Our Problematic Obsession with True Crime

February 19, 2019

True crime has left the jurisdiction of the courtroom and moved on to our TV screens. A surge of "adapted from true events" films about serial killers has brought to question whether cinema immortalises their heinous acts, or only does justice in depicting their fowl character, through a cautionary tale.



Pop culture has been buzzing with true crime documentaries and series, from Making a Murderer to Amanda Knox. The production and transmission of the genre owes to streaming services, particularly Netflix.


One of the recent ones in Netflix's repertoire is Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a chilling tale of the psyche of Bundy and his trials. Director Joe Berlinger focuses on the narrative of a ‘handsome face with a monster inside’, which was seen as an absurdity - incomprehensible by the general public at a time where the term ‘serial killer’ was not in anyone’s vocabulary. Though intriguing, the series feels like it fulfils Bundy’s fantasy of being the centre of attention.


The docu-series feels like a build up for Berlinger’s next project, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, for which he has been accused of romanticising the character of Bundy. Acquired by Netflix at Sundance, the trailer starring the high school heart-throb, Zac Efron, features rock music and Efron winking whilst breaking the fourth wall. The trailer portrays it as a romantic comedy, light-hearted about a grave subject matter. Critics have been quick to point out the movie’s attempt to humanise Bundy; he always seems to have wanted one thing, to be talked about - his wish has been granted. The media has been at the heart of sensationalising tragedies in an attempt to earn profits, but does it seem fair to exploit the loss of lives for another piece of content? For a man who gruesomely murdered over thirty women, the trailer seems to celebrate him and his "charm".


 The Assassination of Gianny Versace


Similarly, The Assassination of Gianni Versace focuses on Andrew Cunanan and his story. The series fills in the blanks between events by creating fictitious conversations between him and other characters to make "sense" of the story, and hence, cannot be seen as the ultimate truth. However, with our limited attention span, you would rarely find audiences refuting or fact checking what we watch, and instead, you catch yourself feeling for Cunanan; in an attempt to show why he committed the murders, some parts make us empathise with him, something which (I am assuming) was not the purpose. The show does not focus on Gianni Versace, as the title may suggest, and instead, it focuses on Cunanan. The Versace family understandably did not appreciate this: it was for them an exploitation of a loved one through a constructed, unoriginal story line. It is not a piece of fiction, one we can watch safely knowing it does not have its roots in reality, nor is it a documentary, recalling the actual events as they were. It lies in a grey area of cinema.


We scowl at the crimes that we see flipping through the pages of newspapers but when it comes to crime in cinema we are engrossed, and sometimes even manipulated by what is in front of us. If what we are watching makes us pity or sympathise with serial killers,  something must be wrong. Since the current audience was not witness to the trials and tribulations that had been experienced by society, as the events were unfolding, it creates a lacuna. The narrative of killers being misunderstood continues, due to the removal from their cruelty. The lack of objectivity and heightened glamorisation has kept Bundy, and many more, alive and even revered. Posthumously, Bundy has been given a platform to propagate a valorising image of himself.


Hollywood’s obsession with romanticising violent men seems never-ending. Even Quentin Tarantino’s next film could fall into this category - but hopefully he won't recall a story that never happened!



Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor


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