I know how to commit the perfect crime. Or at least I should, given the countless nights I spent watching Court TV (which has since been renamed truTV) and Lifetime with my mom. The true crime documentaries buzzed in the background as I did my homework and my mom ironed every miscellaneous piece of clothing in each of my family member’s wardrobes, but there was no denying that we were hooked. We spoke at length about Lyle and Erik Menendez, the two young brothers who shot and killed their wealthy parents for reducing their allowances. How spoiled they were to kill the people that gave them everything and – even more incredulous – how idiotic they were to go on a shopping spree a mere few days after they “found” their parents dead. The brothers made a point of seeing a movie and going out to dinner with friends the night of the murder to cement their alibis; they had some working knowledge of the kind of behavior it would take for them to offset police suspicions. And yet, they could not resist the urge to buy a new Porsche, Rolex watches and a restaurant all in the beginning of their parents’ murder investigation.
True crime has become an omnipresent phenomenon, its gun powder residue and blood-stained narratives monopolizing our television shows, films and books. Serial, a podcast that features investigative crime journalism, became canonical in 2014 and was ranked the #1 podcast on iTunes even before its official release. Last year, Netflix garnered attention with its launch of a 10-episode documentary entitled Making A Murderer. The show detailed the story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey and their suspected involvement in the murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach. Earlier in 2016, criticism and conversation about The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was abound. This FX series revolving around the murder trial engrossed the country for months on end.
Our obsession with true crime is not new, nor is it unwarranted. Humans are ever-curious creatures who jump at the chance to think and hypothesize. From Why is the sky blue? to Why does everything that tastes good have to be bad for you? to What ever happened to Tupac and Biggie Smalls?, our quest for answers is unrelenting. Thus, the true crime genre satisfyingly poses these difficult questions. Whereas other, more formulaic genres may treat us as imbeciles with hackneyed content, most of true crime presents us solely with the information then leaves us to determine the answers ourselves. It trusts that we are equipped with the intelligence to find the answers, appealing to our egos.
True crime shows and writing also inspire our sense of justice. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother said she hopes that by writing about these criminal cases she finds “something positive…a cautionary tale with lessons learned, or perhaps, an inspirational message, wherever the truth may take me. I also hope to help save lives by educating people how to identify dangerous situations and predators as well as flaws in our systems that need to be fixed, so I might help prevent such tragedies from happening again.” Educating others and seeking fair retribution are perhaps the most noble reasons to convey and view true crime stories. However, while many people attribute their morbid curiosity in these stories to the pursuit of justice, perhaps their craving for crime stems from more selfish motivations than they think.
One might argue that crime is a necessary and inexorable component of not only civilization, but also our lives. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud quotes Plato as having said, “the virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.” He suggests that the capacity for crime, the capacity to kill, is in us all and that we are merely fighting these natural, primal instincts on a quotidian basis. The French philosopher Émile Durkheim built upon this idea. He believed that crime affects civic well-being by promulgating a sense of community among law-abiding citizens and by providing an outlet for violent impulses for those that can’t control them. By this belief, criminals fulfill a specific social function and, through committing heinous acts, prevent even more heinous acts from occurring. If Freud and Durkheim’s perspectives are true, then we are drawn to the real crime genre because it allows us to enact our darkest desires — the desires we keep hidden from the world — while maintaining a distance from actual murder. Perhaps we unconsciously recognize ourselves in these murderers and understand that it only takes one moment to snap. True crime may also speak to our survivalist tendencies: only the fittest and the best survive. It is a reminder that we are indeed alive, and thus our interest in true crime becomes as macabre and psychological as the crimes themselves.
Whatever our reasons for devouring crime narratives may be, it may be time to question whether we are exploiting real people and their stories for our own uncharitable entertainment purposes. This December marks the 20th anniversary of JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year old girl who was strangled to death in her house during the Christmas holidays. Ramsey is a household name, not only because her family was incredibly wealthy, but because despite how young she was, she was somewhat of a pageant star. Her mother, Patsy Ramsey (who died in 2006) received backlash for sexualizing and objectifying her daughter, while her father, John Ramsey, is believed by many to have been involved in JonBenét’s death (he was the one who found her body in the basement). While John Ramsey is a suspect, the cold case is made more complicated by the fact that a ransom note was left in the house, that there were 38 sex offenders living within two miles of the Ramsey household and that the Colorado police mishandled and contaminated the JonBenét’s body and subsequently the forensic evidence. Even more alarming, numerous people have falsely confessed to committing the crime. And let’s not forget, she had a “jealous” brother.
While it is understandable that this unsolved mystery would torture people years after the fact — and to be sure, we should be tortured by this case. She was a beautiful, talented, six-year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her — I wonder when, if ever, we should let our obsession go. I’m not necessarily saying that the police should stop looking for her killer (although one might argue that attempting to solve a 20-year-old case might not be the most productive way to allot police resources). Rather, when I say “we” should let this go, I’m referring to “we” as the viewers, the spectators, the people who have the luxury of watching from our living rooms, nonchalantly finishing our Math homework during commercial breaks.
A recent New York Times article reveals the litany of shows that will soon be released focused on the JonBenét Ramsey case. One of them, A&E’s documentary “The Killing of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered” was broadcasted last week. This Monday, Investigation Discovery begins a three night special entitled “JonBenet: A Murder Mystery” rehashing the known details of the murder. Dr. Phil is also interviewing JonBenet’s brother, Burke Ramsey, on Monday, while CBS is airing a special called “The Case of JonBenet Ramsey” next Sunday. According to the article, Lifetime is also planning a movie based on the case, and surely there will be more.
The media and its minions (us) knows no boundaries and has no qualms about capitalizing on the death of a six-year-old girl. When does an influx of exposure become detrimental instead of being effective? Programming about the O.J. Simpson murder case and trial was just as, if not more, pervasive than the programming involving JonBenet Ramsey, but it made sense to recapitulate O.J.’s criminal case. His trial revealed racial prejudices in the justice system when a nearly all-white jury was chosen to decide upon his fate in civil court, and racial discrepancies and favoritisms — especially within our justice system — are something we all need to be aware of. However, the Jon-Benet Ramsey case does not hold the same educational lessons. The fact remains that the truth will likely never be discovered, especially because the forensic evidence was contaminated. There is still a possibility for answers to be found, but at this point, to act as if our investment in watching sensationalist television shows and reading articles and books about JonBenet Ramsey stems from an intense need for justice is not only selfish: It’s criminal.