Entertainment and Voyeurism: Our Obsession with True Crime, and the Lines We're Eager to Blur
True crime has always been an attractive subject of interest, especially for those engrossed with law enforcement and criminology. But with an ever increasing number of podcasts, miniseries, documentaries and books dedicated to the theme, this tendency has seemed to positively escalate: it seems like people have had more access and/or occasion to either pique their curiosity, or further it.
The fervor surrounding the likes of Criminal, Evil Genius, Dear Zachary, The Keepers or even The Jinx is a testament to that impression. In some cases, the public reaction has been more than strong: it’s been downright powerful. Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose case was laid out in 2016’s Serial, was recently granted a new trial, based on the evidence related in the podcast. Similarly, the widespread outrage at the outcomes of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s trials, following the Making a Murderer miniseries, led to a petition signed by over 500,000 people to get them presidential pardons.
Whether this clamor is warranted or not is the subject for another day; rather, what is remarkable about these cases, and many others, is how forceful the public’s attention was, and how it poured directly into the peripheries of the shows, books, podcasts etc., determining the real-life fates of the subjects at their respective centers. This is different from the response other forms of entertainment garner, for different reasons — which I’ll get into in a bit.
What I know for now, however, is this: true crime is undeniably having a moment.
My own relationship with it began as a child, stemming from parallel interests that ran concurrent with much more lighthearted ones: a passion for horror films, an obsession with death, a profound fascination with sociology and psychology. I quickly became entranced with all things law and criminology: the death sentence, and the prison system, recidivism and death cults, serial killers and ballistics, forensic science and Nature vs. Nurture. You name it, I couldn’t get enough of it.
I watched Cops and America’s Most Wanted with the same enthusiasm I devoted to afternoon Nickelodeon shows; devoured Dateline, Forensic Files, 48 Hours synchronously with animes and other forms of distraction; read up on strange cases like Carl Tanzler, who exhumed the body of the object of his affection, and lived with her corpse for nearly a decade; read up on the European witch trials that shortly preceded the Salem ones in America; read up on Michael Alig’s bizarre fall from grace from the Club scene in the 90’s.
It’s the D.C. Sniper case that cinched the insidious feelings all these obsessions of mine were unearthing. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo’s reign of terror happened in the place I called home, in Counties and areas I knew like the back of my hand: and at barely ten years old, I was suddenly awash with the realization that the world was a fishbowl, and that we were all at risk of being plucked out by the tail at any moment.
This only made me watch with more rapt attention.
I can cite famous (or infamous) cases the way some recite trivia facts: the Dalia Dippolito case. The Narcy Novack one. Linda Curry, poisoned to death with tobacco by her husband. The rape and murder suspect whose footprint was lifted from a squashed tomato, of all things.
I can recognize Keith Morrison, Josh Mankiewicz or Lester Holt’s voices with my eyes closed; know that until recently, juries in England and in Wales could not hear previous evidence of a defendant’s “bad character”; know that succinylcholine is a nearly perfect drug of choice for murder.
Tidbits of information on crimes have become ingrained in me, arranged in a drawer I leave half-open, the details seeping out in casual conversation at will.
But even as I relish a Crimetown chapter, revel in the cinematography of an Investigation Discovery documentary, or predict the ending of a Joe Kenda episode, there’s a part of me that remains deeply troubled. These are not fictional, carefree forms of diversion. The part of me that is deeply compassionate balks at the very notion.
This is not fun stuff. This is real life. This happened to someone.
I’m sure I’m not the only true crime aficionado who’s been preoccupied with the boundary between entertainment and gravity. In a world that is increasingly violent with children, men, women, POC, the LGBTQ+, and unafraid to show it, true crime gives us a mingled sense of fleeting absorption and utter foreboding. It reinforces what we already know: that people are strange, that the world is hostile, that life is rarely fair.
