Who Killed Jill Dando, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal, the list could go on and on. Thousands of true crime podcast episodes, constant releases on Netflix, and an entire genre of, and culture around, ‘True Crime’ media has truly emerged. True crime is the most common topic among top-ranked podcasts, and the demand for these shows is undeniable. Hashtags such as #truecrime, #murdertok, #serialkiller, gather billions upon billions of views on social media platforms, especially TikTok.
This curiosity in the strange and grotesque is not new – modern society has always had publicised, monumental criminal trials, that become part of historic pop culture. We find entertainment in the morbidity, and the drama in OJ Simpson’s murder trial, even that of Charles Manson. But what before was the enjoyment in following the events of a dramatic trial, or even a desire to understand the mind of psychopath, has taken an entirely different route via our modern media.
Arguably due to the Netflix effect, ‘True Crime’ has become one of the leading genres of mainstream media content, with some binge watching every new limited series, and others simply acknowledging the thrill a mysterious case brings. Though recent events have left many wondering if the growth of this genre has unintended consequences.
The Blurring of Boundaries
Before the rise of social media, there was a clear binary between stories in our communities and the people we know, and the fictional narratives we consume through our chosen form of entertainment. But now, whilst we can consciously recognise that people we see on our feeds and ‘for you’ pages are very real, content in presented in this digestible, ‘storytelling’ format, similar to that of our fictional shows and books. It’s why we don’t treat influencers and online celebrities as ordinary people. We have become completely desensitised to other people’s stories, tragedies, and life events.
This becomes a big issue when we think about true crime, a genre focused on the consumption of other people’s tragedies for leisure and financial gain. These shows can delve into every aspect of someone’s intimate life, leaving little respect for the victims themselves, and the trauma experienced by their families. The murder of Betsy Fariah was covered extensively by the media as her case was ongoing, and later adapted into a limited series starring Renée Zellweger. Years later, her daughter, Mariah Day, has become vocal about the impact of true crime media based on her experience. She argues that true crime has gone beyond this idea of awareness and recognition of victims’ stories, and has instead become invasive – “My trauma is not your entertainment.”
Beyond the issue with the genre itself, there are major problems in the dramatisation and sensationalism of these shows. Casting ‘celebrity heartthrobs’ like Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, or Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer, mean audiences romanticise and glamourise the lifestyle of the killer. So seemingly these shows either focus on victims in intrusive ways, analysing their health issues or partners, or they simply bypass the victims altogether.
We’re Not Detectives
If this is an issue in historic cases where victims died many years ago, it becomes an even bigger problem when cases are still being investigated and events are still unfolding. This lack of consideration for victims of these crimes and their families becomes even worse when the internet and social media are theorising, and following every case update similar to interacting with newly released episodes of a TV show. Twitter and TikTok users increasingly see themselves as being capable, more than the police, of solving the ‘mystery’, accusing suspects, and making their own theories.
Nowhere was this more obvious than last year in murder of 4 University of Idaho students by Bryan Kohberger. In the aftermath of the crime, TikTok users shared their theories on the method used, the events of the night, and even their accused perpetuators; this went to the extent that one TikTok user made over 30 videos accusing Rebecca Schofield, a professor at the University, of murder, and is now being sued for defamation. Users made content discussing the relationships between the students, analysing the behaviour of the survivor, and overall treating those involved as if they’re characters, trying to understand their motives and responses.
We have always had this vulgar fascination, this interest in things so outrageous and unimaginable. That’s why the crime genre, the murder mystery books and documentaries exist – we enjoy the thrill. But now with our state of media, it has taken an entirely different level, one that has become problematic and unethical. There shouldn’t be an expectation that someone’s life is up for fictionalisation, and theorisation, and as long as there is, we will continue to treat unfolding police investigations as exciting new murder mysteries.