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The Controversial Commercialisation of True Crime

True crime is a non-fiction literary and film genre that examines actual crimes and details the actions of people involved or affected by them. Within the last few decades, this genre and, more specifically, true crime documentaries came to be the object of an exponential growth. Although they may differ in interpretation, some involve re-enactments whilst others employ authentic footage from cases. These works always centre around crimes intended to shock and disturb viewers. This article will delve into the reasons behind people's morbid obsession with true crime as well as the controversy surrounding the genre's rise in popularity.

Figure 1: Mary Shelley's Preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Contemporary fascination with true crime seems to stem from its ties to the literary aestheticism of gothic horror. Gothic literature traces its root to the Romantic movement in Europe during the 18th-century and it is characterised by tales of the macabre set-in eerie scenery. The noticeable difference stands between gothic horror being a fictional genre, while true crime aligns itself with factuality and truthful depictions of real events. In her book, The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture, Jean Murley attributes this departure from fiction to the changing sociological landscape: ‘Within a social and cultural context of rising murder rates, increasing sexual freedom for men and women, and greater social freedoms and significant economic advances for women, true crime responded with an intense, gruesome, and paranoid counter story’. (Murley, 2008, p.5). In this environment, the rise in true crime media is therefore a reflexive response to a higher exposure to brutality in people’s everyday lives.

With rising violence rates, the fascination with true crime gives an insight into the cultural anxieties felt as a response to the heightened perceived danger. True crime watchers do not just become casual viewers, but also pseudo crime experts able to discuss serial killers’ patterns and blood-spatter arrangements. According to Murley, this engrossing fixation confirms the population’s shifting and often paranoid fears about violence by allowing them access to the minds of serial killers, which enables them to form intimate relationships with the killer whilst keeping a safe proximity from the possibility of any actual harm. (Murley, 2008).

Therefore, in a seemingly contradictory way, exposing oneself to violence in the form of true crime actually helps assuage one’s own deep-rooted fears about being harmed by such offences. This is an ostensibly evolutionary idea whereby people are drawn towards stories in which they can glean strategies for escaping distress through identification with the victim.

Figure 2: Incredibly Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Netflix: 2019

Aligning with this evolutionary theory lies the fact that women are the largest consumers of true crime. A 2010 study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that more women tend to be drawn towards true crime stories than men, and that they are primarily interested in stories featuring female victims, that give insight into the killer’s motives and information about how victims escaped. (Yates, 2010). One explanation for this is that women tend to be more empathetic than men, and consequently, they are more invested in the victim’s story. However, taking into consideration the fact that women are significantly more likely to be exposed to violence than men, it could also be said that female viewers watch true crime to protect themselves against such harm. According to Rape Crisis: England and Wales, one out of four women in the UK experiences sexual violence (Statistics About Sexual Violence and Abuse, n.d.). True crime gives them insight into the motives behind brutality, allowing them to spot potential warning signs of transgressions as well as how to escape such situations. With this description, true crime is no longer a passive watch: it becomes a therapeutic and empowering tool for women to confront that anxiety.

Under this pretext, true crime helps to raise issues and subsequently aid in the processing of trauma. It touches on topics rarely discussed due to their graphic nature as well as detailing the distress of one’s shattered sense of safety and the violation of one’s attachment to others. Nevertheless, true crime has one major impediment if it wishes to pass as a beacon of social utility: its treatment of the real-life victims.

The unwritten public consensus of true crime lays in the basis that the perpetrators of the crime should in no way profit from the publicization of their crimes. Regardless, little attention is drawn to the fact that victims of the crimes have their suffering exploited and paraded for public entertainment. As Jack Miles expresses in his The North American Review article ‘Imagining Mayhem: Fictional Violence vs “True Crime”’, ‘if these works have any social utility, they ought to have it first and foremost for those most directly affected by the crimes in question.’ (Miles,1991, p.6).

