The ethics of true passion for crime under debate
For some people, relaxation feels like settling down with a nice glass of wine and the most graphic and unsettling murder story imaginable.
True crime stories have always appealed to our lowest natures. Now the genre is practically a lifestyle, with endless docuseries, podcasts and investigations to binge and chat on TikTok comments or the brunch table. An entire genre of lifestyle-slash-true-crime videos commands hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, where influencers wear makeup while casually discussing all manner of atrocities.
It’s absurd, in a way, how something so dark has found such a hallowed place in the pantheon of pop culture. “Saturday Night Live” produced its own classic take on “murder shows,” and TikTok is full of jokes about people appearing to go about their lives peacefully while the voice in their headphones buzzes about severed arms and legs. True crime releases show no signs of slowing down, with recent streaming titles such as “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker” (Netflix) and “Death in the Dorms” (Hulu).
However, the boom in sordid stories of human misfortune has led some true crime enthusiasts to consider the ethical ramifications of their passion. After all, true crime is called “true” for a reason. At the heart of every new Netflix special or headline-grabbing investigation are a victim and a family, not to mention the countless people whose involvement in these tragedies is more than just entertainment. Is there an ethical way to be a true crime fanatic? And if so, what is acceptable and what is not?
A FAN PULLS THE LINE
Bobbi Miller, entertainment expert and host of “The Afternoon Special” entertainment podcast, has been leading conversations about the ethical consumption of true crime for years. She says she felt uneasy watching “Dahmer,” the first installment of a Netflix true-crime anthology series that focused on the notorious serial killer.
She felt even more uncomfortable watching the series explode in popularity despite widespread concerns among true crime watchers that the skillfully produced series glorified Jeffrey Dahmer and ran against the wishes of some of the families of his victims. Evan Peters, who played the lead role, even won a Golden Globe for his portrayal, prompting further outcry from those affected by Dahmer’s very real crimes.
“I think true crime is unethical,” she told CNN. “That’s not to say it’s something that shouldn’t exist. The line in the sand, for me, is whether a medium takes a fiction or non-fiction approach, in terms of sensationalizing the narrative. or trying to create an appeal around a criminal.”
While some documentaries and other media contain nuances and reverence that set them apart from more sordid offerings, Miller says she always encourages people not to let their true-crime enjoyment cross the line into obsession. Real ethical crime stories, she says, are those that focus on the victims and don’t center the criminal on a cult of personality or a mysterious mind to unravel.
“When you walk away from a true crime story, it should be with some respect for the victim,” she says.
ENTERTAINMENT OR REALITY?
Viewers have always had a keen interest in so-called ‘trials of the century’, whether they crowded around a television during the OJ Simpson trial in the 1990s or ripped up newspapers to follow the crimes of Lizzie Borden in the 1800s. However, the popularity of 2014’s “Serial” podcast launched true crime into a new era of ubiquity. Over the next decade, it became one of the most popular genres across multiple forms of media. In 2020, true crime was the third most popular podcast genre across all major podcast platforms, with major shows like “My Favorite Murder” and “Crime Junkie” appearing among the top 10 most listened to offerings of the year. .
Women are more likely to be true crime fans than men, and that was true even before the current “Serial” era. Now, women are much more likely to follow true crime stories on social media – a major meeting place for people to watch so-called murder shows together or comment on current cases.
This gendered appeal is evident in all the ways true crime bleeds into other areas of pop culture: Many popular influencers on YouTube are young women. Before fans dive into their latest documentary, an endless supply of murder-themed merchandise on Etsy ensures they can snuggle up with a “This is my real crime surveillance blanket,” light a candle on the Jeffrey Dahmer theme or pouring tea into a mug that reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue. I’ve watched enough crime shows. They’ll never find you.”
Miller also notes that true crime fans communicate and exchange information very similarly to other entertainment fandoms.
“The difference is that ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel fandoms treat their fiction as if it were real, whereas true crime fandoms treat something very real as fiction,” she says.