Women, especially, go out into the world with their mortality constantly at the back of their minds. I myself walk out of my door everyday, knowing that but for a particularly lucky set of circumstances, I could be one of the people whose grim fates I watch on television everyday.
It’s become second nature to me, and to many others, to hope for the best, but expect and assume the worse: one hand always curled around the mace in my pocket, the other brass-knuckling different keys between my fingers. When I’m not, I have a thumb pressed on the panic alarm app on my phone that’ll notify the police that I’m in danger. “Text me when you’re home” has evolved from a friendly formality to a genuine means of keeping track of and protecting friends, as have different forms of buddy systems between girls: the fake emergency text to get out of a sketchy situation. The bathroom call to update on how the situation is going. The taking under the wing of a perfect stranger when she is being harassed in public.
This hasn’t stopped many forms micro-aggressions in everyday interactions, and it’s a frightening way to go through life; but I would like to think that these means of prevention are having an effect.
And even with all that threat hanging over my head, I haven't become more reluctant to watch, read and listen to true crime: on the contrary.
Throughout the years, I’ve thought of ways this impulse could be rationalized, reasons why I, and others like me, are so enthralled by the genre.
Perhaps there’s an aspect, directly related to the above-mentioned, where true crime is a teaching tool. A way to normalize — normalize, not trivialize — conversations about violence and protection. I am incredibly cynical and suspicious about people, for very good reasons, but it was not always the case. And while I know that life would have taught me those awful lessons either way, watching how things can go south when the wrong people breach our inner circles has definitely contributed to that.
True crime has simultaneously been fodder for our worst nightmares, but also a reminder — a caution, so to speak. The more we know about the lengths people will go to, to commit crimes, the better, I hope, it makes us at expecting and defending ourselves against it.
Another reason for the true crime fascination is somewhat similar to the first, but is perhaps more intrinsic for certain groups of people: women.
The more stories I have explored, the more I have felt closer to my fellow gals who have dealt with stalkers, abusers, and other forms of psychological/sexual violence. Sometimes, true crime is a way to see the escalated versions of occurrences we happen upon everyday, occurrences we’ve barely escaped unharmed. It’s a bonding over the shared horror, basically.
SSDGM (“stay sexy, don’t get murdered”), the iconic catchphrase penned by My Favorite Murder hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark has become a sort of secret code for women everywhere who weather harrowing situations they used to shoulder in silence and in shame. Stay strong, look out for each other, in short.
A much simpler reason for the allure of true crime is that it is, for many, an educational tool. Criminology, law, psychology and the like are legitimate interests to have, in the same way that some people are into history or archeology.
We pore over these stories to learn things we wouldn’t otherwise know: what’s considered major crimes, what’s considered petty; the best ways to make houses break-in proof; the advances in forensic science; trial practices around the world; what constitutes intent, etcetera, etcetera.
In a most clinical way, this is about getting in the know: if anything, the aforementioned outcries concerning Serial and Making a Murderer prove that perhaps a lot of people were jolted awake regarding transparency. The renewed interest is a reminder that law and order, first and foremost, are institutions for the people, and things we’d all benefit from knowing more about.
We have a right to be concerned, for example, about the controversial execution drug Midazolam used in many a botched case, notably brought to light in the Susan Sarandon-narrated Death Row Stories. We have more than the right to be curious about wrongful imprisonments, explored in series like The Central Park Five (2012), or The Confession Tapes (2017).
But it would be hypocritical to discuss the appeal for true crime without mentioning the underside of this relationship. There’s a vague element of schadenfreude that is undeniable, even to the most well-intentioned person.
After watching a particularly harrowing episode, nestled between the bone-deep empathy for what the victims went through, and fierce rage for the perpetrators (whether they got away with it or not), I find myself nursing an infinitesimal echo of relief, one I immediately feel ashamed of: thank God it wasn’t my family. thank God it wasn’t me.
