I have always been a true crime buff. As I child, I distinctly remember my Dad regularly bringing home a periodical magazine titled Murder Casebook. Each edition of Murder Casebook would profile a different serial killer, with the first volume relating to the heinous crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. The idea was that readers would collect the various installments of the series and then compile them in a special limited edition binder that would neatly compile the magazines together. I remember being instantly transfixed by the presence of these magazines in our home and would endeavor to read each new edition as soon as I possibly could. The exploits of these notorious figures evoked in me a strange combination of feelings which I suspect will be common to many fans of true crime: revulsion, fear and a perverse fascination. In my view, it is the interrelatedness of these three responses to true crime narratives which account for its increasing popularity. There appears to be something profoundly human about our intrigue with brutality and darkness. In any case, I suspect that many of us who consume such material undertake an internal but uncomfortable process of self-examination as we sit through the various documentaries and biopics: do I have a dark side? If so, what is it? How can I be so sure that I will never become like these evil personalities?
Fast-forward in time some 30 years and we find ourselves in an age in which the magazine periodical is largely obsolete. In its place lies the world of the Internet, with its myriad of forums, fan pages and (of course) streaming media. A simple Google search for “true crime” will yield a staggering amount of results, with each varying greatly in credibility. For true crime fans, the Internet functions as an abyss which one enters in full knowledge of the fact that one can never hope to trawl through all the available information. However, both the nature and prevalence of the true crime genre within digital platforms such as Netflix has in recent times caused me to reflect on the ethics of true crime as an entertainment medium as well as its long-term effects on the psyche. I have begun to wonder whether, from an entertainment perspective, true crime is actually a form of fetishism which we consume not so much because we are fascinated by the depths of the human psyche, but because we enjoy the feeling such material brings us. We are voyeurs of darkness, and we enjoy true crime because we are, simply, enthralled and captivated by the reality of violence and death. There are no ethical principles involved in our consumption. That is a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about viewing-as personal entertainment- the stories of someone else’s depravity.
It is true that serial killers have always had their fans. The trial of Richard Ramirez- L.A.’s notorious Night Stalker- was marked by the presence of adoring groupies who were (presumably) attracted to a combination of Ramirez’ internal darkness as well as his impossibly chiseled jawline. More recently, various fan accounts on the trashy website Tumblr have highlighted the problem of the glamorization of murder. A myriad of pages exists, for example, which discuss the desirability of Ted Bundy as a sexual partner. Such expressions of warped psychology remind us that there is an inherent ethical quandary involved in consuming true crime media. This quandary is centered on the tension between credible reporting on true crime cases on the one hand, and a slide into glamorizing the criminal on the other. I propose no solutions to this dilemma, other than that if true crime is to have any integrity as a genre, it must fulfill two important criteria. First, it must avoid the tendency- subtly evident in many of the more recent documentaries- to hero worship the murderers themselves and revel in the violent details of their crimes. This is merely gratuitous and demeaning. Second, true crime must give voice to the deceased victims: who were they? what were their personalities like? Who loved them in life and what legacy have they left? In so doing, the true crime genre can balance the inevitable horror of its narratives with an equal emphasis on the real human lives that have been so devastatingly cut short.