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Is an obsession with true crime a bad thing? Does true crime exploit tragedies for profit and entertainment purposes?
Stories about true crime are everywhere—from television series to documentaries to podcasts. But the consumption of tragedy as entertainment might be crossing some ethical boundaries and affecting audiences psychologically.
Let’s look at how true crime is presented in entertainment and social media, and discover the issues that may arise from society’s true crime obsession.
The True Crime Obsession Phenomenon
True crime obsession has manifested into the art of entertainment and social media, especially as streaming services such as Netflix continue to profit off the horrors of victims’ realities. Another social media platform that fueled the true crime obsession is TikTok, where some accounts are dedicated to sharing crime cases in the hopes of getting millions of views and likes. Is it really such a good thing that we’re looking to the dramatization of crime as an entertainment outlet?
Perhaps the root of true crime obsession began with fictional stories. Television series such as Breaking Bad, Ozark, The Sopranos, and Dexter put audiences in the heads of criminals, often making them root for the bad guys in their respective series.
On the other hand, long-running crime procedural dramas such as Criminal Minds and the Law & Order franchise—in which each episode relies on the whodunit mystery narrative—give a peek into the working strategies of the professionals who are solving the cases. Likewise, True Detective proved to be one of HBO’s biggest successes in its first season, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson giving riveting performances as detectives solving a decades-long cult cold case.
True Crime Obsession in Entertainment
In the past, the genre of crime shows was never something problematic, especially when the stories were purely fictional. But an issue has become transparent: audiences and entertainment industry creatives are looking to crime as a means for profitable projects.
With podcasts gaining more listeners and marketers, the audio platform has become a gateway for true crime-obsessed fans to educate listeners on crime cases, while also making a dollar or two (or thousands). The growing trend of true crime podcasts has formed a fanbase where listeners can theorize about cases, either cold or happening in real time—like Gabby Petito’s tragic case.
In regards to television, it’s obvious that for the past few years, “based on true life” stories make up the bulk of new releases. This isn’t anything new, as biopic movies and series have been around for years and are generally well received at distinguished award shows such as the Academy Awards and the Primetime Emmys. However, the majority of these shows nowadays focus on crimes that fascinated and/or horrified people back when they were first reported, which Netflix has particularly found success with alongside documentaries.
Let’s look at the different forms true crime obsession has dangerously taken in the entertainment industry, from television miniseries and Netflix documentaries to the gripping podcasts people can’t stop listening to.
Miniseries are all the rage these days, and it’s because they’re the right balance everyone needs. It’s less investment than a multi-season television show, but also provides a longer story than a two-hour film could ever give. For a story about a crime, it’s the perfect length since you only have so much material you can work with.
Below we’ll look at three new miniseries of 2022 that are adding to the true crime obsession, but also causing issues within the real cases. These series—The Staircase, Under the Banner of Heaven, and The Dropout—are all based on true stories of murder, religious violence, and fraud that have captivated audiences.
HBO Max’s The Staircase
HBO Max’s newest miniseries based on a true story is The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette as husband and wife duo Michael and Kathleen Peterson. Michael, a crime novelist, is accused of murdering Kathleen after she’s found dead at the bottom of their staircase.
The story of Kathleen’s death and Michael’s trial was initially highlighted in the Peabody-award-winning documentary series of the same name back in 2004, which intimately followed Michael’s strategy meetings inside his home during the trial. The filming of the documentary series acts as a secondary plot line in the HBO Max series, but the director behind the original documentary, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, says he feels betrayed by the creatives behind the dramatized series.
Episode 5 of the HBO Max series, “The Beating Heart,” depicts the documentary’s editor, Sophie Brunet, as having a romantic relationship with Michael while she edited the documentary. In real life, they did have a relationship, but it wasn’t until after she left the documentary to edit another project. De Lestrade has criticized Antonio Campos, creator of the HBO Max series, for including the small change that ultimately implied that the documentary intended to sway legal decisions about the case.
