We can’t look away. Look at the top documentaries on our streaming devices and you’ll find a list of murderers, molesters, swindlers, and conspirators. We can’t get enough of the kinds of stories where things going horribly wrong. Why is that?
Of course, we don’t want them to be our friends, but we’d sure like to know that they’re our enemies. How else to explain the craze that is the true-crime documentary? You’ve heard the titles: Making a Murderer, The Staircase, Leaving Neverland. And not all of them have been on film. The Adnan Sayed Serial podcast single-handedly revived the 21st-century version of radio that we call the podcast.
What does all of this fascination around crime and those who perpetrate it say about us? What drives the appeal? These shows reveal our need to distinguish between vices and virtues — in others, and more importantly, in ourselves — so let’s explore this phenomenon to see what we can learn about our own desires and fears.
It might be helpful to divide the true-crime documentary into several categories, especially because different manifestations of the genre reflect different angles. Take the Serial podcast on convicted murderer Adnan Syed that gripped the nation in 2014, for example. The release of each episode topped the headlines on the news channels, it was parodied on SNL, and was a necessary topic of conversation around the proverbial water cooler.
This was the true-crime documentary at its most basic. While Sarah Koenig and her staff seemed to lean in one direction on Syed’s guilt or innocence, the basic format was to revisit the case and bring fresh analysis to the details, both old and new. Koenig invited the listener to examine the facts with her, allowing the listener to be his or her own sleuth.
Serial’s format appeals to our desire to see justice served, but on a more personal — and perhaps less edifying — level, it massages our ego. With its studied examination that hopes to come to a reasonable conclusion, it makes us feel that we ourselves could administer justice in a rational and balanced way. We would be able to come up with the correct verdict.
We want to see an injustice corrected, to be sure, but as a form of entertainment, the true-crime documentary co-opts our sense of justice, giving us the pleasure and self-satisfaction of thinking that we are well-informed and wise. We enjoy being indignant at where things might have gone wrong while being assured that in our participation as listeners, we are no longer part of such a travesty.
The Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer, exemplifies a less benign category of the true-crime documentary. Having recently released a second season, the 2015 series drew the public into the debate over the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
Avery’s trial had taken place nearly a decade before, but thanks to the coverage of a documentary team embedded with Avery’s lawyers, viewers received an intimate portrait not only of how a legal defense team operates, but also about the alleged corruption of a small town police department and prosecutor’s office.
Unlike Serial’s treatment of Adnan Syed, however, this particular case resonated on a different level: it suggested the possibility of a conspiracy. Avery’s defense team argued during the trial for the existence of coordination among police and prosecutors, and the filmmakers clearly found this argument plausible.
While the perspective of the filmmakers was to correct an injustice, it had the added benefit of exposing a conspiracy. Americans love their conspiracy theories, and nothing gives us more pleasure than that moment where we seemingly get evidence that one happens to be true. It gives us permission to keep believing in them because one was proven right.
Shakespeare himself saw this tendency and addresses it in Julius Caesar: “The fault is not in the stars…but in ourselves.” One reason for the appeal of the conspiracy version of the true-crime documentary is that it allows us to still believe that the fault lies with the stars. That’s easier than confronting the faults that lie within our own hearts.
In other words, conspiracy theories allow us to keep thinking that some other force controls events and causes the glitch in the system. If that’s not true, then it means the system can go awry, and we can no longer trust it. We are, of course, at the mercy of innumerable systems, including the one that renders justice and keeps us safe. The discovery of the conspiracy theory is an exception that proves the rule — the system is preserved as long as we root out the nefarious conspirators. That’s why it feels good to see these “aberrations” brought to light — it restores our trust in an order that is beyond our control.
This desire to know that everything is still okay motivates yet another category that more explicitly brings us relief. The cathartic, in the true Aristotelean sense, puts us through tragic or violent circumstances in order to release our fears. While the true-crime documentary of this type certainly invites the viewer to examine the facts of the case, it does so only to reassure in the end. These details are horrific, they say, but not to worry — the perpetrator has been caught. We can go back to our lives of safety knowing that one less evildoer menaces society. It’s a simple formula, and one that tragedians have been using for centuries — but it’s useful and effective.
Widen the frame a bit and examine the #MeToo movement for the catharsis it provides, both on- and offstage. In this regard, the movement also makes for a good true-crime documentary. HBO’s Leaving Neverland, for example, speaks to the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse that consumed in a particular way the image-conscious entertainment industry.
Itself a permutation of our general cultural desire to see heroes or idols knocked from their pedestal, the #MeToo version of true crime has a dark side to its catharsis, though. The perpetrators were “icons” of our popular culture — they reflect back in a concentrated way our values. They are cut from our own cultural cloth, and even though seeing their rot on display allows us to critique an industry that fiercely defends its carefully constructed — and often hypocritical — self-image, they still emerge from who we are as a nation, as a society, or as a community.
Strangely, though, we never seem to make the jump from what Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby have done (or how they were able to get away with it) to our own culpability in the matter — or worse, to our imitation of their techniques to protect our own respectability.
So, all of this really is about us. This should come as no surprise in this day and age, but it comes down to our need to feel self-righteous and self-assured while expending minimum personal effort. Moreover, because we are being entertained, we are passively receiving a comforting reflection of our supposed virtue in these matters, which prevents us from sacrificing anything to ensure that justice is done. This is what entertainment does in this day and age: it tries not to demand anything of us.
Perhaps this is the wider point to be made about how and why we spend our time in the entertainment we pursue: We want to feel good more than we want to be good, especially because being good requires self-sacrifice. True crime just happens to stand out because it gives us the illusion that we’re touching moral bedrock in judging right from wrong. But watching justice is not the same as being just.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such entertainments, we just have to make sure that the feelings they give us don’t sap our motivation for real and substantive charity and a thirst for justice in real life.