A real problem in the true crime community
by Ashley Wright
At risk of sounding like everyone’s technology-hating dads, the instantaneous accessibility offered by the internet is both a blessing and a curse. From boy bands to politicians, it has never been easier for the masses to group together with like-minded people in order to spread their toxic ideas. This leads to many negative consequences, but the most relevant is that it tends to lead people to blur the lines between reality and fantasy or personal belief—especially when it comes to discussions surrounding real people.
While this phenomenon is not unique to any one community or fan base, it can be found at an unprecedented level in what is commonly known as the “true crime community”. Primarily there are two types of people that make up the true crime community. These factions may inform serial killer culture together, but their practices and beliefs make the two clearly distinguishable.
In my experience, the first group tends to be composed by people who, by their own admission, are fascinated with the horror and unpredictability that comes with the knowledge that seemingly “regular” people are capable of committing such atrocious acts of violence. This group often leans towards horror fans, who simply prefer real-life to fiction, or scientifically curious minds, simply seeking to learn more about the human experience. While crime should never be viewed as entertainment for entertainment’s sake, this is where the divide is made clearest. The first group may be interested in serial killers and the like, but they are defined by their respect for the victims and disgust towards the perpetrators.
On the complete opposite side lies the other half of the true crime community. For some reason incomprehensible to me, these fans of the culture seem to idolize the criminals they discuss. Many social media and online platforms try to curb this group, but their unsettling opinions regarding real crimes that affected real people can still be found fairly easily. Not only does this communicate a stark disrespect for the victims and their families, but it also gives those in the first group a bad name. Learning about true crime is, understandably, not for everyone. As a result, many people only learn about the community from an outsider’s perspective and often times can confuse everyone for the few who don’t seem to understand where the line between interest and idolization is.
This divide is becoming increasingly clearer as serial killer/ true crime culture seems to move away from hidden online message boards toward mainstream media. Almost every streaming platform now has a designated “true crime” section, or at the very least offers a selection of gruesome documentaries to choose from. Some of these, like Lifetime’s I Am Elizabeth Smart should be recognized as respectful, informative ways to tell the stories of victims. Other attempts at the market have been notably misguided, however. A prime example of this is the controversy surrounding the future Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile set to come out later this year.
Given the unnatural nature of many of these stories, it is understandable that not everyone will understand how to properly share them with the masses. The key is to place the focus and reverence on the victims, not the killers. In the cases of the films mentioned above, this principle is outlined nicely. In the Elizabeth Smart story, never once is her abductor painted as misunderstood or someone to model yourself after. Instead Elizabeth’s bravery is consistently highlighted, and she is never once blamed or belittled for the crime done to her. In fact, there are many times where Elizabeth is able to share her story in her words.
While the Ted Bundy film has not come out yet, and I do not feel it would be right for me to judge it as though it has, it has highlighted some important issues that accompany telling true crime stories that aren’t always so black-and-white. Anyone who is even casually aware of the case of Ted Bundy knows that some of his defining attributes were his ability to keep many of those close to him unaware of his true nature and the fact that his appearance was considered normal, if not attractive. However, a deeper look into his person will show that he was not some charming, debonair man hiding a dark secret like the protagonist of a Charlotte Bronte novel. His ruse consisted of faking an injury or feigning needing help from women, so that he could blitz attack them as a result of his inferiority complex regarding them. So, while it may be appropriate to cast heartthrob Zac Efron in the role, it should be made clear to the viewers that he is in no circumstances the kind of man you want to meet and at the very least should invoke a sense of disgust for what he did. It is also important that instead of making him the center of attention, that focus and reverence is given to the poor women who were undeservingly attacked by him.
The tricky thing with the true crime community, is that you can’t police what people are drawn to. However, if you frame the narrative in a way that venerates terrible people and demeans the victims they hurt then you are undeniably part of the problem. If you want to explore the complexities of a “misunderstood anti-hero” all you have to do is fictionalize it. This way you are not rewarding anyone for real, true crimes committed.
All of this is to say, next time you feel yourself sympathizing with the Columbine shooters, maybe you should switch over to You or American Horror Story or any one of the dozens of options for you to get your fill of disturbing, yet attractive, young men without the worry that there’s a real family somewhere left mourning while you fawn over a monster. At the end of the day, they are all just monsters and it doesn’t change anything because they don’t look like one.