With many of us confined to our homes, it’s almost natural to turn to the giant streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime for entertainment. Unsurprisingly, all of them are well-stocked with true crime documentaries — Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has become one of the most popular docuseries right now. True crime has been a cornerstone on the Internet. They’re available on every medium imaginable — YouTube videos, podcasting, longform journalism, forums — that it becomes almost too easy to dive deep into a real-life case of crimes. What drives our obsession with real life mysteries, and when does it cross the line from something benign to something much darker?
The Development of True Crime
True crime has existed well before the World Wide Web was invented. It was especially popular in 16th century Britain; this coincided with the higher rates of literacy and the invention of new printing technologies. Pamphlets and wood carvings depicting various crimes were distributed for citizens to read, and trial accounts were padded full with details for any amateur sleuth to pick apart and analyse. However, it’s worth noting that the target demographic for early true crime content was for the literate “artisan class and above”. Often tempered with supposedly righteous moralizing or serving as state propaganda, this iteration of true crime provided the audience with the chance to examine the nuance of the crime at hand.
This continued with the birth of crime fiction and the literary world’s involvement in covering true crime. Authors such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray took up to writing about actual criminal punishments as commentary on how the law dealt out punishments for certain crimes and called for better reforms in criminal justice. De Quincy’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” focused on a hypothetical situation in which he encouraged the reader to shift their perspective from the macabre tableau that constitutes true crime of the era and onto how they would interpret crime and its ramifications as a society.
Authors such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray took up to writing about actual criminal punishments as commentary on how the law dealt out punishments for certain crimes
Today, there are many avenues available to us should we wish to peruse true crime mysteries. There are Internet hotbeds like r/TrueCrime on Reddit or Websleuths in which one can interact with fellow true crime enthusiasts (or amateur Internet detectives) and speculate on crimes, most of which involve murder. Podcasts such as Serial often have been attributed to the podcasting boom in the late 2010s. Streaming companies like Netflix has been producing series such as “Making a Murderer”, “Casting JonBenét”, “Don’t F**k With Cats” and “The Disappearance of Madeline McCann”, to name a few.
But true crime has often been criticized for its supposedly insensitive take on crime and how it affects those who were close with the victim (or the perpetrator). There has been cases where online investigators attempted to solve cold cases, mostly through crowdsourcing information and attempting to reach out to sources (e.g. law enforcement and persons of interest) but this could also lead to uncontrolled speculation. “Making a Murderer”, for example, had led to a more vocal criticism of the law enforcement who had handled the case and has been a focal point for those who are focused on overturning wrongful convictions. Its detractors, however, have pointed out that this has led to the harassment of those criticized by the documentary and that it simply does not present all the facts available in the case.
Another moral quandary that we should confront is the invasion of privacy that comes with consuming true crime content. To what extent is a person’s detailed life history and their (perhaps gruesome) murder are privy to the strangers on the Internet? What right do we have, as strangers completely removed from the situation at hand, to start investigating and making serious claims about someone else’s death? And if we enjoy true crime, does this mean that we somehow take pleasure over the (often wrongful and tragic) death of an actual human being?
With all the sensational details that come with true crime, it’s important to keep in mind that these are things that have happened to real people. This comes with the implication that the things that have happened to others (and the subsequent coverage that comes with it) could also happen to you, or someone you know. True crime as a genre has led to progress within the legal system and how we view crime and punishment. It’s also led to certain ethical dilemmas when it comes to covering and interacting with such a topic that is often personal and sensitive to so many of us.