[This is the beginning of a multi-faceted conversation about the aesthetics of true crime and the way that those narratives affect our engagement with the American justice system.]
I could see the book in my head; its cover featured a black and white image of a road with a water tower to its side, the edges of the frame growing fuzzy and fading into black. Eyes and the firm bridge of a nose stared back at me as I read the title. Some people considered this the beginning of the true crime genre—certainly one of the first “non-fiction novels.” The author, Truman Capote, had spent six years exploring the lives of two men who committed a quadruple murder, In Cold Blood…
I thought of this book, my first encounter with the true crime genre, on the morning in [year removed] as we walked into the courtroom for the first time. Everyone stood in silence until we were seated. Then the judge began to speak. Somehow, I found myself serving as a juror on a murder trial.
There is something undeniably attractive about crime narratives. The rampant popularity of the podcast “Serial,” the long-standing success of “realistic” crime shows such as Law & Order: SVU and the stories about homicide, rape, and/or kidnapping featured on the Investigation Discovery (ID) and Lifetime television channels are all testaments to our culture’s fascination with true crime.
There’s also something about that word “true”: it implies that these aren’t just cock-and-bull stories cooked up in some Hollywood writers’ room (though many of them do feature cocks and bullies). We see real-life people commit violent crimes, sometimes in cold blood. The stakes of these narratives are immediately tangible: I learn that my moral uprightness, my pacifism, and my generosity do not make me impervious to violence if I am in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, another worry: If that mild-mannered church-lady just chopped up her husband, perhaps somewhere deep inside of me, I too am capable of murder.
As of December 23, 2014, “Serial”, the podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig that explores the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, reached over 40 million downloads. Koenig’s investigative journalism led many to question Syed’s guilt. Now, the Court of Special Appeals has agreed to reopen Syed’s appeal, which could potentially lead to a retrial. My first question: did the popularity of the “Serial” podcast affect this decision? If so, then we could argue that the true crime genre—when infused with investigative journalism—may equip people to hold the criminal justice system accountable for potential miscarriages by giving them enough information about the legal process to ask informed questions about the operations of the criminal justice system?
As non-experts, our commentary may lack knowledge of the legal rules and regulations; however, what “Serial” does—and what true crime can do—is expose the criminal justice system to interrogation by the people it polices. I do not mean to take one side or the other in regards to Syed’s guilt. I mean only to suggest that by continually pushing the criminal justice system to justify its workings to us, we remind it that its operations depend on whether or not we the people take it seriously. Maybe that’s too optimistic.
When we consume true crime, we occupy the position of the distant spectator. Given access to the legal process, we revel in our ability to solve the case. We love puzzles, we love mysteries, we love the feeling of superiority we get when we’ve figured out the killer’s identity before the bumbling cops and lawyers have. Their oversights are delightful. But there’s another side to this: We love yelling at the killer as he forgets to wear gloves at the scene of the crime and leaves evidence all over the house.
He’s an idiot. We could do it better.
During the trial, my understanding of narrative and language caused great frustration and disillusionment. I could tell when the prosecution was trying to be smooth, appealing to our intelligence, our sensitivity, our reasoning abilities. Even though they had forensic evidence and witness testimony to support their case, the way the lawyers went about delivering their arguments seemed slimy—I felt like someone was trying to pull one over on me.
I was horrified sitting next to other jurors who would occasionally doze off as I furiously tried to take note of everything going on in the room. Tinges of racism or sexism emerged quietly but devastatingly in our break room—I began to wonder if the defendant was being tried by a jury of [gendered pronoun removed] peers.
Whereas my binge-watching of true crime had taught me to have faith in the justice system which always catches the criminal, my experience as a juror was causing me to question its operations.
Grappling with our love of true crime involves sorting out the elements of fear, mixed emotions surrounding violence, and the desire to see evil punished. Lauren Passell writes in the True Crime Manifesto that “We love true crime because maybe we’re a little masochistic. We like to be uncomfortable and put ourselves in semi-dangerous situations, and with our wild imaginations, reading about crime is as close as we can get.” Lest we forget the psychological links between fear and arousal that turn violence into sexual fearplay, further confusing our relationship with desire and repulsion.
My partner thinks that I watch way too much true crime, or as he calls it after the South Park episode, “Informative Murder Porn”.
