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Truly Criminal

Why true crime documentaries leave a bad taste in my mouth

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/FBI

by Maud Woolf

At the age of fourteen I was a true crime junkie. Unsolved atrocities, murder mysteries, and interviews with serial killers; there wasn’t a blood-splattered documentary out there I hadn’t devoured. I used to pride myself on being able to rattle off key facts from the JonBenét Ramsey case, Tupac’s shooting or the Black Dahlia killings. Maybe it was the intrigue of the mystery or the edge-lord appeal to an awkward pre-teen, but I couldn’t get enough. And it was made all the cooler because all of it actually happened. Other kids watched their teen dramas, but I was interested in something a little more grown up, a little more real. Except of course it didn’t feel real at all. These were smoothly edited documentaries inviting me to play armchair detective, not reality. 


I’m not sure when my obsession turned to distaste. A large part of it came from reading an article written by a woman whose family’s murder was turned into a BBC series. She wrote of the trauma caused by watching her story be retold, simply saying “they exploited our tragedy for entertainment”.


I realised that the root of all this was sheer voyeurism.  I had deluded myself that my interest was anthropological or philosophical, but I wasn’t a student of human nature; I was a rubbernecker. I wouldn’t slow down my car to see a roadside crash, but here I was doing so in front of the television.  There was a safe distance in my obsession: I could log off the computer or switch off the TV. But the real people involved didn’t have that option.

Now when I think about the reality of all that death, I feel sick.

I was so obsessed with the facts and juicy details I didn’t think about the victims or the survivors left behind. I delved into stories about horrible violence and awful experiences without breaking a sweat. I prided myself on being immune to the horror but now I can see that it was a disturbing and deliberate failure of empathy. There are enough horrible things happening on the news, enough atrocities playing across our television screens without seeking these stories out. I don’t want to be jaded to human pain and suffering anymore. In truth I feel ashamed of myself. How different was I to the fan accounts that edit flower crowns onto Jeffrey Dahmer?


This has weighed on my mind lately with the release of two films. The first is a glitzy account of the crimes and capture of serial killer Ted Bundy, told from the perspective of his girlfriend. In ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ the killer in question is portrayed by ex-heartthrob Zac Efron. The real Ted Bundy murdered and sexually assaulted dozens of women and young girls. Now he’s immortalized through fans gushing about how hot he was. The film’s trailer has the funky soundtrack and schmoopy dialogue of a rom-com. “I’m more popular than Disneyworld” Efron’s Bundy smarms to the camera. He’s not wrong.


We can watch this and pretend to tut at the horror while somehow remaining morally exempt, but we are the audience that justifies its existence.

The film is a testimony of our overwhelming cultural obsession with death. 


The other film holds itself up as a more serious work of art, nominated for an upcoming Oscar; ‘Detainment’. Dealing with the horrific Bulger murder in which a two-year-old was killed by two older boys, the film re-enacts key moments before and after the killing. Protesting the film’s inclusion in the Academy Awards is the young victim’s mother, Denise Fergus, who claims she was never consulted about the film being made. In a public statement she stated the film was equivalent to “reliving a nightmare”. 


To this day the director refuses to withdraw from the Academy Awards. He has however replied publicly, saying that “We never intended any disrespect by not consulting them. While it is a painfully difficult case to understand, I believe we have a responsibility to try and make sense of what happened”. I personally don’t think winning an Oscar is necessary for understanding. By going against the wishes of a mother who has already had to undergo such a horrific tragedy, the film has already compromised its morals. To me, like the majority of true crime media, the film fails to justify its own existence. 


Nowadays if I want suspense or horror, I pick up a Stephen King novel. I stick to the supernatural episodes of Buzzfeed Unsolved. I can’t deny my fascination with the dark but at least this way I don’t lose my sense of reality or worse, forsake my empathy for cheap thrills. 

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