Today i’m going to be looking at the rise of the true crime documentary genre and why we’re also obsessed with murder. It seems to be a combination of innate human psychology and clever storytelling. So hold your detective hat and hear me out.
True Crime Documentaries Film Analysis And My Opinion
According to criminologists our open obsession with true crime in the media can be traced back to, Jack the ripper who in 1888 killed and mutilated at least five women in London. His crimes garnered global attention due in part to the evolution of broadsheet newspapers. The unprecedented interest in the story led to increased coverage of such cases.
Newspapers in the future with special attention paid to giving those exciting headlines and cover images. In the 130 years that followed the technical inventions and innovations were vast, culminating in the tv and film that has widespread consumption today.
During the 80s and 90s the style of true crime documentaries was primarily that of half-truths, glamorization’s and insinuations. Trials such as those of Ted Bundy and OJ Simpson were the beginning of increased access to the justice system that had thus far been closed off.
TV channels such as investigation discovery and true crime peddled shows like America’s most wanted and unsolved mysteries. It is the development of streaming services for bingeable content and the internet as a platform to discuss said bingeable content that has made true crime into a daily talking point.
But why is it so popular? Why is it a genre that has consistently captivated our attention? The reasons behind this are twofold. One part compelling storytelling and the other part human psychology. I have primarily seen the latter discussed in my research i shall start with the former.
If you’ve watched any of my film reviews you’ll know the topics that i usually try and discuss are cinematography, editing, sound design, production design, acting, characters, the plot itself and how they all come together to create an interesting story.
True crime documentaries are no exception to this recipe despite having to frame their narratives around facts. There are still a lot of decisions to be made when presenting these facts to an audience. Filmmakers often have to consolidate years of events into several hours. Endless court transcripts into the most pivotal moments.
Though they cannot give incorrect information as this can lead to defamation claims. There are no rules around how filmmakers can utilize interviews as it is usually one person’s word over another. Simple things such as cutting to an extreme close-up to inspire empathy. Switching between conflicting interviews to create intrigue or leaving the most damning interview for the end of the series so the audience can play detective for as long as possible.
Think about it this way. I’m sure at some point in your life you have heard the same joke twice from different people. One delivery was better than the other. The point is these shows are purposefully designed to be obsessed over, to ensure maximum engagement and longevity. To make money for the streaming services and channels that they are funded by. Back to murder… the other part of our obsession stems from our evolution as a species. Back when we had more active threats to our safety such as from predators information was the key to our survival. Predicting an attack based on information you’ve learned about an animal would likely have been the difference between life and death.
Nowadays if you live in a first world country or in most cases even a third world one you do not need to fear animal attacks. Our need to be prepared for anything still stands. The focus has shifted the biggest threat to our lives is each other? This can take the form of say a traffic collision. This type of threat is easy to be prepared for with a basic understanding of road safety and increased exposure to hazards on the road.
A driver can predict and better adapt to a dangerous situation. What is more difficult to predict is who might want to murder you as true crime documentaries have made abundantly clear? It is usually the most average looking person who has a dark side as a serial killer.
This is a threat most of us are not prepared for. We don’t have a catalogue of experience to draw upon. The true crime documentaries provide that information that we are missing. Telling us what the hazards to look out for are, what warning signs are there that someone has ill intent? It is the illusion that you are better prepared that keeps you watching.
Furthermore as humans we have an innate need to understand one another. When a situation arises where we can learn more about each other’s behavior especially unusual or violent behavior that will undoubtedly draw us in.
Bonus points of a documentary can make you feel like a better detective than the ones involved. As this harnesses the desire I’d wager we secretly all have which is to possess Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction.
In life we are eager to categorize people into the good guys and the bad guys. This is something we do when watching any genre of film as well. It’s easy to put all the murderers under the bad guy category. When a documentary comes along that threatens that categorization we are eager to watch it in order to improve our judgment skills.
Another interesting evolutionary trait that we all have is an inherent drive towards violence. To be part of a functioning society most of us have learned how to suppress this drive. We do still express it in small ways punching walls, shouting at traffic, perhaps writing strongly worded emails.
The subjects of true crime documentaries however express their drive by actually killing. Research suggests that by learning about these people you are feeding and subduing your own drive. It’s exciting to watch something you wouldn’t do yourself.
There’s an attraction to the power these people have over others led by their psychopathy. In contrast another response these documentaries invite is one of relief. You are relieved to not have been in that situation and to not have been the victim. These feelings have only been heightened by the pandemic. When there is so much uncertainty and tragedy in the world true crime invites you to consider your life and be thankful for it.
You can also look back on opportunities where you could have been a victim and this gives you a sense that you have somehow cheated death. Unfortunately relief is not felt by everyone. If you are someone who for example has been through sexual assault or had a friend or family member disappear then these documentaries can trigger PTSD which has its own problematic consequences on these people’s lives.
This is just for the viewers but the effect on the actual family and friends of the victims can be even more devastating. The vastly popular podcast serial drew international attention to the killing of hey min lee by her ex-boyfriend.
The lee family were forced to suffer their loss again and watch in horror as the show inspired support for the accused killer of their loved one. This is also true of the show i am a killer which portrayed the murder of Robert Mast by his girlfriend.
The family of Mast refused to participate in the documentary and repeatedly pleaded to Netflix to not make it, but Netflix went ahead saying that if they don’t make it someone else will anyway. This led to a one-sided portrayal where the girlfriend casts herself as having acted out of love when in truth the couple had only known each other for a month.
The entire production and release of the show would have led to month’s maybe even years of grief for the family. There is even a whole convention in which normal people attempt to solve cold cases.
Kevin Silva was hopeful when the mysterious death of his brother was reanalysed during this convention but no new leads were found. It was also featured on unsolved mysteries but this also led to no new information. So it seems like old wounds were reopened without any additional closure.
These examples are exceptions to how most of us react to and consume true crime documentaries. I wanted to include them in this video in order to give a glimpse at the dark side of the genre. Let’s get back to my original question. Why are we so obsessed with murder?
In summary true crime documentaries tap into the same part of our humanity that makes a slowdown when passing a traffic accident. They provide us with a murder mystery to solve at our leisure which can lead to a feeling of relief and a sense of being better prepared. Each case is different and each documentary is different but you should always question the validity of the truth being shown as it will have been tailored to provide the best possible entertainment.