Can’t quit this gory genre? Here’s how to spot a good true crime from an exploitative AF one…
In the 1920s, the wealthiest people on earth, per capita, were not to be found in London or New York or Monte Carlo. Instead, it was in rural Oklahoma, where the discovery of huge oil deposits on the Osage Indian nation made the population stupendously rich, earning the community tens of millions of dollars a year.
And then the Osage people started dying. The newly formed FBI was called in for what would be the organisation’s first homicide investigation, ultimately uncovering a chilling conspiracy rooted in greed and racism.
The story of the murders reads like it was made for the screen; a cocktail of money and cold-blooded murder, so it should be no surprise that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are currently hard at work shooting an adaptation of journalist David Grann’s telling of events, Killers Of The Flower Moon.
Let’s be real: when the movie comes out (no release date has been announced) you can bet that shiny gold statues and huge streaming numbers will automatically follow. After all, over the last decade or so, the world has developed an insatiable appetite for true crime stories, be they documentaries, TV shows, films or podcasts.
However, not all true crime is created equal and there is a growing awareness of just how problematic our hunger for these sorts of grisly offerings can be.
In July, the trailer for Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman, the latest movie about the American serial killer was released. Within a day, the preview of a second Bundy project – No Man Of God, starring Elijah Wood – also dropped, setting off an outcry with critics accusing the projects of glorifying the killer and decrying another ‘hot Bundy’ project. (Over the years, Mark Harmon, Cary Elwes, James Marsters, Zac Efron, Adam Long and, with Boogeyman, Chad Michael Murray, have all been cast as the sadistic murderer.)
The last five years have seen something of a so-called ‘Bundy Binge’ going on with a two-hour US TV special, a short film about the day of his execution called Fry Day (which picked up an award at SXSW), Efron’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, and more recently the Netflix series, Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
In fact, there have been more Hollywood retellings of Ted Bundy’s story (11) than that of Gandhi, Steven Jobs, David Bowie and Ruth Bader Ginsberg combined.
Looking at the numbers for the true crime genre makes for some disquieting reading. The category, according to a recent AdWeek story, has become “increasingly important” to Netflix and is one of the streaming service’s most popular genres. In the months to May, Forbes has reported, four true crime mini-series took out the number one spot of Netflix’s most-watched list (The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness) in the US with two of those (Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer and Crime Scene: The Vanishing At the Cecil Hotel) enjoying at least seven days in top spot.
True crime is also thriving on YouTube. The True Crime Daily channel boasts 4.6 million subscribers while Buzzfeed’s Unsolved Network has 4.95 million.
Dead, pretty women are clearly audience catnip, no matter the platform. So is our rapacious interest in losing ourselves in hour upon hour of macabre viewing harmless entertainment or is it time we had a longer look at the murky ethics of our obsession?
At face value, understanding why we are drawn to these sorts of productions is fairly straightforward. Killers are fascinating figures, even more so when that evil is masked by good looks or the patina of an average suburban life. We are drawn to the monster-in-our midst narrative again and again, and these sorts of figures are wickedly alluring.
Watching real life crimes replayed or retold is essentially a safe way to come face-to-face with evil, to stare into the eyes of the (mostly) men who commit heinous, unthinkable acts, sort of like going to the zoo and pressing your nose up against the glass of a shark tank.
One piece of this puzzle is the public good, justice-is-served dynamic at play.
A number of these outings have revitalised public and sometimes law enforcement interest in cases, offering viewers the thrill of feeling like you are doing good or helping right some sort of wrong. In 2016, Michelle McNamara’s posthumously released book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark helped put the Golden State Killer back on the radar and revived interest in the spate of murders and rapes which had terrorised California in the 70s. In 2018, before a TV series of the same name aired, truck mechanic Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to 12 life sentences.
Likewise, the 2015 HBO documentary series, The Jinx, saw real estate scion Robert Durst recorded seemingly confessing to murder. Hearing Durst, talking to himself while still wearing a microphone after having been interviewed saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” might be one of the most thrilling TV moments in recent history.
In these and many other instances, we the audience are not passive but active participants in contemporaneously unfolding stories.
But here’s the problem: Name one, just one, of the women who Bundy killed or who Durst is alleged to have killed. (His trial in Los Angeles is still ongoing.) I couldn’t.
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So often, true crime keeps viewers’ gaze on the killer and, in our lust for these sorts of stories, it is startlingly easy to lose sight of the fact that very real people have suffered excruciating losses.
While the glossy, critically-acclaimed entries in this genre tend to hog the spotlight, there are plenty that are just plain exploitative. The short-lived streaming service Quibi commissioned a series called Murder House Flip. In the US, there is an entire cable network (Investigation Discovery) devoted to true crime, offering up titles including Killer Carnies and Momsters: When Moms Go Bad.
And this queasy idolatry, not to mention the thirst for ratings, so often means that the victims and their families are lost.
In 2019, Denise Fergus, the mother of murdered toddler James Bulger, said she was “disgusted and upset” after a short film about the killing was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 2014, the groundbreaking podcast Serial launched, delving into the case of Adnan Syed who was convicted in 2000 of killing his girlfriend Hae Min Lee. HBO still went ahead with a documentary about Syed, even though Lee’s family said the renewed attention on her death had “reopened old wounds” for the family.
It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge but in some instances, giving in to our voyeuristic cravings when it comes to this genre is not a consequence-free form of entertainment the same way indulging in a Real Housewives binge might be.
So, how do we distinguish between the good sort of true crime and the bad? How, like with porn, can we be ethical consumers?
The answer is simple: it comes down to whose story is being told. With Killers Of The Flower Moon, Scorsese and his team have worked with Osage consultants and cultural advisors and the legendary director has said the movie will “immortalise a time in American history that should not be forgotten.” It sounds like, at the heart of this tale, will be the victims and that this project will bring a heinous injustice that much of the world doesn’t know about to light.
Somehow, despite not having seen it, I don’t think Murder House Flip quite meets the same standard. What’s most important to remember here is that we have power and sway as consumers. We need to vote with our fingers and start to be more judicious about which series we watch. If a certain sort of true crime outing flails in the streaming stakes while others skyrocket, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone from Netflix (or wherever) is watching and taking note.
Not all heroes wear capes, or so the saying goes. Instead, many just know when to hit ‘play’ and when to hit ‘skip’.
Images: Getty, Apple Studios, Netflix