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(Credit: Far Out / David von Diemar / Netflix)

Film

Why we have to stop the 'true crime' obsession

@Russellisation

Where has the persistent craving for true crime content in contemporary media come from? Were the seeds sown in the ashes of such riveting fictional mysteries as ABC’s Lost and David Lynch’s classic crime drama Twin Peaks, or has our undying thirst for authentic stories amid the rise of reality TV led to the modern obsession? 

From Tiger King to Making a Murderer, Conversations with a Killer to Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, the obsession with true crime content remains rife, with Netflix documentaries being just one means of consumption alongside endless gruesome podcasts, movies and novels. 

Detailing gruesome murders, scandalous characters and strange disappearances, the most popular of such programmes are documentaries, thriving in the context of real-life tragedy despite the consequence of resurfacing such trauma for the relatives of the actual victims. Whilst each of these aforementioned programmes become viral sensations upon their release, one has to question their existence at all, presenting multiple issues with the consumption of media in modern society. 

The problem with ‘true crime’

Dehumanising the victim 

It feels like an obvious thing to say, but also a truth that is too often forgotten, but behind every sinister murder, horrific sexual assault or any other disturbing crime, there is a victim. That person is either tragically deceased or still living with the indescribable trauma of their past. 

Though, when such victims are paraded in true crime documentaries, with their murders broken down detail-by-detail, the human behind the figure is lost and the only memorable name behind the killing is the murderer themselves. Whilst for some, such programmes are a form of escapist entertainment that barely escapes the remits of reality, for others, it is a brutal reminder of a scarring moment in their own lives. 

The reality of these murders and unspeakable crimes are often poorly represented in fictional drama or documentaries, with the real-life pain of such an event far more traumatic and emotionally volatile than the particular show suggests. In taking on these true crime stories, producers, writers and editors should bear the responsibility of humanising the victims, representing the real-life event exactly how it happened. 

With television being such a rapid business, however, all too often such cases are not dealt with properly, with the ITV series The Secret being a perfect example of this, being commissioned by the British production company despite resistance from the family of the victim of the story. As Lauren Bradford, the daughter of the victim explained to The Guardian, the show “propelled [her] into a new world of trauma,” with Bradford feeling as though ITV “[exploited] a tragedy for entertainment”. 

All too often, these victims are forgotten in the details of the murder itself, with their lives, personality and past made to feel like mere trivia as part of a bigger mythos that surrounds the serial killer in subject.

Glorifying the killer 

What of the criminals themselves? By dehumanising the victim we subsequently glorify the killers and mass murderers whose gory dealings sell the show with gruesome acts and staggering body counts. 

Often, though admittedly not always, those that commit such egregious acts of violence and evil are doing so to crave attention in whatever shape or form. So why give those who crave such a public presence, the necessary media platform for them to become an antihero, with names emblazoned alongside catchy taglines and titles that name them ‘the evilest man in Britain’ or ‘the most shocking murderer of all time’, gifting them a legacy for their name to cling ahold of. 

Such intense media coverage of any such murder, either in the form of 24 hours news coverage or a true-crime documentary years after the actual event, merely plays into the hands of those seeking recognition for their crimes and lives. What’s more, when similar shocking individuals see the attention these murderers are getting, such copycat incidents are witnessed, with the promise of a documentary about their lives in a year or so time. 

Such contradictory, problematic coverage was explored by Charlie Brooker in his popular Newswipe series, during which one telling moment occurs as forensic psychiatrist Dr Park Dietz speaks to BBC Newsnight. “We’ve had 20 years of mass murderers,” the psychiatrist explained, adding, “throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders don’t start the story with siren’s blaring, don’t have photographs of the killer, don’t make this 24/7 coverage, do what you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some sort of antihero. Do localise the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market”. 

Stories of true crime can, of course, be fascinating, exploring the shadowy corners of the human psyche, with the very best of the genre teaching us something about how we live and interact, as well as being important historical documents for change. Meanwhile, the production line of mainstream true-crime content serves to simply glorify the titular killer and create a bizarre digital ode to their terrifying memory.