People have always loved true crime stories but it was really Truman Capote with his book ‘In Cold Blood’ that really ignited the genre, exposing a wide range of readers to this kind of long-form journalism. Now Netflix has brought out several documentaries and dramas based upon real life events which has sparked new interest in the genre.
Recently Netflix released an eight-part series ‘The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’. It was preceded by the Oscar-nominated short documentary, ‘Detainment’, about the two boys convicted of killing James Bulger, and it will shortly be followed by a three-part BBC Four series on Peter Sutcliffe, otherwise known as the Yorkshire Ripper. The streaming service also recently came out with a documentary on serial killer Ted Bundy but also a biopic staring Zac Efron.
What is the purpose of stirring up all these painful memories – some of which are real stains on modern history? Are they important contributions to journalism, to understanding human behaviour and will they help prevent a repeat of the past? Or are they merely capitalizing on our fascination with grizzly and bloody crime, tormenting the victims’ families?
Documentaries are important. They allow us to explore the world outside of our own narrow lenses, giving us knowledge and insight to different cultures and events. It’s unfortunate crime is often part of life and society. As such, it’s impossible to write about, record and document crime as it occurred. Part of it is for our own knowledge and part of it is to record history. People are naturally hurt and effected by these reports – in whatever form they take place. But should that prevent journalists and producers from reporting on them?
There are a lot of true crime documentaries that are riveting and thought-provoking, from ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’ to the podcast ‘Serial’ to ‘The Sentence’. These stories enrich our understanding and knowledge of the darker aspects of humanity. But we must also remember while we sit on our couch eating dinner and drinking beer that these people –both living and dead – are real and they went through these traumas. That this isn’t just entertainment.
There are other ethical questions to consider – not just the fact that people are making money off the misery of others. S-Town, for example, which was made by the same producers who made “ outs a deceased man as gay in an incredibly conservative small town.
Another documentary, Casting JonBenét, explores the murder of child beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey. It attempts to ward off suspicions of ethical compromise by having actors audition for the roles of people involved in Ramsey’s death, painting itself as a look at the phenomenon of her death rather than an investigation into the truth. But the film just comes off as weird and intensely personal. The viewer can be forgiven for feeling like they are intruding onto something incredibly personal.
The interest in true crime stories shows no sign of slowing down. This recent flood of true crime material is probably not surprising since Netflix introduced us to binge watching, making it socially acceptable to spend the weekend watching television shows. But do we lose something of ourselves when we focus so many stories of horror and violence? Regardless, of the morality of true crime, it is incredibly popular with today’s audience just as it was a hundred years ago.
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