror Laura Palmer’s. Except, Palmer was a fictional character played by actress Sheryl Lee. Petito is a real-life version of Palmer with a backstory that creates flashbacks in our minds.
People online knew Petito before she went missing. She had popular Instagram and YouTube pages on which she documented her life with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Most missing persons have photos, but Petito had a series of charming videos. Seeing her on video laughing drew viewers in. They felt like they knew her. Viewers cared about Petito because they liked her, even though they’d never met her.
Gabby Petito was not a viral 22-year-old social media user who made a name for herself posting thirst traps. Quite the opposite. She was the quintessential girl next door who sought adventure, not accessories. Petito posted pictures of mountains, nature, water… and her van. Amidst the charm of the natural backdrop, the van gave the story an anchor point, a memorable symbol upon which the media could focus, à la Breaking Bad’s RV.
Petito lived the life that many women her age dream of. She was a social media influencer who took a long summer road trip with her fiancé across the country. Petito took the perfect trip, with the perfect life and — what outside followers perceived as the — perfect guy. And Brian Laundrie is key to the country’s fascination with the story.
As all Law & Order, Dateline, or Harlan Coben series demonstrate, a story is about characters, plural. Just as important as the missing or murdered woman is the man who we think is behind it. Whether he’s actually done it (see The Undoing) or a red herring (see True Detective), viewers, readers, and listeners need someone to blame to stay invested in the crime.
Rooting against someone is as powerful as rooting for someone, and Brian Laundrie was easy to root against. Viewers found Laundrie unlikeable and cowardly from the start and presumed him guilty — with good reason. He returned home from the road trip in Petito’s van but without Petito. He and his parents — whom we will get to — then refused to cooperate with authorities after Petito’s family reported their daughter missing.
Laundrie knew something. Of course, he did. He spent all summer with Petito then returned home without her as the country searched for her body. Then two days before law enforcement agents found Petito’s dead body in Wyoming, Laundrie’s parents reported him missing. As so often happens in a character arc, Laundrie went from a suspicious figure to a fugitive.
That he returned from the trip alone, refused to speak to police, and then disappeared could easily be an hour-long episode. The search for Laundrie kept the story not only smoldering but fuming. Casual news viewers have since joined true crime enthusiasts on the message boards to speculate about him: is Laundrie in Mexico? the Appalachian Mountains? the Everglades? Is he dead? Long-lasting stories must have mysterious elements, and Laundrie’s whereabouts and possible state of mind are a mystery.
Furthermore, in every mystery drama, the writers reach an impasse. Once the teased perpetrator is on the run, the showrunners must either focus on his hiding or replace the airtime with someone possibly complicit. Because the FBI doesn’t know where Brian Laundrie is, the latter is the pick. And honestly, Laundrie’s parents have made it easy.
Were the Laundries involved in their son’s disappearance? Circumstantial evidence suggests they were. Petito had been living with Brian at his parents’ home before the two took their infamous trip. He then returned without her. The Laundries’ neighbors say that a week into September they saw Laundrie and his parents leave the house in a vehicle with an attached camper and only the parents ever returned home.
The Laundries reported Brian missing on September 17 and said he might be somewhere in a Florida swamp. Whether they misled police and instead dropped Brian off to hide or not, the situation follows a common trope in crime fiction. In almost every Lifetime drama, a family member has to decide whether to turn a relative into the police or to assist in helping him or her escape. Though pundits have excoriated the Laundries, many parents following the case have quietly — and perhaps shamefully — wondered whether they’d do the same.
Would you help your child get away with murder? It’s a tough question to answer. So much so that it is the thesis for the Showtime series Your Honor. In it, Bryan Cranston helps his son cover up a hit-and-run murder. “How far would you go to save your child?” the show’s slogan reads.
Then there is the story itself. The Petito-Laundrie saga has the necessary drama to spark outrage and keep the story relevant, as does the police’s role in the tale.
Legal experts say police in Moab, Utah botched the matter on August 12 when they responded to a 911 call about a domestic dispute between the couple but didn’t ultimately arrest Laundrie or Petito. The couple told officers that Petito had been the aggressor, not Laundrie, and the cops believed their story. However, new audio reveals that the unnamed witness who made the 911 call told the dispatcher that Brian Laundrie had been the aggressor and had slapped Petito. Domestic violence groups also say the body cam footage, later released by police, shows Petito in a delirious state, which might suggest she was a battered woman who falsely admitted hitting Laundrie out of fear.
On Saturday, Judge Jeanine Pirro of Fox News agreed that the Moab police officer bears some responsibility and quoted from a police procedure manual to reiterate her point.
“If the peace officer has probable cause to believe there will be continued violence against the alleged victim, the officer shall arrest and take the perpetrator into custody,” Pirro says. “Shall means must.”
Meanwhile, other media pundits say police could have saved Petito’s life that day.
That’s why Americans are invested in Gabby Petito’s murder. The synopsis is an alluring tragedy:
The ideal couple goes on a cross-country road trip in a van documented on social media. Then one day, the pretty girl goes missing, then the man returns home without her, and days later he goes missing, perhaps with the help of his parents. Did the police botch the case? The country joins the search for a binge-worthy mystery.
Sadly, the entertainment elements have played a role in Petito’s death compared to other missing person cases. Yet, perhaps there is a silver lining.
Following every hit series or film comes another like it — or several others like it. Moreover, most follow-ups aren’t as engrossing but receive interest because they further the genre’s momentum. Meaning, with Americans so immersed in Gabby Petito, they could maintain that same energy for other missing persons. Even the cases that lack the theatrics of Petito-Laundrie. And if Americans do care about the others, the media will cover them as such. That includes missing women of color, other missing white women, and even missing men.
So to answer the real question, why Americans are so interested in this particular case: the Gabby Petito tragedy is a real-life, Hollywood-like murder drama that has enthralled America.