The blood behind the screen

Lucia Llano, Staff Writer

Growing up, my family and I would spend our nights together gathered around the television with a bowl of popcorn watching the latest episode of  “Forensic Files.” It was somewhat of a family tradition and it always ended the same. Turning the TV off, my mom would throw me a cautionary comment about the horrors we had just seen on the screen and we would all go off to our beds and call it a night. 

This is not an isolated occurrence. In fact, the exponentially popular “true crime” genre has made a name for itself as America’s comfort genre. From “Making a Murderer” to “The Confession Tapes,” it is not a difficult task to get your hands on the most gruesome details of a variety of endless tragedies. The growing popularity of this genre, however, brings up countless moral controversies and questions that are often overlooked, caught up in all the glamor and mystique of true crime dramatization. 

The truth is that people like a good story. As mass consumers of media in today’s modern digitalized world, we have all the ephemeral information we could ever imagine just slipping through our fingers. And we are hungry for a story, among the millions, that is so shocking that it sticks. We want something memorable. Oftentimes, what is memorable, what people cannot get enough of, is that which is incomprehensible. And what is more incomprehensible than recreational homicide? The psychological philosophy, which is the foundation behind so much of true crime media. The audiences turn their televisions on, wanting to get inside the mind of the killer, and then fall in too deep. 

Unfortunately, because of modern media, everything is sensational, accessible and easy to digest. This frequent dramatization of deviance and homicide often creates an emotional distance between the information audiences are being provided with, and the true barbarity of the violence being committed. Horrid crimes begin bordering fictionality, functioning more as pop culture urban legends than real tragedies that affected many individuals and communities. As a result, even the gruesome details of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mutilated victims become something you hear as simple background noise in your family living room. The sensationalized names of sadistic villains like Jack the Ripper and The Night Stalker become household names, ones that roll off your tongue, like some sick, captivating American lore. It’s easy to get caught up in the mystery of the story, the actors, the lights and the drama and forget all about the real blood behind the screen. 

As audiences become desensitized to the murders being portrayed on their favorite TV shows, things get out of hand. With true-crime fandoms, cold-blooded killers begin being treated akin to celebrities, characterized as charming and notorious, like misunderstood underdogs who were dealt the wrong cards. This is especially prevalent with true crime media that presents the audience with the perspective of the one with blood on his hands. Shows like Netflix’s “Conversation with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” essentially isolate the victims from the crimes, focusing more on the background behind the killer himself. While this is done in an attempt to find a sense of reason and motive behind the brutal and incomprehensible, it comes off as an excuse to sympathize with the murderer. This kind of questionable romanization occurs very obviously within “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” another movie showcasing Bundy, which not only takes the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Liz Kendall, but also stars former beloved Disney star Zac Efron. Similarly, the film “My Friend Dahmer,” stars another Disney teenage heartthrob, Ross Lynch, as the “shy adolescent” that grows to become the Jeffrey Dahmer we all know. Witnessing the Disney stars many grew up with as role models and symbols of admiration portray men who have brutalized and murdered in the double-digits proves to raise some problematic moral issues. In fact, after the release of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” it was not uncommon to hear people commenting on the attractiveness of the serial killer in the film and sometimes even sympathizing with him, so much so, that Netflix had to take to Twitter to plead viewers to stop calling the convicted serial murderer “hot.” Similarly, fans of “American Horror Story” had complaints about similar issues upon watching the ninth season of the show, 1984, in which serial killer Richard Ramirez is transformed into a character portrayed extensively as someone mysterious and attractive. 

Many other issues have also arisen due to the emergence of a new genre, “true-crime comedy” seen in beloved podcasts like “My Favorite Murder” and “All Killa No Filla,” among innumerable others. To me, the existence of a true-crime comedy genre is impossible to fathom, as it seems to be so unapologetically insensitive. The name of the genre itself a shocking paradox, a testament to how far the desensitization of murder in the media has truly come. Podcasts such as these are frequently described as the “funniest” of the true crime genre, some in particular advertising themselves as “recap[ing] your favorite true crime documentaries with humor, sass, and heart” which is a concept I cannot even begin to unpack. This constant idolization of cold-blooded killers within media and the consuming audiences is overwhelmingly problematic and completely crosses moral and ethical boundaries, especially considering the effect it has on surviving victims and the families of those most affected by the crimes. 

Just to name one example of the experiences of victims in response to crime portrayal in the media, Netflix’s true crime docuseries, “I Am A Killer,” is known for showcasing the perspectives of prisoners on death row, often attempting to arouse sympathy through extensive interviews in which perpetrators sorrowfully explain the motives and excuses behind the homicides they committed. Families of victims of these crimes have reportedly begged the show’s producers to forfeit the project, but to no avail, they have had to suffer through the reliving of their trauma through a sympathetic angle; all for so-called entertainment purposes. 

This exploitation of tragedies and their persistent framing as objects of amusement is a toxic, though widely accepted, philosophy of today’s day and age, perpetrated by desensitized audiences and the sensationalist tendencies of modern pop culture. Sadly, this practice maintains these heartless individuals in the spotlight, sometimes even favorably, just like many of them wanted in the first place. Not only will this encourage and inspire more of the same sadistic behavior, but it also has lasting traumatic effects on the countless victims who truly suffered from the heinous crimes we now glorify through the smokescreen of our favorite modern media.