Getty Images / WIRED
It’s a hot August day in Tampa, Florida. A camera hovers over a few drops of red blood on the side of a car, before panning out to reveal the full extent of the damage. The door has a bullet hole, while the front seats, steering wheel and two drink bottles are plastered in even more blood – this time a yellowy-orange colour, more reminiscent of vomit.
“Looks like a 9mm,” says a man in hazmat gear, examining a bullet found at the scene. The clip loops and begins again, while the upbeat, then-trending song ‘Mi pan su su sum’ trills in the background.
This video, showing the aftermath of a driveby shooting, has more than six million views on TikTok. It’s part of what’s been dubbed Crime Scene TikTok, Crime Scene Cleanup TikTok or MurderTok – a collection of videos with over 200 million views that document real life crime scenes in graphic detail. The videos typically take place at a homicide or suicide scene, and show teams of cleaners scraping, steaming and mopping away blood and other bodily fluids. Most of the accounts also cover the houses of hoarders – complete with fridges overflowing with rotting food, as well as rats, cockroaches and maggots. It’s a disgusting delight for true crime lovers.
Josephine, who is 26 and from Seattle, grew up watching true crime and hoarding shows on TV with her mom. She’s now graduated to TikTok – and prefers the raw, unfiltered reality that crime scene cleanup videos have to offer. “While many of [the true crime shows] were extremely graphic, there was still a lot that wasn’t shown,” she says. This curiosity about what happens after death led her to seek out photos from famous crime scenes online – exposing herself to sensitive content at a young age. She’s thankful that the TikTok content she watches now isn’t overly fake or sensationalised. “It’s nice to just watch the cleanup happen without a ton of TV-edited drama.”
Grace*, a 17 year old from Arkansas, has also recently made the jump to TikTok, after following a crime scene cleanup account on Instagram for three years. For her, the appeal of the videos is a mixture of fascination with the macabre, and a genuine desire to learn about the practicalities of the job.
“It’s something I’m drawn to because of the morbidity of it, I guess,” she says. “I’ve always been really obsessed with death and understanding what happens to us physically when we do pass, so it’s interesting to see just what kind of mess gets left behind when people die traumatically.” Although she admits it isn’t the best paid career, she wouldn’t write off working in the industry in the future. “It’s a job I’ve seriously considered for myself.”
The biggest account Josephine and Grace follow is @crimescenecleaning. With over 19 million views and 2.8 million followers, they are the creators of the driveby video described above, as well as a sort-of crime scene ‘cinematic universe’ – populating their videos with quirky characters like #DecompKyle and hoarding technician Fiona, whose signature move is inspecting fridges.
The account is run by Spaulding Decon – a trauma, biohazard and crime scene cleaning company with a reach in reality that parallels their online success. With merch, training courses, and a chain of cleanup franchises that stretch the length of the United States, it seems TikTok is just another arm of its sprawling, all-American conglomerate. “We started using TikTok to better engage with the culture,” explains Gabe Chrismon, who heads up the Nashville franchise (all the Spaulding Decon locations pool their social media together into the gigantic @crimescenecleaning account).
“While YouTube videos and Instagram posts are still extremely engaging and important, TikTok was another avenue where we could get our message and purpose out to as wide of an audience as possible. I have had multiple customers find us through our social media platforms. The overwhelming response is: ‘I saw your TikTok videos and immediately called because my mom could use your services.’”
As well as generating business, Chrismon emphasises the educational aspects of the content, whether that’s about the industry, or conditions like hoarding. In fact, Spaulding Decon’s CEO Laura Spaulding also demonstrates this on TikTok – hosting regular Q&A sessions to answer fans’ questions that range from ‘How do I get into this line of work?’ to ‘Is it true that when the body is decomposing it blows up?’
She echoes Chrismon’s sentiments. “Social media has made us the household name for emergency cleanup services,” Spaulding says. “We have brought humanity to the difficult jobs our techs perform everyday.”
