Car crash TV – a show so bad that you wish you hadn’t looked. But now you can’t look away away. The second-hand embarrassment of the Eurovision or First Dates fits the bill. True crime shows do not, but the same sentiment applies. In the example of watching the wreckage of a car crash, there is a universal understanding of human nature; better to know what happened and be horrified, than to not know at all.
When did it become typical to go home and put your feet up to watch a documentary on a brutal homicide? Last year, America drooled over two different adaptations of OJ Simpson’s trial. While in Ireland, little else has caused as big a stir as Making A Murderer did. It could simply be our herd mentality that has spiked the genre’s popularity. Only a few of us fully savour true crime shows, while the rest of us just shuffle along with the flock? But if we are all, in fact, true crime fiends, then why?
Like watching a car crash, popping spots or ‘fail compilations’, there is an inherent curiosity that motivates us to watch real life injury or disfigurement. The fear that accompanies our curiosity drives us in a search for knowledge. We feel important and involved by playing ‘armchair detective’. We sap up all the power in solving a good old ‘whodunit’, like a live-action game of Cluedo. But most conclusively the answer is that we are addicted to the dopamine that this fear releases.
Casting JonBenet is set to be the next hit for true crime junkies. Netflix’s new series spotlights the 1996 murder of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. There is a twist in the show’s premise though; the production crew returned to the Ramsey’s hometown to cast locals in a re-enactment of the homicide. The hope being that placing actors in the roles of JonBenet and her family, who are still the main suspects of the murder, will invoke some grand revelation that has gone unnoticed for twenty years.
Investigative journalism has always used the media to bring a sense of truth to the people. Many podcasts of late, Serial or S-town especially, have taken us into disadvantaged parts of Baltimore or Alabama and tried to find justice for ordinary people. The Jinx, a HBO documentary, gained a significant amount of attention when the crew accidentally recorded their subject, millionaire and suspected serial killer Robert Durst, confessing to the crimes.
Has the success of these ventures convinced the true crime genre that it can tackle entertainment and justice at once? With the growth of the true crime genre, we slowly cede more trust to the media to uncover the truth for us and to make it captivating at the same time.
A perfect example of this is the Netflix documentary Amanda Knox. It follows the case of an exchange student that was wrongfully convicted of the murder of her roommate. The first half of the feature convinces the audience that Knox was a strange and deluded girl, most definitely guilty, while the second half reveals Knox’s innocence due to police misconduct and how the international media controlled the narrative of the case. Details of legal cases are pushed into a narrative path that ends with the audience feeling both entertained and vindicated.
We true crime addicts are set to walk that path again with Casting JonBenet, but we should do it with some self-awareness. Serial killers have often become a their own brand of celebrity, with the likes of Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer or the Manson family being adored as true crime legends. Yet Casting JonBenet is the story of the victim, a six-year-old’s murder is now the subject of hype.
Are we relishing in the death of a child? Do we delight in the horrors of others? Not exactly. Rather, we find cathartic relief in being told who the ‘monsters’ are and being assured that we are not them. True crime shows present us with scary stories and our conclusion is that the fear of knowing is always better than the fear of the unknown. Casting JonBenet will be released on Netflix April 28th.
Muireann O’Shea Film & TV Writer