This brings up a complication within the realm of true crime entertainment. De Lestrade worries the audience will get the wrong idea that he allowed a romantic relationship between his editor and the accused (who also happened to be his subject) to happen whilst filming. It changes people’s entire perception of the case by wondering if de Lestrange manipulated the entire trial just by filming and editing his documentary to appeal to Michael’s defense.
This is how much power entertainment has with true crime. The Michael Peterson trial, which hasn’t been of public interest for years, is making headlines once again because of the dramatized series’s controversy. But it also brings up the question—how far can we bend the truth to appeal to the true crime audience? Changes will always be made to dramatized retellings, but they could be damaging if people aren’t willing to research what’s true and what’s not.
FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven
FX’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is relatively fresh in the television world, but it exemplifies all the traits true crime fans are looking for to satisfy their cravings. As Kathryn VanArendonk of Vulture puts it, it has four qualities that most crime shows are aiming to fulfill (these aren’t written-in-stone standards, but VanArendonk points out that there is an eerie familiarity between every new crime series):
- A somewhat fictionalized true-crime story
- Ties cult dynamics (disguised as religion) with contemporary politics
- Led by a brooding, but determined protagonist
- The protagonist’s relationship with his partner vaguely reminds the audience of True Detective
There’s a problem with the fact that we’re noticing a pattern that needs to be checklisted with every one of these shows. For Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old child who were murdered in a Mormon community in 1984, they’re now painted as dramatic characters and decorated instruments for entertainment. Yet, there’s rarely any criticism for the fact that these two victims are being used as pawns in a game of “which detective are we going to make viewers sympathize with next?”
That’s a recurring case that crime shows have —the victim is only a “supporting character,” (in Under the Banner of Heaven’s case: Daisy Edgar-Jones, who has third billing in the show’s credits) who’s pushed to the background for the agonizing and deeply troubled man (Andrew Garfield, who has top billing) trying to solve the case and her murderers (portrayed by Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell). It may not be the conventional structure all of these shows follow, but it’s certainly a popular one.
In Under the Banner of Heaven’s defense, however, both the book and the television show go to immense efforts to bring awareness of the violence that’s been pushed aside in the Mormon community for years. In an interview with The New York Times, both Krakauer and the show’s creator, Dustin Lance Black, wanted to understand why Lafferty’s murderers were compelled to do what they did. Black, who grew up closeted in the Mormon community, said reading Krakauer’s book—which researches both the violent and non-violent history of Mormonism—felt “formative to him.” In this case, Black fueling the true crime obsession may have done some good for people who feel personally affected by Lafferty and her daughter’s murder.
Hulu’s The Dropout
Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos’s downfall is an odd story to tell for a dramatized miniseries, especially given her story isn’t over yet. The Dropout depicts Holmes’s rise as one of the leading billionaire CEOs in the world, and how she lied to everyone along the way. Holmes is scheduled to be sentenced in September 2022, but at this point, there’s no denying that she did horrible things within her company.
The miniseries is based on the podcast of the same name, and the story has been the subject of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup and an HBO documentary film, The Inventor.
Unlike The Staircase, The Dropout didn’t receive much controversy and Variety even praised the show for its genuine portrait of Elizabeth Holmes. The show humanizes Holmes as a woman constantly looked down upon in the healthcare industry, but also shows how disgraceful she is for being unapologetic about manipulating real patients’ blood samples, among other things.
The Dropout doesn’t represent any real issue within the true crime obsession trend, but it’s also “tamer” than other true crime stories. Holmes’s story doesn’t involve murder or kidnapping—it’s non-violent fraud. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the show is a little premature, considering Holmes has yet to receive a sentence. It just proves that creative executives take no time to find a hot case to dramatize on the screen, even if it’s still too fresh to break down.
Netflix’s True Crime Obsession
The above series are all distributed by HBO Max, FX, and Hulu, but the real money-maker when it comes to true crime is Netflix.
