Why True Crime Stories Are Entertaining Or Ethical, But Not Both
The structure of most true crime stories is a con.
A mannequin strapped with weights lies on the ground behind a car in an episode of Netflix’s Making a Murderer Season 2.
The mannequin’s hair is soaked with a liquid that mimics blood. A man throws the mannequin in the boot of the car in a variety of different ways, while a team of lawyers and blood splatter experts observe, paying close attention to where the blood lands. The white, faceless mannequin is meant to represent Teresa Halbach, a photographer who disappeared in 2005. Later, Halbach’s remains were found at Avery’s Auto Salvage near her hometown.
The investigation into Halbach’s murder and the court case around the man convicted of her murder, Steven Avery, became the centrepiece for Netflix’s hit true crime series, Making of a Murderer. A majority of the second season is dedicated to a team of lawyers, led by Kathleen Zellner, an expert at overturning wrongful convictions, and the attempt to free Avery still who claims his innocence.
For the remainder of the second series, it’s hard to stop thinking about the mannequin and what Halbach has been reduced to posthumously. What would her family think? The Halbachs refuse to participate in the series — there’s a huge list of names at the end of each episode with the names of other folks who declined — so you never hear their side of the story, but it’s clear they are still grieving and want to be left alone.
The mannequin scene represents how disconnected true crime can be in its approach to the victims of crime and their families.
More broadly, as the phenomenon rolls on with each new documentary series, podcast, book and dramatisation, it’s beginning to feel like audiences are drifting further from the reality of the situation. People are trading in trauma like it’s Monopoly money and promising a neat conclusion — extremely rare with active true crime narratives — which leads to viewer satisfaction. The basic principles of storytelling still apply: beginning, middle and end. People crave a fulfilling ending that true crime may never be able to give or earn.
As the details of a case get sensationalised to offer answers and a sense of justice, we begin to forget that a real person died — but these narratives should never be satisfying because they begin at a moral disadvantage that’s becoming clearer at the height of the true crime craze.
The Case For True Crime
In 2012, there were 12,845 cases of tips made through Crime Stoppers Australia leading to charges. In 2017, that figure nearly doubled 24,630. The popularity of true crime means there’s an increase in public perception about how murder investigations are conducted.
People are hyper-aware of the importance of witnesses and evidence that can make or break a case, sometimes regardless of how much time has passed.
The first season of Making of Murderer did bring attention to the plight of Brendan Dassey, whose interrogation over the death of Halbach led to a coerced confession by detectives. Dassey was sentenced to life in prison where he remains to date. True crime can play a role as a critique of the justice system from crime scenes to the courtroom, and Dassey’s case is an example of how power can be wielded to get a conviction. Making of a Murderer season 2 follows the post-conviction process for Dassey and his family, but more heartbreak awaits.
A number of true crime stories revolve around cold cases where people chase down leads in hopes to have a case re-opened.
Recently, the podcast Teacher’s Pet, led to police in Sydney investigating fresh leads on the unsolved murder of Lyn Dawson, who disappeared in 1982. Keep in mind, the commercial side of true crime is never far away, Teacher’s Pet is brought to you by its sponsor: Harvey Norman.
In America, Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is credited as assisting the hunt for the Golden State Killer, who carried out 12 murders and 50 rapes over two decades before disappearing in 1986.
The Golden State Killer suspect Joe DeAngelo was just officially charged with the murders of Offerman, Manning, Domingo and Sanchez. #justice #rememberthevictims pic.twitter.com/qbspxv0VAI
— Billy Jensen (@Billyjensen) May 10, 2018
Another factor is that true crime illuminates the shocking statistics of crime, especially when it comes to violence against women. The podcast My Favourite Murder began with hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discussing their fascination with true crime.
The show became a true crime comedy podcast hit, as they walked the fine line between talking and joking about murder cases. The underlying theme of the show has always been that by making light of horrible situations they are bringing attention to the horrific statistics around murder cases and how it feels to be a lady in this cruel world.
They also maintain the show works to remember the people who have perished and highlight when the justice system got it wrong, but My Favourite Murder hasn’t always gone to plan. During a series of live shows in Australia, Kilgariff and Hardstark were yelled at during a show in Melbourne for laughing about a story that involved the deaths of two young men, while an audience member wept.
The podcast has also come under fire for wonky discussions about sex workers, people of colour and the LGBTQ community. The show has been tripped up many times for reporting inaccuracies about cases discussed, the comedic tone and how they discuss different groups, the disclaimer that you’re listening to two comedians should always be top of mind.
My Favourite Murder sits on a ledge when it comes to the way they approach their subject matter, but there’s a darker side to the popularity of true crime.
We’re Not Your Hobby
Sonia Anderson spent years coming to terms with the death of her daughter, Bianca Faith Girven, who was murdered by her abusive partner in a Brisbane park.
A victim’s support group alerted Ms Anderson to a book that had been written about her daughter’s murder, that included details about her final moments. Speaking to News.com.au, Ms. Anderson said reading about her daughter’s death, “took me back to a bad place that I didn’t ever want to go back to. I’ve been very traumatised”.
When something becomes popular there will be people who rush in to capitalise on the momentum, which includes the wave of true crime stories hitting.
But often we’re dealing with people looking to gain from the most horrific circumstances. As the saying goes: don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. A lot of true crime puts gossip and entertainment before the key investigation.
Often you’re dealing with people who have no qualifications or awareness of the emotional blowback of their actions, and there seems to be little respect for the living and the dead.
True crime is mostly one-sided and tends to shine a greater spotlight on the murderers. Look at the legacy of Charles Manson — when he passed away in 2017, his influence on pop culture was highlighted and discussed instead of the seven people who perished. Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is set during the time of the Manson murders, is set to be released on the 50th anniversary of the crime spree, like a sick joke.
Helen Garner’s book Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law follows the trial around the murder of Joe Cinque, whose coffee was laced with Rohypnol at a dinner party in Canberra, and he was later injected with a lethal dose of heroin by his girlfriend, Anu Singh. In 1999, Singh was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in jail, but was released early in 2001.
The book takes Garner’s point-of-view as she tries to come to terms with how something so horrible could happen; there’s a hopelessness to it that’s unrelenting. When the book was adapted into a film of the same name in 2016, it tried too hard to empathise with Singh every step of the way to justify her actions, firmly putting her in the spotlight as a fascinating specimen.
The structure of most true crime stories is a con.
Thousands of hours of podcasts and documentary series usually under on the note of “we’ll never know” or the suspects have long passed away. Even the juggernaut podcast Serial ended with a huge question mark over the status of its subject, Adnan Syed. The outlier is HBO’S The Jinx, which tells the story of Robert Durst and ends on a spectacular ‘gotcha’ moment.
True crime can be big on details but low on answers, it all feels so unsatisfying — but should it ever be satisfying?
The shortcut is to throw our hands up and say our culture is twisted and true crime indulges us as a bunch of sickos. A big part of the allure of true crime is coming to terms with the evil side of human nature and sometimes, especially when dealing with psychopaths, it’s nihilistic by default. There will be no answers.
As the true crime blitz rolls on the productions are beginning to become as shallow as the crimes themselves. We’ve turned misery into a theme park.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.