Like many people, I watch a lot of true crime. I don’t know why the genre is so popular. I’ve heard a theory that many women, at least, tend to be drawn to true crime because it gives us a sense of control over our environment. If we know what can happen, we fool ourselves into thinking we can stop it from happening to us. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s a theory that makes sense to me.
But that’s not the only reason why people are drawn to true crime. For some, these stories aren’t cautionary tales that give us a sense of control in a chaotic world. Some romanticize the killers and their crimes. It’s one of the many reasons that the true crime genre attracts so much controversy.
It isn’t the only reason, of course. The genre has been heavily criticized for under-representing minority groups, particularly when it comes to telling their stories as victims. There’s also the criticism that true crime tends to focus more on the perpetrator than the victim. Which is not only insulting to the person or persons whose lives were lost, but it can be self-perpetuating. If a killer’s motivation is – in whole or in part – to gain notoriety, than the killer-over-victim focus gives them exactly what they want.
But the concerns about romanticizing killers is a common one within the true crime community. Rightly so. There are those who collect serial killer “merchandise,” and those who get tattoos of serial killers. Earlier today, I saw someone arguing it would be “cool” to add serial killers to Sims games. And I don’t have data about the popularity of serial killer costumes at Halloween are. However, I once read a story about a woman whose mother was murdered by a serial killer. Only to see children dressed as the person who killed her mother on her doorstep on Halloween on a fairly regular basis.
Imagine that. Imagine losing someone you love in a brutal, vicious, senseless crime. And then see children dressed up as their killer at Halloween. Or a tattoo of the killer’s face on someone’s arm at the grocery store. Or your loved one’s killer getting their own video game.
And, of course, there are the “groupies.” People who romanticize – and/or want to be romantic with – killers. It doesn’t take a heartthrob like Zac Efron portraying them to inspire such romanticism, though I suspect it doesn’t help. I’ve seen entire fan communities for Chris Watts, accused of murdering his wife and daughters. Women send him love letters and, in at least one Facebook group that I (unfortunately) stumbled upon once-upon-a-time, vilify his wife to paint him as the tragic victim. He wouldn’t have murdered his children if she wasn’t so mean!
Again, I have to reiterate this argument so we can really let it sink in how absurdly, grotesquely, insultingly horrific it is. He wouldn’t have murdered his daughters. His babies. If his wife wasn’t so mean. (I mean, sure he could have left her if she was that bad. But, nope. Choosing to murder his entire family instead clearly makes him a victim.)
A few years ago, I came across a Twitter feed (since deleted) in which a person was arguing that Ted Bundy was just “misunderstood.” He had an artist’s soul, the author claimed. And, sure, some women had “negative experiences” with him. But if only society had given him a chance…! (As though, as a straight, white, Republican man in the 1970s, he was one of the most disenfranchised groups in society.)
Negative experiences. Being murdered was having a “negative experience.” On par with encountering a rude waiter at iHop, I guess. You can either get cold pancakes, or you can be tortured and murdered by a serial killer. Those are basically the same thing.
And I don’t mean to pick on that one person, who I would love to believe was being satirical. Or trolling. Or anything but being genuine. (Sadly, I’m fairly convinced they were being genuine.) Because the problem is that they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Not everyone is willing to Tweet out similar sentiments, but that doesn’t mean others don’t carry them. They certainly weren’t alone in forgetting that stories about serial killers aren’t just stories. There are real people behind them. Innocent people. Victims.
As an occasional part of the true crime community myself, there are a number of ethical quandaries I struggle with. And I’m not alone. I see these conversations – and controversies – with a regularity that probably isn’t surprising, given the seriousness of the topic. While we may be attracted to true crime because it gives us a sense of control, is consuming this content inherently disrespectful to the victim? Even the best true crime shows or podcasts – those that try their best to keep the victims front and center to the story – cannot remove the killers from the narrative. Is telling the story about their deaths doing a disservice to their lives – reducing who they were and their impact on the world down to the manner in which they left it?
Does the true crime community focus too much on straight white victims and not enough on victims of color, victims in the LGBTQ+ community, or victims who society views as less “sympathetic,” such as sex workers? On the other hand, when stories focus on these victims, do they consistently do so with the respect the victims deserve? When we do tell these stories, is it for the “right” reasons – to honor the victims in some way? Or is it because the stories are salacious, and to hell with any collateral damage? For example, Netflix’s recent Dahmer series gained controversy as critics asked if it was truly necessary to tell his story again – and family members of the victims stated that the show re-traumatized them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve consumed a lot of true crime over the years, so I can’t claim to have clean hands in this debate. I am encouraged by the fact that many in the community engage in these conversations and genuinely do seem to be trying to find where the line is between honoring the victims and romanticizing the killers. Between what is informative and what is salacious. There are many who want to keep the victims front-and-center to the story, to remember that there’s a human element to the genre. That every victim – every single one – was someone who lived and loved. Someone who had family and those that cared about them. Those that mourn them.
And that, for many victims in true crime stories, those mourners are still walking around today. Living with the grief of all they have lost. And being confronted with stories about the people they lost could traumatize them all over again.
These are complex questions that don’t have easy answers. Or even right ones. It’s unlikely that the true crime community will ever be able to come to a consensus on every issue. But drawing a line against those who romanticize killers and defend them – particularly over the victims they killed? Those who are willing to argue that the murderers were just “misunderstood” and might not have subjected victims to “negative experiences” if only society had given them a chance? Surely we can all get on board with shunning that kind of mentality, right?