The book No Rules Rules details the immense growth of Netflix’s popularity over the years. When Netflix launched in 1997, the company was essentially a mail-order version of Blockbuster, the video rental store that dominated the home entertainment industry at the time. Today, Netflix produces award-winning content, has more than 200 million subscribers across 190 countries, and experienced a boom at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that gained more than 36 million subscribers in 2020 as a result of lockdowns around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic only added to the fire of the true crime obsession, especially seeing how the documentary series Tiger King became a sensation in the early months of the pandemic. Let’s look at more documentaries that made Netflix the go-to streaming service for true crime entertainment.
True Crime Documentaries
Tiger King: As mentioned before, Tiger King garnered the attention it got because of its release timing. However, the main appeal to the show was its quirky subjects, whose long-standing feud has turned into memes that make light of the crimes committed.
The documentary series focuses on Joe Exotic, who was convicted of hiring two men to murder his rival, Carole Baskin, along with charges of animal abuse. In addition to the documentary, Peacock released a Joe vs. Carole scripted series but has been criticized for painting a “sympathetic portrait of someone who does some very bad things,” by Vanity Fair and others.
Making a Murderer: This Netflix documentary explores the wrongful conviction of Steven Avery, who served 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. Avery was later arrested for the murder of a local photographer, Teresa Halbach.
While the documentary can’t solely be recognized as the responsible party for crossing true crime into mainstream territory, it did catapult the trend of true crime into the world of accessible streaming. Chitra Ramaswamy of The Guardian even says Making a Murderer contributed to the obsession of true crime in the 21st century as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood did in the 1960s.
Amanda Knox (film): A year after Making a Murderer was released, Netflix continued their true crime bandwagon with a documentary about Amanda Knox, who was imprisoned and later acquitted of murder.
Amanda Knox actually sparked a meaningful conversation about slut-shaming, feminism, and how harmful presuppositions affected Knox’s sentence. Even Malcolm Gladwell, author of Talking to Strangers, spoke in his book about how Amanda’s odd behavior after the crime made her immediately guilty in the police’s eyes, even though there was no physical evidence that proved it. If anything, the Amanda Knox documentary is one of the rare substantial examples of true crime as “entertainment”—it gave Knox a platform she was denied, and was able to spread awareness about both her innocence and the abuse she faced following the crime.
True Crime Podcasts
One of the most popular genres in the podcast community is true crime, but should it be taken seriously?
The short answer is no, but that doesn’t mean we should discredit the people behind the podcasts who are putting themselves out there. Podcast hosts have free rein to do whatever they want and say whatever they want, so the podcasts are mostly coming from the perspective of outsiders and people without legal experience.
Professor Marilyn McMahon, Deputy Dean of Deakin Law School at Deakin University, cautions against mistaking crime podcasts as cold, hard evidence: “In true crime podcasts, people often repeat things they’ve been told, that they didn’t actually witness themselves, which may fall under restrictions in relation to hearsay evidence and not be admissible at trial.”
Furthermore, Dr. McMahon emphasizes that true crime podcasts often have a certain bias to them that disregards the “innocent until proven guilty” principle, mostly because they want to create an interesting narrative to attract more listeners.
Social Media’s Power With True Crime
In 2022, there’s no denying that social media has a large impact on news stories. By using social media, you can get breaking news in a matter of seconds and share with others your thoughts on certain topics. For true crime fans, it’s an outlet for their hobby.
One of the most recent and disturbing cases that showcases the downside of social media’s obsession with true crime is the Gabby Petito case.
The Gabby Petito Case
Gabby Petito was an American woman who went missing on a trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Her case became a phenomenon on social media, with many people making TikToks, tweeting about the case, and using other forms of social media to theorize what happened to her. For months, people suspected Laundrie murdered her, which turned out to be true. However, the constant theorizing and posting about her case feels more like a trend people hopped on to gain more views than to actually spread awareness.
The true-crime podcast, Crime Junkie, rushed to release a special episode on Petito’s case. The hosts even stated that it wasn’t on the schedule, but this episode would be their first ever “breaking story.” Fans of Crime Junkie were sending messages to the hosts, asking if they could report on the story. For true crime fans, the Petito case was their chance to be amateur detectives and gain followers because of how hot the story was.
