As a true crime junkie, I will and have consumed all things released that I can. That includes documentaries, podcasts, books— basically label anything true crime and I am there.
In the true crime community, there is ongoing discussion as to whether or not retelling these stories is glorifying criminals and exploiting survivors for views and reads, which ultimately equate to dollars. You can tune in to any crime program and walk away whenever you find yourself getting bored, without the cognitive realization that the reality still stands. Survivors and victims’ families must live with this day in and day out.
Recently, Netflix released a new documentary, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” based on the crimes of Richard Ramirez, an elusive and controversial serial killer active in the mid ’80s. Netflix is no stranger to true crime docuseries, they have a slew of them in their catalog, but now with the Night Stalker we’re seeing a deviation from the traditional storytelling.
Shifting the narrative is crucial for true crime. The new style is not as controversial or shocking because we’re not seeing the nitty-gritty, dirty details, but, the stories of survivors and victims are still able to be told. True crime is built on shock value, but it’s vital to remember that there are real people behind the headlines.
Television writer Kayla Cobb explains in an interview with “Decider,” “They’re all too focused on providing some sort of explanation about how this monster came to be that the reason they’re monsters — the very people whose lives they ruined become sidelined. These survivors become secondary characters in the story about the worst moment of their lives.”
One of the most popular true crime documentaries released last year, “Seduced: Inside The Nxivm Cult,” was based on Keith Raniere who profited off of people in a multi-level marketing scheme turned cult. Show creator Cecilia Peck chose to focus and let the story be told by survivors.
“One of the reasons that people will speak about traumatic subjects is because they believe that others can learn from their experience,” Peck said in an interview with “Decider.” “They want to turn that trauma into activism.”
Recognizing true crime as more than entertainment allows for uncomfortable conversations to take place about reform – how we approach and prosecute predators, how to support survivors and how we can continue to keep our communities and loved ones safe.
True crime journalist, Billy Jensen, has highly publicized the idea of crowdsolving, “utilizing the eyes, ears, and expertise of individuals, both locally and across the globe via social media, to aid in the solving of crimes”, and citizen detectives, “an individual who devotes his or her time and expertise to aid in the solving of crime, without compensation or expectation of reward.”
Through Jensen’s podcast with Paul Holes, the notorious cold case detective who solved the Golden State Killer case 40 years later, they utilize their standing with law enforcement to vet the tips and suggestions from “citizen detectives” to pass on to detectives on active cold cases.
Take a look at how cases are being handled now. Cases from decades ago are being solved through DNA submitted in public databases, through tips after reintroducing the cases, through real and honest conversation between media and their audience.
And that is what true crime should be, a lesson, a warning, advocacy. The shift has, and will, continue to create a space for empathy and reflection, healing for survivors and families of victims.