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The Netflix Murder Documentary: How Moral Is It?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Here at Her Campus Aberdeen, we love a good murder documentary. From Making a Murderer to The Night Stalker, Netflix undoubtedly offers the best selection of nail-biting episodes to unsettle your mind and induce fear when walking alone at night. Much of the platform’s true crime documentaries inform viewers about recent murder cases which have been solved. Some, however, merely relay the case as it stands with no definitive answer as to what actually happened, and who is to blame. Arguably the most famous of those frustratingly non-conclusive documentaries is Making a Murderer, a series which I’m absolutely certain most, if not all, of our readers have some knowledge about.  

The series follows the Avery family; Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, to be more specific. Steven was imprisoned in 2005 for the murder of Teresa Halbach, and Brendan followed shortly after, having ‘confessed’ to being involved in her death alongside Steven. What the documentary uncovers, however, is the evidence which points towards the state framing Steven and coercing his nephew, Brendan, into a false confession.  

After the first season aired, thousands of people rallied behind Steven and Brendan, calling for their release and condemning those responsible for their wrongful conviction. The second season summarises this massive response from viewers of the series in its first episode. It also informs viewers of those who did not appreciate the sentiment of the documentary and who did not want to be involved in the making of a second season. This got me thinking about the morality of these murder documentaries more generally. Who do they serve? And, conversely, who do they damage? How moral is it to create entertainment like this when at the centre of it all is an actual murder? How fair is it to impose on a victim’s family, trying to get to the bottom of such a convoluted case on such a public stage? We all love murder documentaries, but I think it is easy to forget that real people have been affected by the events we are only consuming through a television screen.  

I don’t know about anybody else, but when I watch a murder documentary, I throw myself into it. I struggle to peel my eyes away from the screen and God forbid anyone in the room with me makes a single noise lest they get a fat ‘SHH!’ from me right in their ear. I am immersed in the story. But isn’t that the problem? We view these documentaries in the same way we might view a fictional TV show. We immediately brand certain ‘characters’ as heroic or villainous, and sometimes I think we can lose sight of the fact these people are not caricatures, but real people. When we are screaming profanities at our television screens, we are screaming profanities at people who have lost a loved one and want to get to the bottom of how they died, or people who are framed by a certain narrative as being murderous but are completely innocent. 

There is a lot to be said for how a story is framed, and there is a wealth of information which could suggest that certain Netflix documentaries are navigated in such a way as to glorify a certain version of the truth. For example, people have said Making a Murderer glosses over the fact that Steven Avery tortured his family cat in his youth for fun, and The Staircase does not divulge that Michael Petersen dated the series’ editor while his case was being filmed. I don’t think these details implicate either party as guilty of murder, in fact I genuinely believe that neither of these people committed the crimes they have been punished for, but small facts like these, if exploited in a particular way, can certainly create a perception of somebody which is very different to the one originally presented. And, on that note, for a story to be framed in such a way as to exonerate one suspect is for a story to be framed in such a way as to implicate somebody else. We see this in season two of Making a Murderer. It is heavily implied that Ryan Hillegas and Bobby Dassey are really to blame for Teresa’s death. However, no official police questioning holding them as potential suspects has taken place so, officially, this is all speculative. But, due to the nature of the documentary, Ryan and Bobby are already seen by many, including myself, as the villains of this crime as we forget that they are real people who very easily could be entirely innocent. Their lives are therefore negatively impacted by a Netflix documentary completely out with their control. 

Conversely though, there are certain criminals who I believe would welcome the attention which a murder documentary gives. Other series which I haven’t mentioned up until this point centre around serial killers; The Night Stalker deals with Richard Ramirez, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes focuses on Dennis Nilsen, and Don’t F*ck With Cats presents the case of Luka Magnotta (a serial animal-killer-turned-murderer). What I’ve noticed with these series, is a tendency for the killer at the centre of it all to almost want to be caught and, when they are caught, to go down in history and remembered for doing what they did. The Luka Magnotta case is the most obvious of these, as he appeared to be bolstered by the social media campaign rallying together to discover his identity. He put on a murderous show for people, re-enacting a famous movie scene to kill his final victim, which a part of me isn’t sure would’ve happened had a large group of people not been giving him so much attention. A similar thing happens with Richard Ramirez as he turns around in court to say ‘hail Satan’ to the jury – these people want to be outrageous; they want attention. Something about an entire documentary series where they are, effectively, the star of the show makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel like we are giving these terrible people what they ultimately wanted – fame.  

I don’t think we should stop watching murder documentaries – I, for one, am not sure that I could; I find them too interesting. I do think, however, that it is important we keep perspective when we do watch them. It’s so important for these stories to be told and for the families of victims to have a platform upon which they can communicate the distress caused to them by the events taken place. We just need to remind ourselves that these stories are real, and we are being served them in a neatly wrapped package which may not tell the full story. Netflix presents these documentaries to us as a series just like they would any other series, but at the heart of these individual tales, somebody has actually died, and it’s imperative we remember that.  

Carlyn Robinson

Aberdeen '21

Postgraduate English student ✨
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