Killer (non)fictions: Is true crime miscommunicating truths in favour of entertaining audiences? – C.S. Barnes

C.S. Barnes is a Worcester-based author and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English literature at various universities around the West Midlands, and her research background lies in representations of women in  crime fiction.  She also writes fiction and her work is published by Bloodhound Books.
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True crime, by its very titling, leads audiences to believe that they are consuming something inherently true in nature. True crime is categorised as a non-fiction form of media, regardless of the means of communication – whether it be written or visual. This alleged truthfulness raises intellectual and moral ambiguities. The rate at which audiences are consuming true crime titles is growing annually. Print sales alone increased from 976,000 copies sold in 2016 to 1.6 million copies sold in 2018. This growth is mirrored in other true crime mediums. Subsequently, there is room for investigations into how the creators of true crime present their product. Many canonical true crime releases from the last fifty years have presented truths, which have in fact been heavily manipulated. This manipulation occurs for a number of reasons. Morally, changes take place to protect those who were involved with the original crime. Intellectually, and financially, there are sometimes better ways to sell a story than relying on the original content. Herein lies one of two problems with the true crime genre: its penchant for editing the true element of its name.

A secondary problem arises when we consider the cult of true crime that has arisen from these misrepresentations. The public fixation with criminal figures – more specifically, serial killers – looks to grow at the same rate as true crime consumption generally. Dr Scott Bonn has researched this area extensively. He comments on the public fascination with these killer figures, who inevitably become ‘larger-than-life-celebrity monsters’ (xvii). Bonn’s work highlights the distance between us – the consumer – and the crimes we read about – the product. True crime capitalises on this distancing to enable further fictionalisation of what are actually true-life events. In presenting these killer figures from a safe distance, true crime has done away with the dangers of criminal realities. Media representations and re-written accounts have turned the worst criminals into consumable folklore. The accompanying podcasts, documentaries and similar productions serve to illustrate how comfortable audiences are in their consumption of killer (non)fictions. Furthermore, Hollywood revisions of society’s worst so-called “monsters”, i.e. serial killers, has aided in the glamorisation of violence and violent individuals. Subsequently then, a second problematic element of the genre is that the above misrepresentations have inspired a celebrity culture for serial killers.

Fact or Fiction

 “…the public comes to perceive serial killers as celebrity folk devils.”

– Dr Scott Bonn (185)

 Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is praised across literary courses globally as a fine example of non-fiction. Capote’s work re-tells the murders of the Clutter family, which took place in Kansas in 1959. The “novel” carries the storyline through to the eventual punishment of the identified killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Throughout there is a blend of storytelling and fact-selling that singles the book out as iconic in the true crime genre. First published in 1966, the publication still appears on reading lists around the globe, marking it as worthy of study even now. However, there are several elements within the book that remain less publicised than Capote’s polished writing style.

In recent years, it has been repeatedly proven, by the likes of Radford University’s Richard Gilbert for example, that Capote not only re-wrote but in fact fabricated two defining moments of the text. First, Capote’s claim that Perry Smith apologised for the murders as he faced the gallows has been disputed countless times. Eye witnesses who were present at this scene have reported that Smith showed no such regret for his actions. However, witnesses did claim that Capote begged the murderer for the apology that the author claims happened. Alongside this considerable edit, the second notable change arrives in the closing scene of the book. Capote reports that the chief investigator of the crime had a grave-side encounter with a victim’s friend. While this might make for a poignant ending to the story, it is commonly known and accepted that this encounter is also fictional.

The former edit to Capote’s revised version of events poses more moral issues than the latter. Readers of the crime genre may applaud last-minute remorse from a murderer. However, true crime readers are, one assumes, looking for accuracy in their reading material. The change is not problematic on its own, of course. However, the change without an acknowledgement of this change on the part of the author is problematic. In this instance, the author re-writes the story into something that does not remain loyal to the original incidents. There is surely a question to be raised about how these changes (mis)inform a reading audience. In addition to this, there are further questions to raise about the narrative authenticity of true crime as a non-fiction genre. This has the potential to fuel academic discussions around (non)fiction definitions, and whether these categories require some revisions themselves.

That said, these issues exist beyond true crime in print and extend through to popular television. Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) attracted attention the likes of which a true crime production had never seen. The documentary was filmed over the course of ten years, monitoring the progress of the Steven Avery case. Avery was imprisoned for a rape that he allegedly did not commit, despite being convicted and having served eighteen years in prison. The saga spirals out into police corruption and misconduct, and it raises troubling questions about the American judicial system.

With Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos at the helm, the series was steered into true crime success. Social media channels were quick to interrogate the release, prompting open debate from many users. However, these debates were fuelled by the (mis)information provided by the documentary makers. Admittedly, the series provides a relatively strong overview of some elements of the case. Meanwhile, some elements were deliberately excluded from the re-telling of events, and this is something that Ricciardi openly admits.

At the 2016 Television Critics Association winter tour she commented: ‘Of course we left out evidence… There would have been no other way of doing it.’ She later added: ‘Of what was omitted, the question is: was it really significant?’ However, a more relevant question surely should be: who determines such things? The telling of any story rests with the author behind it, of course. However, when the project belongs to a genre founded on truthful retellings, it is problematic to find something other is being provided. If true crime is factual it should also therefore be impartial. In openly admitting, ‘we took our cues from the prosecution’, Ricciardi raises moral issues that rest on the line between storytelling and reporting.

Hollywood (Mis)representations

 “First and foremost, serial killers don’t look like the monsters the media portrays them to be.”

– Diane Dimond (xv)

Diane Dimond discusses the concept of the serial killer according to media representations. She comments on the urban myth that killers will ‘manifest with wild hair and bulging eyes’, acting notably evil (xv). Her counter-argument is that serial killers are, in fact, quite “normal” on the exterior. In support of this, she lists the partners, parents and friends of (in)famous killers who were unaware of what their loved one was doing. Admittedly, this is a viable argument against how news outlets would have the public view killers. They are often represented as monstrous, inherently evil, and utterly distinguishable from anyone who is not a murderer. Meanwhile, while these monstrous representations rest at one end of the scale, Hollywood representations sit elsewhere.

In 2003, Patty Jenkins penned the script for Monster, a film based on the life of Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos killed a total of seven men before she was apprehended, and she remains well-discussed as one of few female serial killers. Charlize Theron played Wuornos in Smith’s biopic and, in an interview following the film, Theron discussed the ‘emotional’ connection she felt with the ‘story’. Linguistically, Theron’s phrasing alludes to a question implied earlier, namely: are we disconnected from the realities behind true crime? However, the more prominent area for discussion is Theron being cast in this role at all. Historically, Theron had played strong but often sexualised female characters. Thus, while her filmography is not problematic, the connotations that her casting could trigger may well be.

There is a tendency throughout Hollywood cinema to cast well-known and well-liked actors as unsavoury yet entirely real characters. Monster is one such illustration of this. However, more recent examples – such as Netflix’s Manhunt: Unabomber in which Paul Bettany plays killer Ted Kaczynski – are close at hand. Zac Efron, of High School Musical fame, is taking on the role of Ted Bundy in the 2019 production, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Early trailers for this release show the conventionally attractive Efron wooing women with an unspeakable charm. While the storyline may not be far from reality, the high-profile casting contributes toward the glamourisation of serial killers reported by academics.

Hollywood biopics disentangle themselves from true crime with the ‘Based on true events’ disclaimer. They are not claiming to re-tell a story but rather borrow from it. As stated then, it is not the telling of the story so much as the wildly successful actors who aid in these tellings that complicates matters. The filmography of actors feeds the public perception of them through connotations of their previous roles. Therefore, there is surely a question to raise about the effect of Zac Efron – alleged Hollywood heartthrob – playing Ted Bundy – prolific womaniser, rapist, murderer. That is not to say that actors become synonymous with their roles but rather with their on-screen characteristics. Therefore, if Efron is a rebellious heartthrob in other blockbusters (Bad Neighbours), what is he to a biopic of one of the best-known serial killers of our time?

Conclusively, Hollywood is accountable to authenticity in true crime to a different extent than other productions. The likes of In Cold Blood claim authenticity but change integral elements. Meanwhile, Hollywood openly admits to borrowing from non-fiction realities in order to shape cinematic fictions. In this sense, cinema’s claims are more accurate. However, their representations through casting choices tread a thin line around the concept of glamourising serial killers.

True crime takeover

 “Because serial killers are amongst the most egregious of all criminal offenders, many of us want to understand why they do what they do.”

– Dr Scott Bonn (169)

True crime productions and products are increasing. There are grounds to make an argument that true crime is itself the product now. Beyond the print and cinematic publications, there are podcasts, talk shows and entire chatrooms dedicated to true crime talk. By July 2018, true crime podcasts were so frequently produced that Vulture was able to list a top fifty-two releases. The article introduced Serial as the podcast that started it all: ‘the entire country couldn’t get enough’. There were allegedly over a quarter of a billion downloads of Serial’s pilot. The Vulture article reads that this opening release meant listeners ‘were primed and ready for a true-crime podcast explosion’. True crime podcasts have continued to grow in number and in listeners since then. Although, some producers have since come to blend their true crime with other genres.