Although “informative murder porn” is meant as a perjorative name for true crime, I don’t think it’s necessarily an inaccurate one, especially in light of the secondary definition of porn: “television programs, magazine, books, etc. that are regarded as emphasizing the sensuous or sensational aspects of a nonsexual subject and stimulating a compulsive interest in their audience”. By staging the narratives with attractive actors who re-enact both the sexual and violent activities of the murderers, true crime allows these two categories to slide into one another. It becomes hard to distinguish which activity offers the most pleasure to the voyeuristic viewer. The violent depictions that flash across the screen may offer some viewers catharsis by allowing them to release their own violent urgings—apparently inherited from our prehistoric ancestors.
Therefore, perhaps true crime tempers our violent desires by giving us an appropriate arena—one of reenactment, fantasy—to see those desires played out. Maybe then true crime actually works to prevent violence in the real world by providing an outlet for aggressive feelings. While I’m all for decreasing the violence in the world, what if true crime also diffuses productive legal action? For example, if a person comes to terms with abuse by watching women slaughter their abusers on “Deadly Women”, are they less likely to take aggressive legal action in the real world to end their own abuse?
I do not want to talk about how the trial ended and what the verdict was. Suffice it to say that after deliberation, we had to wait in isolation until the building was clear before we could be escorted to our cars to go about our evenings and the rest of our lives. Due to the circumstances surrounding the crime, I live in mild fear that somehow someone will discover that I was on the jury, find me, and make me pay for my role in the controversial trial. Sometimes, late at night, I wonder if we did the right thing. In the moment, we seemed beyond a reasonable doubt, but with the distance provided by time, I wonder if I even really know what that means.
A study recently claimed that women enjoy true crime more than men because it teaches them how to avoid being a victim of violent crime. Thus women’s enjoyment of violent programming is limited to being passive, preventative, keeping us safe from the world that seeks to violate us. The study neglects to consider that perhaps true crime could be teaching women to be active, aggressive, to right the wrongs done to us using methods employed by men against our bodies. Some programs are better than others at building pathos for the female perpetrator who uses homicide to escape abusive situations.
Though it ultimately celebrates the victory of justice through the punishment of the aggressor, true crime sometimes suggests that not all murder is created equal. There is particular sympathy for victims who enact violent revenge. In this way, true crime intersects with vigilante narratives in the revenge fantasy, as both indicate that sometimes obtaining eye-for-an-eye justice is outside the bounds of legal institutions.
I thought that after the trial was over, I would have no interest in watching true crime. Having been through the trauma of serving on a jury—the most intellectually, emotionally, and ethically draining experience of my life—I thought I would have no desire to consume media that dramatized people’s lives and deaths. But the very opposite was true. I became more obsessive, consuming episode after episode trying to match up the circumstances of my case with the cases featured in the show, reassuring myself that I was a thoughtful, ethical juror.
My favorite of all true crime shows is “Deadly Women” which I think does a particularly good job at attempting to explain the various psychological reasons that women commit murder—sometimes seemingly justified. The one commentator, retired FBI criminal profiler Candice DeLong, takes her job so delightfully seriously that her quips have spawned a series of memes and gifs. “Deadly Women” doesn’t shy away from discussing the way that desire, jealousy, mental health, and abuse catalyze violence. We can begin to imagine what it would take for us to be driven to commit murder.
For me, coming to terms with my experience as a juror means accepting that I made a decision that drastically affects the lives of numerous people from within a system of justice that continually fills me with doubt. Therefore, part of my obsession with true crime may be linked to the way that ultimately, the genre affirms the efficacy of the criminal justice system. Watching true crime restores, in some small measure, my faith in the criminal justice system. But many days, I wonder if that faith is warranted.
In her manifesto, Lauren Passel asserts that “We love true crime not because we are dazzled by blood or the violence of the crime—it’s the emotional and psychological state of the killer that gets us,”, thus dismissing sensationalized violence as a source of pleasure. But the sheer amount of violent imagery across the board in true crime media actually suggests the opposite. In some way, we are dazzled by blood and violence, simultaneously compelled and repulsed. We can be “gotten” in more than one way. The psychology of the killer may interest us intellectually, but the violence of the crime affects us viscerally.
I, for one, just like to watch a bad bitch get even.