The fundamental issue is that victims of these crimes rarely, if ever, give their consent for them to be documented. Taking Netflix’s latest Jeffrey Dahmer series- Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022)- as a recent example; several family members of Dahmer’s victims, such as Tony Hughes's mother Shirley Hughes, have publicly spoken out against the streaming service for going ahead with the series without their consent or consultation (Vargas, 2022). The show producer Ryan Murphy has insisted that the series was written with honouring the victim’s memories in the forefront and yet, Rita Isabell, Errol Lindsay's sister, had her victim impact statement agonizingly reconstructed in the series without her consent. The victim’s families have their grief and trauma resurfaced and turned into entertainment at their expense.

Figure 3: Dahmer- Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Netflix: 2022

Miles argues that such careless disregard of the impact of real people’s stories is nothing more than exploitation. He questions why true crime writers are not held to the same standards as psychiatrists writing for professional literature:

‘If the authors of “true crime” wanted to spare the victims or collateral victims of violent crime further unwelcome notoriety, rather than building on just that notoriety to build the audience for their books, it would certainly be possible for them to change names as well.’ (Miles,1991, p.60).

True crime is written with little regard for the victims and even if attention is shifted to them, it is usually undesired.

The crux issue for Miles is the vividly detailed, non-judgemental depiction of real people’s agony. He asserts that true crime works encourage rather than condemn the personal and social pathologies they depict (Miles, 1991). Rather than shamed, the killer is glorified and gains a celebrity-level of notoriety. In Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Sophia A. McClennen’s symploke article ‘Postscript on Violence’ they assess the relationship between mass consumption of violence and the idolatry of serial killers; ‘Our entertainment industry is adept at aestheticizing violence and transforming the most violent and morally extreme members of our society into culture products suitable for mass consumption and celebration.’ (Jeffrey R. Di Leo & Sophia A. McClennen, 2012, p. 242).

As true crime perpetrates a superficial understanding of the killer through their background and upbringing and their killings are depicted akin to performances, a dissonance forms between the murderer and the reality of their horrific crimes. Furthermore, ‘Carefully packaged, promoted and sanitized by the culture industry, American psychos such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wournos and John Wayne Gacy increasingly became less despicable objects of moral revulsion, and more objects of fascination and entertainment.’ (Jeffrey R. Di Leo & Sophia A. McClennen, 2012, p. 243). The serial killer is depicted outside of the normal constraints of civilisation and given the status of an individual loner.

Figure 4: Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, Netflix: 2022

P. David Marshall, in his review of Richard Tithecott’s Of Men and Monsters, explains the link between the killer’s loner status and their ultimate glorification by a culture that prioritises individuality, ‘they articulate agency and can be seen in a perverse turn as ultimate expressions of individuality, equal to the vigilante heroes presented in our film culture.’ (Marshall,1999, p. 276). True crime enables this idolisation of killers by trying to empathically lineate their supposed motives, therefore neglecting to condemn the horrific actions which they document. Subsequently, our reaction to the killer is not of revulsion but of ambivalence as we become enthralled by their ability to stand outside the law.

Ultimately, it is easy to see why viewers become fascinated by true crime. Modern society is an emotionally capitalist one in which people are constantly in search of strong emotions to consume. Graphic violence generates the most visceral, powerful emotions and through these intense feelings people are able to bond, process their own trauma, and proactively protect themselves. What is often neglected in the commercialisation of these works is the real people affected by the true stories being broadcast for mass consumption as their anguish becomes entertainment and their perpetrators branded as icons.

Bibliograpical References

Di Leo, J. and McClennen, S. (2012). Postscript on Violence. Symplokē, 20(2), 241–50. Marshall, P. (1999). The Notorious as Cultural Signposts. Biography, 22(2), 273–80. Miles, J. (1991). Imagining Mayhem: Fictional Violence vs. True Crime. The North American Review, 276(4), 57–64. Murley, J. (2008). The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture. Connecticut: Praeger.

Statistics about sexual violence and abuse. (n.d.). Rape Crisis England & Wales. Vargas, R. (2022). Mother of Dahmer victim condemns Netflix series: ‘I don’t see how they can do that.’ The Guardian. Yates, D. (2010). Women, more than men, choose true crime over other violent nonfiction. Illinois News Bureau.

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1 Comment

An analysis that considers one of the most popular genre of our time. Interesting to read about some dynamics that surrounds it.

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Megan Maistre

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