Not just a stab in the dark: tracking the bloody rise of the True Crime genre

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Published on

October 7, 2016



Time to read: 5 minutes

“The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time” – Truman Capote, Interview on In Cold Blood, 1966

I’m ashamed to admit that I was a late convert to True Crime. Intending to kill a quick hour, I plugged into the first episode of Serial at the beginning of a 14-hour, overnight bus trip, and ended up binge-listening to the entire first season in one, long, sleep-deprived sitting. It was the same with Making a Murderer – although initially reluctant to immerse myself in the craze around Steven Avery, it only took a few resigned watches before I found myself unashamedly filling each empty hour with a quick episode. Each time I found myself caught up in these stories – and each time I questioned why I was so engrossed by these, frankly, horrific tales.

While the True Crime genre can be said to go back – in one shape or another – hundreds of years, Serial and Making a Murderer have heralded in a new age of True Crime media (with new shows like FX’s American Crime Story and Netflix’s Amanda Knox carrying the torch more recently). At Hook Research, we’ve been exploring the format of this new breed of True Crime. While the genre may be drifting away from sensationalism and towards a form of advocacy journalism, there is a troubling trope that needs to be addressed if this media really wants to reflect, and perhaps change, contemporary social reality.

The bloody history of a grisly genre

It would be an understatement to say that the True Crime genre has a strong historical lineage: Hawkers on the streets of Elizabethan England peddled pamphlets listing the grisly exploits of local murderers, while American colonials eagerly awaited the hellfire-and-brimstone sermons before the next hanging. These early examples of True Crime (in its loosest sense) speak to an early fascination with society’s murderous underbelly that continues well into the modern era: Edgar Allen Poe’s semi-factual “The Mystery of Marie Roget” [1842] gave early form to this genre in the US, applying a franco-façade to the real-life murder of New York beauty Mary Rogers, while Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is often attributed as the work which brought the non-fiction treatment of True Crime into the mainstream.

Although many things have changed since Capote debuted his novel, the public’s fascination with such “socially inexplicable deviance” has not. The numbers don’t lie: In the 35 days following its release, Making a Murderer generated 19.3 million viewers in the USA (compared with 8.8 million for another Netflix heavy hitter, Jessica Jones). Serial, on the other hand, is still the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads – and within 3 months of its launch in 2014 it had already reached 40 million listeners. It would seem that people are still perversely entertained by stories about criminals and violence.

However, compared with audiences 25 years ago, modern True Crime viewers are a very different breed.

True Crime - Hook ResearchEntertaining a new kind of audience

David Schmid, an expert on crime in US popular culture at the University of Buffalo, suggests that the 1995 OJ Simpson trial – “the most publicized murder case in history” – was an early flashpoint for the growth of the True Crime genre in the States and the subsequent success of later programmes like Serial. Schmid claims that the exposure into legal proceedings that this trial provided to the US public – coupled with the rise of popular procedural crime shows such as CSI – made audiences much more familiar with the legal process than they were in previous generations. It is on this supposed knowledge, he suggests, that Serial built its success: through this familiarity, Serial could explore judicial points with a level of detail previously unseen in True Crime works.

At the same time, viewers are more easily able to fact check these productions. They now have increased access to regular updates and research outside of the scope of the immediate programming through social media and the web. After finishing the last episode of Making a Murderer – for example – audiences could immediately tune into news updates, blogs, and at least one subreddit circulating theories and questioning pieces of evidence about the Avery brothers’ cases. The shows’ creators – and even the subjects themselves – can be contacted through Twitter, and regularly share updates about proceedings, taking the dialogue beyond the screen or podcast. Commenting on the attention Serial received on Reddit during the series in an interview with Time, programme creator Sarah Koenig said that “It just really reinforced that we couldn’t mess up anything because we were being watched so, so closely.”

Programming that responds to the political climate

At the same time, the success of modern True Crime has be attributed in part to its ability to speak to the politically charged American zeitgeist. “Violent crime,” writes University of Richmond scholar Laura Browder, “is an act that can fundamentally reshape a community and create or lay bare the unspoken fears between members of that community.” Browder claims that in the heart of each True Crime story is an inherent reflection and distortion of the community in which the crime takes place – and that is certainly the case in Serial and Making a Murderer in the US.
Both stories speak to politically charged issues addressing wider communities. In Steven Avery’s case, as well as that of Adnan Syed in Serial, the narrative rotates around injustice within the criminal system – a topic that has marked headlines for the past few years, particularly addressing the relationship between black communities and the police. As of last summer, Americans trust in police departments was at a 22 year low, and both programmes’ focus on injustice due to prejudice (Avery due to social standing, and Syed because of his religion and skin colour) is complimentary to this nationally charged dialogue.

However, although contemporary True Crime media is different in many ways from its historical predecessors, there is still one key theme that runs throughout many of the works in this genre.

True Crime and the ‘Damsel in Distress’

In the early True Crime works, you can start to see a trope emerging: the tragic and brutal death of a young, beautiful, woman. The real-life equivalent of Marie Roget in Poe’s tale, for example, was known as “the Beautiful Cigar Girl” by her regular, flirtatious clientele. Her beauty, we are led to believe by Poe, makes her death even more tragic – and, we can imagine, also helped sell a few copies of the book. This ‘damsel in distress’ format has persevered into modern forms of True Crime:  HBO’s 2014 Tales of the Grim Sleeper falls foul of this, showcasing the gruesome story of a serial killer who focused predominately on female victims, while Serial and Making a Murderer also similarly focus on young, female victims.

Although the genre may manage to capture the zeitgeist of a nation with injustice on the mind, perhaps we should question how useful these shows are – in their current form – for reflecting contemporary reality. As Lenika Cruz asks in her article for The Atlantic: when was the last time that a victim in a True Crime story was a young, unarmed black male? Michael Arntfield, a professor of forensic writing and investigative reporting , argues that True Crime is evolving into something akin to advocacy journalism – but when this content ignores larger cultural issues at the expense of entertainment, does it risk undercutting the positive impact of its own work?

As a genre, True Crime is far from new – but its current form takes its shape from a culture that is more open, educated, and connected. However, if the genre continues to evolve, it needs to address the trope of the ‘damsel in distress’ or it may ultimately fall backwards into just another form of sensational entertainment.

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