Despite facing controversy for their upbeat soundtracks and dramatisation, Grace tells me that @crimescenecleaning are generally regarded as one of the more respectful creators on the scene. Its most graphic videos contain trigger warnings, it hosst giveaways for veterans, and it regularly reassures fans that its clients sign a media release prior to filming.
Unfortunately, not all creators work in the same way, Josephine warns. “If you start looking for more accounts, I would suggest looking at those run by a specific business,” she says. “Otherwise you’ll end up on compilation accounts that are just in it for shock value.”
James Monath is a certified biohazard recovery supervisor whose daughter encouraged him to upload to TikTok – his account, @bioscene_recovery, now has 43,000 followers, His most viral video – a bloodstained silhouette imprinted by a decomposing body – has attracted some negativity, but he says that the majority of comments come from people seeking understanding after losing their own loved ones in similar situations.
A restoration supervisor in Las Vegas, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he initially began uploading pictures and videos of his bio jobs, including suicide scenes, to TikTok as a way to connect with ex-coworkers in California, but things soon escalated. “I did not realise my page was public,” he says. “The first video got over two million views in about two hours.” When his employer found out, he was suspended.
For TikTok, which came under fire in July after taking two days to remove footage of a group of teenagers discovering human remains inside a suitcase, crime scene videos are tricky to moderate. The platform has restrictions on gore, but does allow educational content – around medical procedures, for instance – although such videos are never promoted to a user’s ‘For You’ page of algorithmically chosen clips.
One of the crime scene videos we flagged to TikTok was removed, but the others remain online. “Our Community Guidelines make clear what is not acceptable on TikTok, and we enforce those guidelines through a combination of technology and human moderation,” says a TikTok spokesperson. “We do not allow violent and graphic content on our platform, and we will remove content that violates our guidelines.”
When combing through Crime Scene TikTok, it’s clear to see that one creator operates a little differently from the rest. @Deathscience has more than 486,000 followers and 4.8 million likes, and is part of an umbrella of social media accounts run by Jeremy Ciliberto. Unlike the other creators, the crime scenes in his videos are simulated.
“I typically create scripted and designed hyper-realistic content, not very different from the many fictional crime shows you know and love,” he explains, referencing not just his crime scene sets, but also the hand-painted skulls and bones that feature in many of his videos. “We’ve found this is a gripping approach to educate and have fun, whilst not being overly gruesome nor disrespectful to the topic of death itself.”
Ciliberto’s fake plastic bones and crime scenes do nothing to dull his morbid aesthetic, nor his TikTok popularity. He ends one of his videos, a discussion on the legalities of home burial with “let me know in the comments who you would want to bury in your backyard” – injecting dark, absurdist humour typical of certain corners of TikTok, without being inconsiderate.
Though he speaks respectfully of the other creators and understands their reasoning, there can be no controversy about his personal motives. Not only does Ciliberto aim to educate people about forensics, he also started #GenZForest, a movement that encourages young people to opt for more eco-friendly burial options. He believes that opening up the conversation about death – and overcoming our anxieties around it – is vital.
Teenager Grace thinks the popularity of ‘MurderTok’ reflects generational changes in attitudes towards death. “I definitely think my generation is more desensitized to things,” she says. “When you go through a “national tragedy” once a year, and it’s directly affecting your age group, the fear factor starts to wear off and it’s accepted as normal and expected.”
“Everyone is kind of drawn to death,” she continues. “We seek it out. We ask for gritty details.” She says she feels more comfortable watching crime scene cleanups on TikTok than other more algorithm-friendly content. “I also follow plastic surgery accounts and those bother me more than the crime scene cleanups do,” she says. “I would rather have someone looking at my blood on concrete than my entire semi-naked body with all my flaws pointed out on Instagram.”
*Some names have been changed
More great stories from WIRED
🇹🇼 Taiwan didn’t enter a national lockdown. Here’s how it beat Covid-19
🏥 Ransomware was blamed for a hospital death but investigators couldn’t prove it was the cause
🎅 The festive season is coming and these companies have some weird Christmas party ideas
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.