Is Netflix fuelling our obsession with true crime?

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The black and red of the Netflix homepage flashes up on your laptop screen. The main image shows a 70s cassette with the series title Conversation with a Killer; The Ted Bundy Tapes. Scrolling further down to the popular on Netflix section, Inside the mind of a serial killer, Making a Murderer and Abducted in Plain Sight are all trending now. The evidence is stacked against Netflix – they love a murder. The streaming site has seen what sells and is now a breeding ground for the true crime genre.

 

You can’t blame Netflix for reacting to a genre society has flirted with for a long time. “We’ve always loved it. Always. If you look back at the Anglos Saxon poem, Beowulf, it’s a serial killer story at its core. I think the Netflix series are cashing in on that,” according to Stuart MacBride, author of over 20 crime thriller novels, stresses the long history we have with true crime. But exactly how far back does our fascination go? Elizabethan tragedy almost always had to end in disaster or death. Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus (1594), saw nine brutal on-stage deaths and it only got worse from there with The Complete Deaths (2016) detailing his 74 scripted deaths. Loris Elaine Seibert’s 1958 essay on Elizabethan treatment of death, analyses how “a whole body of death literature grew up and flourished, especially in the 16th and 17th century.” The omnipresence of death during this period can be “easily explained as part of the age’s heritage from the traditions of the Middle Ages,” she says. Seibert’s analysis of reasons why we loved death back then, goes some way in helping understand our current fascination. English morality drama used death to try and teach a lesson. Religion too, traditionally used this the idea of this concept to force us to focus on the inevitability of death. MacBride explained how he got into crime writing from reading crime fiction as a “wee boy.” “I read every one of the Hardy Boys books I could get my hands on from the school library, before graduating to Dashiell Hammett.” There has never been a lack of ideas for MacBride who cites, “meandering about the streets of a small town or half-heard snippets of conversations” as great ways to spark things off. All Netflix had to do was go outside to find inspiration for its new shows.   

 

The idea of a serial killer is relatively new. FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term in the 70s, after he observed that, “the conclusion of every murder increases the tension and desire of a serial killer to commit a more perfect murder.” The murderer would get addicted to the feeling; just as we today, get hooked into binging more episodes. Netflix is the perfect platform for our obsession, as it enables us to continue watching more by immediately playing the next episode and then suggesting more similar content when we are finished. The streaming site boasts more than 100 million paid subscribers and was among the first to start using big data to tailor its homepage to customer needs. Netflix users spend around 100 million hours a day watching content. It sought the case of Ted Bundy to entertain its massive audience with. The prolific serial killer who violently killed and raped over 30 women in 1978, is the focus of the four-part series “Conversation with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019),” which structures itself around the un-released audio interviews Bundy gave while he was on death row. Netflix describes the tapes as a, “cinematic self-portrait crafted from statements made by Ted Bundy,” which would give us “a unique look inside the mind of an infamous serial killer.”

 

How important is media coverage to some killers? Do they become as addicted to fame as much as they were to killing? At the time the media coverage of Bundy’s case was highly stylised and exaggerated, which allowed the various news outlets to draw in a wider audience. This led Bundy to become a sort of, celebrity monster, and turn him into what he is now, a symbol of notorious evil in pop culture. A former public defender told the Miami New Times this year, “He was very conscious of the camera. Every time something would happen where it would be logical to get a shot of him with the camera, he would look over at the camera and do his thing.” The media blurs the lines of reality and fiction, just as Netflix docuseries’ make real life serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer appear interchangeable with fictitious killers like Hannibal Lecter. Doctor Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers (2014), told Psychology Today in 2017, that serial killers “feed the public’s appetite for macabre,” in the same way public executions used to host such large crowds. Hundreds of people gathered outside the jail where Bundy was to be killed by electric chair. Conversation with a Killer shows footage of a macabre crowd of people wearing tops saying “Burn Bundy Burn” and holding posters telling Bundy to “catch the current.”