True Crime Obsessed, hosted by Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle, is marketed as ‘The True Crime / Comedy Podcast’. Hinds and Pensavalle spend their air time providing a commentary for true crime documentaries and series. Admittedly, there is fact-sharing and there are sincere moments throughout this release. However, there are also moments of uncontrollable laughter and off-the-cuff jokes, oftentimes at the criminals’ expense but occasionally directed at the documentary-makers. The podcast is a light-hearted look at the world of true crime and those who occupy it. It is also a heavy-hearted look at the joviality with which some producers and consumers approach the true crime genre.

That said, a comedic blending is not the most morally ambiguous means of commodifying this genre. Alongside entertainment products there also exists a collection of websites where so-called “murderabillia” is sold. MurderAuction.com is known to have starting bids in the region of $2,500 for products such as Charles Manson’s hair trimmings. According to Bonn, ‘[t]he objects range from personal items such as letters… to manufactured items such as action figures’ (196). SerialKillersInk.net is another space wherein ‘university professors…true crime enthusiasts, college students’ can purchase true crime artefacts (Bonn 197). This space is managed by Eric Gein, whose love of true crime saw him adopt the surname of serial killer Ed Gein. Gein comments that the college kids buying from him are often ‘looking for unusual dormroom decorations’ (Bonn 197). This idea again underscores the distancing that has occurred between true crime and those are who consuming it.

Bonn reports: ‘Many people consider the sale of serial killer artwork and memorabilia to be tasteless… and obscene’ (200). However, there are enough people purchasing items through these “murderabillia” websites to make them a viable business. True crime’s outreach goes beyond what we read and view and extends into what we can handle and display. Through these associated ventures, there are further areas of a buying market that true crime can – and does – grow into. Arguably, this is the natural process that all popular commodities will follow in their consumer lifespans. The problem here is that Pokemon Go does not hold the same moral weight as a John Wayne Gacy painting (with a starting bid of $2,999).

A Google search querying the sale of true crime books will prompt articles detailing “essential” true crime reads that are forthcoming. Hard statistics for sales of true crime releases are more difficult to spot. However, it is not far-reaching to claim that true crime is never far from celebrated best-seller lists in this reading climate. The frequency at which Netflix releases true crime documentaries and series is further testimony to the popularity of the genre. Furthermore, Hollywood’s on-going capitalisation on killer (non)fictions makes for a holy trinity of true crime productions. The cited websites and the growing amounts of alternative entertainments clarify any doubts regarding the widespread popularity of these works.

However, it is not the popularity of true crime that poses a problem, but rather the representations of it. In Cold Blood is not the only true crime “novel” branded as non-fiction, despite its fabrications. Meanwhile, Charlize Theron and Zac Efron are far from the only A-list celebrities who have found themselves cast in killer roles. Close analysis of these trends will prompt two concerns. Chiefly, that true crime productions are misrepresenting their accuracy and respect of true-life events. Secondly, that celebrated actors portraying celebrity serial killers feeds the serial-killer-as-celebrity culture that has arisen.

In respect to creating authentic (non)fictions, this issue could be answered with more transparency on the part of authors. In respect to not glamourising serial killers, perhaps they could be less glamourously cast in Hollywood blockbusters. That said, it is likely that there is not an across-the-board answer that can be applied to all true crime productions. Therefore, assessing productions on their own merit is perhaps a more sensible suggestion. If those building the genre could contribute toward it in a more conscious way, its impact may be more positive than negative. Of course, true crime has been illuminating in education, both formal and self-initiated. The public interest in monsters dates back to long before true crime productions were even established. However, the danger in making serial killers into commercial monsters is that it prevents them from being real. In doing so, true crime sidesteps its very purpose as a non-fiction genre. Therefore, given the popularity of these works, a better developed moral and intellectual awareness in their creation is essential.

References:

Author Unknown. Episodes. True Crime Obsessed. 2019. Web. 21 January 2019.

Bonn, Scott. Why We Love Serial Killers. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Dir. Joe Berlinger. Focus Features, 2019. Film.

Gilbert, Richard. “Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ Fiction?” Richard Gilbert. 10 February 2013. Web. 15 January 2019.

Monster. Dir. Patty Jenkins. Newmarket Films, 2003. Film.

Nelson, Hillary. 52 Great True-Crime Podcasts. Vulture. 2018. Web. 18 January 2019.

Smith, Nigel M. Making a Murderer directors defend series. The Guardian. 2016. Web. 16 January 2019.

Swanson, Clare. Morbid Curiosity: True Crime 2018-2019. Publishers Weekly. 2018. Web. 21 May 2019.

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