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The Optics of True Crime

True crime has emerged as a genre that horrifies at the same time it enthralls and every person has tried watching a documentary at least once to see what the hype is about- this includes the recently aired ‘House of Secrets’ that made everyone sweat because of its supposed supernatural angle. Therefore what exactly does true crime entail? And why are we so enraptured by it? Especially when it involves destruction of life, of gore, and violence- something we naturally do not wish to happen to us.

Voyeurism is a director’s job description. It’s an artist’s too

— Andy Warhol
Credits: Right as Rain by UW Medicine

The contemporary age is an age of voyeurism, where we take sneak peeks into the lives of everyone worth documenting, whether it be through the glamourized façade of social media, or the multiple family reality shows, and documentaries made on the rich and famous. We live vicariously through their daily vlogs and highlight reels which feature abundance and luxury, but it’s not just the living embodiments of fame that have our attention, it is also the ones who have already been declared dead.

We follow them to their graves and our attention peaks usually if their deaths are more memorable than their lives. This is where true crime enters. True crime has been defined as a non-fiction – literary, podcast, and film – genre which examines an actual crime and its details based on real-life situations. They emerge as saviors to quench our thirst of curiosity for the most violent and gruesome deaths, or the ones which have pieces of the puzzle missing – pushing and prodding us to figure it out by ourselves.

The need to watch such documentaries are usually akin to a car crash you can’t look away from-a morbid instinct, psychologically explained as the high you get from a situation which triggers your fight or flight instincts but also keeps you at a relatively safe distance from it. Watching the horror that is recreated in 4k in the comfort of your living rooms, knowing that you are safe, is definitely an enjoyable experience even as you are fed the psyche of a violent criminal through his biography as well as a full account of the deaths and how they came to be. Several Netflix shows have gained leverage in this genre including ‘American Murderer: The Family Next Door’, ‘The Night Stalker’ based on famed serial killer Richard Ramirez, ‘Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes’, ‘The Devil Next Door’, ‘Don’t f**k with cats’ and ‘The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’ just to name a few; and one can also not go on without mentioning the most recent one, based on the Burari family deaths, titled ‘House of Secrets’.

Credits: Paste Magazine

Many of these shows attempt to recreate the happenings of the actual incident, or several incidents in many cases in order to satisfy the taste buds of true-crime fans, and there are even podcasts which are solely dedicated to discussing these stories at an alarming level of description. The shows may also include happenings such as school shootings, rapes, and terrorist attacks which increase the shock value of these shows. The problem that one encounters in the making of these productions is that they are often treading a fine line between entertainment and information and therefore are often subject to inquisitions about the ethics of it- the ethics bordering on packaging a person’s life and reducing it to their ghastly murder and gross entertainment value. Not to mention, there are names of the surviving families plastered over the shows leaving it up to people to search for them on the ever-available internet due to which they are harassed if tried and charged guilty by the public. Also, since the media consumed is never neutral in its course, there are going to be certain biases against the people involved if there are no perpetrators identified- such as in the case of Jon Benet Ramsey, and in India– the Talvar family.

These shows are often produced with a large budget in hand and that makes for very convincing theatrics; it can range from filming in actual locations, getting lookalikes for the casting, and even support from the police officers involved in the primary investigation. This creates a very realistic depiction even as the plot may be enhanced to supplement the interest of the audience, most often they tend to be.

Movies such as ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile’ based on Ted Bundy have an elaborate storyline which can sometimes move the viewers into sympathizing with the protagonist despite his horrendous acts, especially if played by a conventionally attractive man such as Zac Efron (through the positive bias from the halo effect). Moreover, as Adnan Syed writes in a similar article for ‘The Conversation’, “the increased access to true crime gives an illusion of greater involvement” especially as there is an internet community dedicated to solving cases (or threads) on Reddit made by amateur sleuths who take up digging clues in cases as their main hobby.

Credits: r/TrueCrimePodcasts

Thus, our consumption of true crime makes crime into a ‘spectacle’- as elaborated upon by social theorist Guy DeBord– “The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society, it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation”. Contextualizing this – the unification of the audience over an opinion over a crime scene, or the potential perpetrators is not actual unison, but is effectively manufactured through media.

True crime therefore, is a contested topic of discussion, even as it has negative consequences at most points, such as the insensitivity of playing rock music while portraying a serial killer responsible for the deaths of many, or leading people to form opinions at the cost of infamy of the surviving families or a more recent criticism being that it holds interest only when the victim is a white woman. However, it also helps in expanding our knowledge about potential perpetrators who can be prevented from committing such a crime if they receive help for their psychosocial abnormalities, especially if they have been brought up in a troubled or abusive environment. True crime can also make us aware of the dangers of our surrounding such that we are always hyperaware of things that could go wrong, leading us to take adequate precaution. This could be the reason true crime has much more of an audience amongst women as women are the ones who are also mostly victims of such grisly incidents.

Therefore, even as things such as Mukbang true crime vlogs exist (yes, people eat mountains of food while talking about the dismembered victims of Jack the Ripper) for whatever reason they might appeal to a person on the internet, true crime is definitely a genre that has grown immensely during this pandemic which is unsurprising given the influx of new shows across streaming sites and people left with nothing to do while staying in and for that reason, and many more, it looks like its here to stay on for a very long time giving us a voyeuristic reflection ultimately of our own selves.

Ashwini Gurung is a student pursuing Masters in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Farzan Ghani

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Written by Ashwini Gurung

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