At it worst, this impulse goes into weirder territory. Popular cases have become sensationalist fodder for people over the decades, stories so horrible and disgusting that they elicit the sort of conversation that reeks of voyeurism. Americans are still spellbound by horrific cases that, fundamentally, are nothing to be excited about. Patty Hearst, Casey Anthony, the Menendez brothers, Amanda Knox, OJ Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, Chandra Levy… the list is endless.
In many of these cases, the public inserts itself into the personal lives of the people involved, verbally attacks those it believes are guilty, as if the victims were their own families, as if it actually cared. The fervor feels wrong, intrusive, artificial — this particular brand of public spectacle is uniquely American, revealing much about how impassioned we get when we fixate our fleeting attention on something other than ourselves.
And then of course, there’s the perpetual cult of serial killers that aways seems to push the envelope from mild puzzlement to downright infatuation.
It’s become more than normal for people to correspond with inmates — many have gone as far as marrying them. Charlie Manson continues to be hailed as a fringe hero; Bonnie and Clyde have been romanticized ad nauseam; Jack the Ripper has been immortalized as a tantalizing specter, for over a century.
These fixations have undoubtedly been responsible for the success of the slew of thriller entertainment, be it the slice of British pop culture (Luther, Sherlock, The Fall, Broadchurch) and its American counterpart (Law and Order, Criminal Minds, Fargo, Hannibal), among many others.
It explains the parodies and interpretations that have also overrun our cultural landscape. The Scream (1996-2011) franchise is a criticism of our tendency to glamorize crime and violence; similarly, Gone Girl was written as a commentary on the way we latch onto archetypes (the bad husband, America’s sweetheart, the trampy mistress) and construct damning narratives, regardless of what may have truly happened.
True crime documentaries have been spoofed in American Vandal, a (hilarious) episode of Documentary Now!, and even The Onion (A Very Fatal Murder). American Horror Story has frequently featured arcs and subplots centered on the adulation given to serial killers, and the way true crime fictionalizes events in order to capitalize on a public that is ravenous for more.
These tragedies are dragged out, rehashed like a piece of meat that remains juicy and delicious, no matter how long we’ve been chewing it. There’s a comfort over marveling in the worst humanity has to offer. There’s a comfort in being able to clutch our pearls and say: “I’m not like that”, or “I would have seen it coming”.
My passion for true crime, which has always been a mixed bag, has become downright uncomfortable a thing for me, of late. I feel conflicted. I feel myself toeing the line between what is informative, and what is entertainment. I know that I am legitimately invested in the aspect of it that teaches me things, that feeds my thirst for knowledge.
But then I recoil, when I find myself enjoying it: because what is the end purpose, really, if not to pass the time? If all I do is consume these episodes, books, or podcasts, then move on to something else, is it different from the way I'd be enjoying a particularly good television series, or a film about something silly and comical? Am I treating this any differently than I would something vacuous and easy to digest?
Because while true crime differentiates itself from other forms of entertainment in that it is based on actual facts and purports to be objective, it really isn’t. As soon as the medium is involved, the end result becomes tinged with melodrama, with a preoccupation for aesthetics, cinematography, atmosphere. We’re not just telling facts, we’re telling a story.
A good documentary, whether visual or audio, or a good book, succeeds because it elevates the subject at heart, beyond what it would have been if we’d seen it with our own eyes, or heard it recounted by a lazy storyteller. We’re seeing style, an edited, carefully chosen part of it. We’re seeing a take, a version, an interpretation. It is framed and reframed: it can never truly be impartial.
And so this is where I get queasy — more than queasy: uneasy. Hesitant.
I know, of course, that I will not stop watching and reading and listening. I am who my lifelong dedication to true crime has made me.
But I have to remind myself.
I have to remind myself why I started in the first place: to know more about our history, to learn about our institutions, to better prepare myself for what could happen to anyone, to become informed about changing laws and practices, to get a glimpse into the abyss that is Human Nature.
I have to remind myself, and hope that it’s enough to soothe my conscience.