 So, why are these shows so popular on Netflix? And what makes us addicted? The allure in shows such as the Ted Bundy Tapes, and Making a Murderer is that they are not open-and-shut cases. Contrary to shows like Law and Order, which come to a satisfactory conclusion in a single episode, these Netflix series’ take time and commitment to view as there is no finite conclusion. This is another factor making them ideal for steaming sites. The open-ended format also encourages conversation, which leads to their popularity on social media; a sort-of free advertising for Netflix. The collective nature of social media means people can watch together and as Ralph Adolphs wrote in Biology of Fear (2013), “the fear can be contagious.” The fear-factor facet of these shows goes some way in explaining why they are so popular with younger audiences and therefore why they are so widely discussed on social media. When Making a Murderer was released in 2015, it only pulled in 565,000 average adult viewers, as recorded by Symphony Advanced Media, however that number grew after a week, to 2.3 million viewers. Within 14 days, it was at 5.5 million, and just after a month it saw, 19.3 million viewers watching the series. This boost in viewership reflects the impact of the media hype, but more notably, the increased conversation on social media which brought in people not wanting to be left out of the cultural loop.

Is it our follow the herd nature that compels us to watch what everyone else is watching, or is there a societal explanation for our viewing habits? Adolphs addresses the contagious nature of fear, explaining that “fear creates a distraction, which collectively can be a positive experience.” So is the attraction in the distraction? MacBride explains how crime and murder is “something that’s hardwired into us as a species. We’d be sitting around the fires in our caves, telling tales about the dangers in the dark. Crime fiction is an extension of that. It allows us to explore the things we’re scared of both at a societal and personal level.” Millennials have been branded the burnout generation and Generation Z are growing up in a world of continuous updates. There has been a 28 per cent increase in the number of hospital admissions for anxiety and stress in the past decade, according to NHS data released in 2018. It is possible that the collective distraction by fear that these shows provide, allows for a form of escapism, from political stresses, worries about the environment and anxiety due to increasing debt. This is not a secluded case but one we have seen previously in this age group. A short scroll on social media and you’ll come across a meme laughing about the possibility of an early death. “When deadlines are burying you but you’re used to it because you’re dead inside,” or “Can’t be depressed if you’ve never known happiness,” are just a couple of the online images that, whilst light-hearted, joke about suicide and depression. This age group has a fairly dismal economic outlook, and so nihilistic, cynical humour epitomized in memes about jumping in front of moving trains — is merely a reflection of our worldview. Netflix is just reacting to a generational trend and exploiting the catharsis that can come from watching a show where the people involved are worse off than you. Bonn observed that “serial killers tantalise us much like traffic accidents,” we’re fascinated by the incomprehensibility of their actions. Rollercoasters work in the same way; we have always sought out some form of simulated fear, where the threat is intriguing, but not real. Ben Douglass, a script writer currently working on a horror film, said ““horror plays on certain feelings and emotions” and we are compelled to certain stories by “not knowing and not being able to predict the outcome.”

At what point does our obsession become problematic? And what makes a compelling crime narrative? MacBride and Douglass both claim characters to be key in our attraction. “It all comes down to characters for me. A crime novel that’s all about plot is one of the dullest things I can imagine,” says MacBride. A day after Netflix air Conversation with a Killer, the new Ted Bundy biopic is released, showing teen heartthrob Zac Efron in the lead role. The trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) - a title, taken from the judge’s analysis of Bundy’s crimes at the time – opens with a rock and roll backing track as bold sans-serif fonts slam into the screen boasting “the story behind America’s most notorious serial killer.” The trailer promises sex, murder and rock and roll, and will tell the story from the perspective of his long-term girlfriend, who for many years refused to believe the truth about him. “I literally don't care too much about the Ted Bundy case, but Zac Efron is real fuckin hot and I wanna see this charming hotboi go evil” and “if I was alive during the murders ted bundy committed & that man looked like zac efron, I’d be a dead motherfucker fo sho,” are just some of the tweets that drools over Efron portraying the killer. Not everyone was as turned on by the trailer; “The entertainment industry is really going all out to sex up Ted Bundy,” and “Disgusted by the new Zac Efron Ted Bundy film, they really shouldn’t give a platform to someone who has done something so awful & unforgivable, also shocked by how many people idolise this monster,” shows the problematic side of churning out these biopics. Just as the media thrived on the infatuated public throughout his trial, the documentaries we are currently seeing on Netflix cash in on glorifying and humanising these people who killed and raped numbers of women.

