The serial flow of true crime documentaries

Gemma Robotham

Image Credit: Columbiangwu.edu

True crime – a topic which has always seemed to grip human beings with fascination in equal measure to horror. 

This fascination may have been expressed in a more direct manner in the past through attendance at public executions. With such sources of entertainment becoming rather niché, we’ve had to resort to the media in order to satisfy our needs. From sensationalist tabloid headlines and light-hearted true crime podcasts to the abundance of true crime documentaries, there is a clear oversaturation of true crime in media.

The infestation of true crime is particularly apparent on Netflix. An established tired pattern has emerged with generic conventions – an eerie theme song accompanied with a mix of close-up shots and panning landscapes, grainy CCTV footage from police interviews and a central protagonist which can be the victim but is more often than not, the perpetrator. This has been the primary issue with Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; it focuses on Ted Bundy rather than his victims.

It glorifies his “charming” persona and quite literally gives a voice to a man who should have been silenced with death. The new true crime series format, pioneered by The Staircase and Making a Murderer, approaches cases in a way in which is intended to leave viewers wanting more with cliffhangers at the end of each episode. One may think that this long format would allow cases to be explored comprehensively yet what we see instead is the blurring of lines between important and unimportant pieces of evidence. Cliffhangers do little to explore the key parts of a case but rather function to keep the attention of viewers.

On the other hand, Abducted in Plain Sight has effectively strayed from these new clichés with a significant part of the documentary focused on Jan Broberg, the primary victim of the paedophile Robert Berchtold. It effectively examines the case in just ninety minutes without concealing damaging information about her family which allowed the abuse to occur and continue.

However, it cannot be denied that Abducted in Plain Sight has contributed to the sensationalism of crime. It tells a story of a girl abducted not once but twice by a neighbour and family friend who had sexual relations with both of her parents. It is one of those unbelievable stories that is almost guaranteed to gain attraction.

Similar to other entertainment media, there has been an emergence of fandom culture surrounding these Netflix series with people making memes & writing witty tweets about various developments in the cases, which only serve to further the desensitisation of violent crimes. Despite all of their flaws, the fandoms would argue that these true crime documentaries have had positive implications on the cases.

One cannot underestimate the influence of the HBO mini-series The Jinx which saw the arrest of Robert Durst who was arrested on first-degree murder charges the day before its finale aired. Yet this is the exception rather than the norm. Threads of conspiracy theories on Reddit and signatures on petitions haven’t managed to release Brendan Dassey from prison, whose conviction was upheld by a 4 to 3 vote by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2017. It’s clear that the primary purpose of these documentaries is entertainment rather than justice.

Netflix has certainly not funded their creation due to a desire to expose the truth or raise awareness, but rather to exploit tragic events for the sake of sensationalism.

Gemma Robotham

Image Credit: Columbiangwu.edu