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The True Crime That Nobody’s Talking About

We’ve Been Getting Away with Murder

Welcome to In Our Crime, the show that delves into the most obscure and deviant of criminal cases. Today, we’ll be discussing the disturbingly dark demise of [insert name here], who’s toe-curling murder involved the—do I have your attention yet?

I’m not surprised. Grizzle and gore have excited our corrupted imaginations since time immemorial. It is one of life’s great ironies that, in dutifully attaching ‘content warnings’ to the likes of Far From the Madding Crowd, (which, warns Warwick University, “contains some potentially rather upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life”), we blithely ignore the enduring success of Seneca’s Feast of Thyestes, Sweeney Todd, and Dracula. Nor is our interest confined to fiction. Since the police force’s conception, nefarious criminals have enraptured reporters and audiences alike. From the media frenzy surrounding Constance Kent, convicted in 1865 of murdering her four-year-old stepbrother, to the notorious investigations of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s clear we harbour a sweet tooth for the less savoury side of humanity.

The discerning reader may well be wondering why, in this saturated market, I am directing my campaign against true crime specifically. The genre is surely just one manifestation of our perverted fascinations; an inevitable by-product of whatever childhood traumas have led, most recently, to the apparently harmless Pooh Bear being reincarnated as a feral and bloodthirsty villain. Yet, as I think you will agree, there is a difference between fantastical, fictionalised horrors and those that have occurred in real life. Equally, there is a profound difference between journalistic coverage of these horrors — removed from personal conjecture and (botched) attempts at theatricality — and the recent flurry of true crime content.

The phenomenon originated circa 2015, when the ascendancy of Australia’s Serial podcast spurned innumerable spin-offs. These days, Netflix churns out docuseries faster than you can say ‘editorial cliché’, and ‘true crime’ podcasts were the third most-listened-to in 2020, (tales of doom and mass extinction were lamentably absent from our news outlets, after all). So shameless has our obsession become that Youtubers discuss stories whilst simultaneously curling their eyelashes, and communities of ‘true crimers’ passionately defend their theories — ‘fan-non-fic’, if you will — on Reddit and TikTok. For the mere price of $44.95, (10 percent off for so-called ‘creepy newsletter’ subscribers), one can purchase a ‘Ted Talk’ hoodie emblazoned with Ted Bundy’s sneering face.

Perhaps the most obvious ethical concern, then, is how readily the genre merges with consumerism. Even for the ‘passive’ viewer, for whom true crime simply acts as the soundtrack to daily commutes and household chores, adverts for jarringly mundane products secure the industry’s commercial success — and rather undermine the seriousness of the issues in question. Undeniably, the genre provides ample opportunities for self-promotion: the creator of the podcast My Favourite Murder signed a $10 million deal with Stitcher in 2019, while the actor who played Jeffrey Dahmer in Monster (2022), received a Golden Globe. It doesn’t take the greatest of mental leaps to connect Ian Stirling and Laura Whitmore’s latest foray into the genre — Partners in Crime — to the commercial, self-indulgent motives that drive sister venture Love Island.

The profits for those actually affected by such crimes are less easy to quantify. In recent years, true crime has (mistakenly) been considered a force for genuine ‘good’. Listeners and viewers far and wide cite the genre’s judicial successes: in 2022 alone, podcasts credited themselves with the exoneration and conviction of Adnan Syed and Chris Dawson respectively; defenders of docuseries claim to raise awareness about social biases, the law, and the need for critical thinking. It is interesting that, in this noble pursuit of international justice, producers tend to cherry pick perpetrators who are conventionally attractive (I’m looking at you, Zac Efron). Equally interesting is that, taking Monster as a recent example, the victims themselves are often conspicuously absent. Most of Dahmer’s targets were Black or Queer, yet this (potentially instructive) avenue of enquiry is side-lined in the name of emphasising the flashier, more gory elements of the case — not least the ‘humanisation’ of (the rather good-looking) Dahmer himself.

It is also striking that most truecrime narratives involve ethnic/demographic minority victims, whose cases rest in the hands of predominantly white policemen and true crime ‘investigators’. Shedding light on minority persecution is undeniably important, but the disproportionate emphasis on their cases comes worryingly close to invoking a ‘white saviour’ complex, particularly when the social context of their maltreatment is so often overlooked. Facing such criticism, Monster’s creator, Ryan Murphy, countered that none of Dahmer’s victims’ friends or family agreed to interview. But surely this is telling in itself? For the people and minority groups involved, renewed media attention usually reiterates, rather than addresses, trauma. Young Lee, the brother of one of Dahmer’s victims, described the film’s frenzied release as “a nightmare.”

So, behind its gallant pretext, the genre operates — at least predominantly — in the interests of its consumers. But what about the impact it is wreaking on us? Part of the genre’s attraction is that we, the innocent party, are safely removed bystanders. Yet, fundamentally, true crime runs on dangerous, socially damaging logic. The genre practically demands us to take sides, dig into others’ private lives and relish in our ‘certainty’; online echo chambers of ‘innocenters’ and ‘guilters’ encourage the very same ‘black-and-white’ mindset that generates wrongful convictions in the first place.

The uncomfortable truth is, in exploring the darker aspects of humanity, true crime brings out our very worst. Touting ourselves as amateur sleuths and ‘defenders of justice’, we have developed a mentality of arrogance and entitlement, consuming warped, sensationalised production narratives with a confidence that threatens to undermine our legal system. The recent Nicola Bulley incident proves how damaging public involvement can be to the pursuit of ‘real-life’ justice; if we’re not careful, we’ll be the ones with blood on our hands.

Illustration: Hannah Beggerow

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