Why, exactly, true crime is so appealing is its own unsolved mystery.
“I really think part of the reason women are drawn to true crime is that there’s a level of relativity between the women and the victims in those stories,” says Kevin John, professor of communications at the Brigham Young University. “And we often project ourselves onto the media we consume.”
This blurred line can do real damage when true crime fans look beyond sordid docuseries and addictive podcasts to find entertainment in real cases that have yet to be fully confirmed. The murder of four University of Idaho students in late 2022 is a tragic example of what happens when crimes are treated as mysteries to be solved. The investigation continued for weeks before police arrested suspect Bryan Kohberger, prompting amateur sleuths to post various theories, including baseless charges against those they suspected, online.
FIND A SOLUTION
True crime content has received a huge boost from TikTok and YouTube, where new and old cases can be broken down into a few short, tantalizing segments or bundled together for hour-plus deep dives that lock viewers in awe. . These platforms are also where many true crime influencers and enthusiasts try to solve the ethical dilemmas of the genre.
Several meaningful conversations have been started by family members or loved ones of victims who have seen their pain turned into entertainment, sometimes against their will.
Mariah Day’s mother, Betsy Faria, was murdered in 2011, and her case drew jaw-dropping media coverage, including a spot on Dateline. In 2022, her story was part of a drama miniseries called “The Thing About Pam”, starring Renee Zellwegger as the titular Pam Hupp, who was framed for Faria’s murder in 2021.
Day uses his TikTok account to advocate for victim awareness and give people a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side of the true love affair of crime.
“My trauma is not your entertainment,” she says in a video. “Awareness is a whole different story. Let’s talk about it.”
True crime fans who try to be responsible for their interests sometimes call on others to avoid certain media, either because of the story or because it was created without the consent of those involved.
Even Dr. Phil – Dr. Phil, who comments on criminal cases as part of his brand – shared advice on how to responsibly consume real criminal content.
Although he says curiosity about the dark side of human nature is normal, “Don’t fall for a romanticized version. Focus on the facts. There is no soundtrack to life. Only pain.” He also suggests doing something positive for families of victims, learning about crime laws, or using the real crime as a teaching moment to help others stay vigilant.
This deconstruction, this questioning of what true crime entertainment offers and who it endangers, does not necessarily run counter to the fun of the genre, as many debates about true crime ethics begin within the community itself.
Miller points out that there are bigger social issues at play. “It’s really fascinating to watch who interacts with real crime. There are a lot of white women out there,” she says. “That says a lot when you think about the types of cases that get this kind of coverage and the types of cases that get the attention of the US justice system.”
The tendency of the public to focus on young white female victims is an enduring complication of true crime, dating back to the cases of JonBenét Ramsey, Madeleine McCann and Natalee Holloway to most recently, the murder of Gabby Petito. This “missing white woman syndrome,” as it is colloquially known, is another facet that proponents of ethical true crime seek to confront.
Jordan Preston’s sister, Brooke Preston, was stabbed to death by her roommate in 2017. Preston caught on social media after heavily criticizing the 2021 documentary ‘Dead Asleep,’ which portrays her sister’s murderer and his defense that he committed the murder while sleepwalking.
When asked by a TikTok commenter how there would be documentaries if families still had a say, Preston replied that that kind of attention could actually go towards pursuing justice for others.
“Can someone explain why your entertainment is so much more important than… what a victim’s family wants?” she said in response. “There are so many crimes being committed (where) the victims don’t get the kind of recognition, attention and media coverage that they literally need to be solved. For some reason, (other) families of victims are again victimized and subjected to traumas that they must face again.”
The real ethical crime could therefore be one that puts victims and their loved ones first, or that explores how and which cases are solved and how the justice system fare. It could be the kind, as victim advocates suggest, that focuses on cases of missing and exploited Indigenous people and people of color. Attentive true crime fans want to be kept awake at night by the answers they seek – not the harm the genre can cause others.
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