At what point does our obsession become problematic? And what makes a compelling crime narrative? MacBride and Douglass both claim characters to be key in our attraction. “It all comes down to characters for me. A crime novel that’s all about plot is one of the dullest things I can imagine,” says MacBride. A day after Netflix air Conversation with a Killer, the new Ted Bundy biopic is released, showing teen heartthrob Zac Efron in the lead role. The trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) - a title, taken from the judge’s analysis of Bundy’s crimes at the time – opens with a rock and roll backing track as bold sans-serif fonts slam into the screen boasting “the story behind America’s most notorious serial killer.” The trailer promises sex, murder and rock and roll, and will tell the story from the perspective of his long-term girlfriend, who for many years refused to believe the truth about him. “I literally don't care too much about the Ted Bundy case, but Zac Efron is real fuckin hot and I wanna see this charming hotboi go evil” and “if I was alive during the murders ted bundy committed & that man looked like zac efron, I’d be a dead motherfucker fo sho,” are just some of the tweets that drools over Efron portraying the killer. Not everyone was as turned on by the trailer; “The entertainment industry is really going all out to sex up Ted Bundy,” and “Disgusted by the new Zac Efron Ted Bundy film, they really shouldn’t give a platform to someone who has done something so awful & unforgivable, also shocked by how many people idolise this monster,” shows the problematic side of churning out these biopics. Just as the media thrived on the infatuated public throughout his trial, the documentaries we are currently seeing on Netflix cash in on glorifying and humanising these people who killed and raped numbers of women.

Netflix took advantage of the attraction and bought the rights to the Bundy biopic for nine million dollars, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Many, like script writer Douglass, are keen to argue that this type of casting is necessary, “Bundy was good looking so that’s the point, simple as that.” And it’s true, a teen spectator explained to a reporter outside the courthouse, “I don't know what it is he has, but he's fascinating. He's impressive. He just has a kind of magnetism." His charm was known as “the Bundy effect,” branding the female groupies he enticed, with one woman claiming “I’m not afraid of him. He just doesn’t look like the type to kill somebody.” So, what’s wrong with Efron, of High School Musical fame, playing Ted Bundy? The Teen Vogue article, The Problem with Pop Culture's White Male Serial Killer Obsession (2017), discusses that if “we not only allow their narratives to overshadow the lives of their victims but also let their legacies thrive in a glamorised fashion.” One tweet asks you to “imagine you had a daughter that was raped before being murdered and then then decades later an edgy thriller about the man who did it is made, where he’s portrayed as some cool, impressive guy rather than the disgusting animal he was.”

 

Zac Efron is not the first actor to be typecast in this sort of role. My Friend Dahmer (2016), tells the true story of Jeffery Dahmer in his high school, years before he committed the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys in the 1970s. It casts Disney star Ross Lynch as Dahmer, who’s fanbase were more accustomed to seeing him in his role in Austin and Ally (2011). Tribeca Film Festival reviewed the film as, “fun, sinister, and remarkably thoughtful.” Quentin Tarantino is the next director to jump on the cash cow that is serial killers, with his upcoming film about the Manson family murders, casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. This casting is mutually beneficial to both Netflix and the biopic; the actors draw in a younger, larger audience all of whom are more likely to promote the films on social media. The casting is again questionable when you look at it in the context of female serial killer film. A twitter user called out this bias, saying,“Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy - tanned, chiselled, handsome. Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos- overweight, unkempt, shambolic. Film called ‘Monster’. Hhmmm…” The influential nature of these films is explained by Douglass, “the internet is where most people get their information. I mean even a student film is even going to influence people…people aren’t going to go and fact check a film they just take it at face value.” Thus, these documentaries become a paradox; do they make people more aware of these serial killers and will then go on to research for themselves to find out more, or do people just look at Zac Efron and think Bundy was hot?

 

So, is Netflix creating a new generation of serial killers? Or do we all just fancy murderers? “I don’t think many people would love real-life serial killers, but fictional ones allow us to safely visit that world and maybe understand the darkness a bit better,” MacBride says. A notification flashes up on your phone. It’s a tweet tempting you to commit yourself to the next true crime drama.