First published on Tuesday the 19th of February, 2019, this piece comes in at number 21 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2019.
I love true crime documentaries. Netflix has fuelled that obsession. Once I’d watched Making A Murderer, it suggested The Keepers. The Confession Tapes. The Staircase. I Am A Killer. Now, The Ted Bundy Tapes. I was making my way through a chain of progressively more twisted crimes. And something about it was starting to feel wrong.
I’m not alone in my obsession. Researchers think that we enjoy true crime because it appeals to our survival instincts. Which is to say, we’re trying to learn how to avoid being murdered. That is reinforced by the fact that the most avid true crime watchers are women, and the majority of the victims in true crime shows are women.
Why did I like true crime in the first place? It's mystery combined with danger. Like a puzzle to solve, but the pieces are made up of real lives. Those pieces are exactly the problem. While binge watching Criminal Minds or NCIS can create a real sense of danger, it doesn’t involve real lives.
Sometimes the true crime obsession is not so bad. Through true crime, I’ve learned a lot about injustice and empathising with people in unimaginably difficult situations. I’ve seen how established systems can get it wrong.
At times, the public interest in these cases has been helpful. The Australian true crime podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, uncovered new information from listeners from episode to episode. The Keepers created an outpouring of support for victims of church-related sexual abuse in America. And, most famously, the public interest in Adnan Syed from the Serial podcast led to a judge ordering a retrial of his case.
But there’s another voyeuristic, self-serving angle to our obsession. A lot of us are not just watching documentaries about crime as a case study of what can go wrong in the legal system. We’re not watching to understand criminals. We watch the documentaries because they’re hooked on knowing more about killers, and uncovering more details of their crimes.
Ted Bundy is a prime example. However weird, there is a lot of hype around Ted Bundy as a person. The Ted Bundy Tapes feeds into that obsession by providing the audience with more information about his crimes, told literally in words from his mouth.
Where is the public interest in amplifying the voice of a prolific serial killer? To make matters worse, a Hollywood movie about Ted Bundy is soon to be released. It stars Zac Efron (in case you were unclear about how much they were feeding the serial killer cult of personality).
There’s something distasteful about profiting from the death of 30, and possibly more, women and girls. Yes, we have a hunger for more information about these crimes. But that doesn’t mean that we actually need someone to provide us with that information.
And providing that information doesn’t come without a price. There is a cost to the families of victims each time a true crime documentary romanticises a killer. Sometimes, the cost of the increased publicity is counter balanced with a public interest in seeing justice done. But in cases like Ted Bundy’s, where his guilt is not questioned, spreading information about his crimes and his psyche feeds an unhealthy obsession.
When we watch a true crime documentary, what we see is almost entirely in the hands of a production team. They can mould and shape the documentary to push us in different directions. Too often, the shaping of the documentary decontextualizes the crime. We don’t hear about the victims or the broader impact of the crime; we just hear about the killer.
Honestly, I do find something fascinating about Ted Bundy. But I question whether a blockbuster movie about him should have been made. Is my interest in a serial killer a deep-set instinct to learn more about killers? Or is it the product of producers wanting to profit from the lives of real people?
Just because the public is interested in something, doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest.Support Villainesse