To make matters worse, Lifetime is developing a movie about Petito’s case, which is far too soon. Much like The Dropout, the Petito case isn’t wrapped up and is still fresh on everyone’s minds. The main motivation seems to be exploiting Petito’s death to make a profit, going to show that creatives in the entertainment industry will use anybody’s tragedy to become rich. But the fact of the matter is, many people will still watch it because of how popular her story became when it first broke.
Are We Doing More Harm Than Good?
Other than the ethical issues behind true crime consumption, there’s also evidence that it can affect you psychologically. Below we’ll look at ways that consuming crime is impacting your mental health and desensitizing you to crime. We’ll also look at the positive side of the trend from a woman’s point of view.
The Impact on Your Mental Health
A concerning effect of true crime consumption is the toll it can take on your mental health. Psychologist Chivonna Childs says while it’s normal to be curious about true crime, there are psychological effects that you can exhibit from taking in true crime content:
- You’re scared all the time
- You feel unsafe in your own home
- You’re growing paranoid and suspicious of others
- You’re constantly anxious
If you start to show any of these signs that are disrupting your daily life, it’s probably time to cut back on the true crime content. Furthermore, the mental health repercussions of society’s true crime intake shows that it isn’t just a healthy hobby. When your heart rate is incredibly fast or you’re constantly looking over your shoulder because of a show you watched, you’ve become more fearful than curious.
We’re Desensitized to Crime Nowadays
Society’s fascination with true crime can be rather startling at times. When stories break out about murders, kidnappings, or cults, people gossip about them as if it’s high school drama. In one particular case, Laura Bogart from The Week shared a time when her co-workers would casually talk about how the BTK Killer strangled his victims at their workplace. Shockingly, one co-worker sounded disappointed when the story ended with the BTK Killer getting tired of waiting for another victim and leaving.
This is most definitely a recurring, and troublesome, issue that should make us wonder if we’ve become desensitized to crime nowadays. A great example is the Lifetime movie about Gabby Petito, which feels like a cheap cash-grab instead of a thoughtful story about Petito because of how quickly it was greenlit.
These swift turnaround films highlight what some people think when they hear of tragedy: this would make for great entertainment. The craving for a dramatized retelling lacks empathy for victims of these horrid events, who people see as characters in a story. Of course, not everyone who is a fan of true crime thinks of it in that way, but there are certainly people out there who don’t blink twice at imagining a crime as a TV show or movie.
Women Feel Safer With Their True Crime Obsession
There are a lot of negative cases against the fascination with true crime, but there are positive takeaways. The most important takeaway is that some women feel safer because of their true crime obsession.
Social psychologist and professor Amanda Vicary at Illinois Wesleyan University says that women are statistically more attracted to “the psychological content of true crime stories,” and that women are more likely to absorb crime stories if a woman is the victim. She reached the conclusion that women (whether subconsciously or intently) want to learn how to survive if they were in a similar situation.
In some ways, this means that true crime can be educational. Seeing how the victim survives in these situations can teach useful survival strategies to women. Still, it’s one of the only positive aspects of true crime entertainment and doesn’t really outweigh the negatives.
Should We Be Worried?
So, is the true crime obsession doing more harm than good? Right now, there’s no definite answer. On one hand, the growing trend of true crime shows, documentaries, and podcasts are creating a problematic nature in which some people are starting to see entertaining and profitable “opportunities” for crimes that are still fresh and reeling.
On the other hand, there’s something educational about these stories. Rarely do people have the time of day to do their own extensive research on murders, kidnappings, etc., and documentaries/shows/podcasts do the research for them. So if true crime consumers were put in a dangerous situation, they may be better equipped to handle it.
But true crime entertainment treads a very fine line. The stories are oftentimes fictionalized to appeal to networks and streaming services that are looking for money and high view counts—and a good story is how they get that, even if it means bending the truth.
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