The ‘Serial’ era: When your family tragedy is dramatised for pop culture

People have been murdering each other for millennia, and for just about as long, we’ve been fascinated by murder. True crime is, arguably, one of the original pop culture art forms — a subject of visual art, plays, broadsheets, penny dreadfuls, lengthy books, newspaper serials, radio dramas, television shows, and of course podcasts. People love reading about murder and mayhem, and when it takes place in real life, so much the better. It’s not a coincidence that newspapers were able to leverage Jack the Ripper to increase their profile, or that Truman Capote grew well-known for In Cold Blood

Murder crosses a strange kind of cultural threshold — among those of us who have never committed it, it feels like the last taboo. Whether in cold blood or in the heat of the moment, the thought of killing another human being is chilling, and for those of us who are related to or closely tied to murderers, there is a complexity, a pull, that true crime can create. A window into the lives of people who kill — and the people they killed. The subjects of true crime documentaries cannot, of course, consent to their inclusion in such works of pop culture, but neither can their families and loved ones.

Some people are interested in seeing the stories of the deceased told, and they may cooperate with the people creating works of true crime media. They sit down for interviews, open their homes, allow journalists to leaf through photo albums and watch home movies. The wealth of material they provide enriches the final product, creating a vivid picture of what the victim’s life was like, and who the victim was before the murder.

Yet, not all families are interested in cooperating. Some would prefer to be left alone, both in the immediate wake of the murder and in subsequent decades. They refuse media requests and request that members of the public not hound them with lurid speculation, and it hurts to see the deaths of their loved ones chewed over in the news over and over again, followed by a slew of true crime productions that exploit the murder for entertainment and profit, feeding on the macabre fascination with death and the fixation on murderers.

I was recently really struck by an essay in The Guardian by Lauren Bradford, who wrote about what it was like to have the raw wound of her mother’s murder ripped open in the name of true crime production The Secret. She was hasty to articulate that there’s a clear public interest benefit to reporting honestly on news, and that crime is obviously news and something worthy of discussing in the media. But, she argued, crossing over into the use of death as something for entertainment ignores the fact that the dead have survivors, and that for them, it’s incredibly painful to be surrounded by constant reminders that the public finds the death of their loved ones to be entertaining.

Yet the reality of murder on the families involved is much more sobering, traumatic and, well, messier than is often projected on our screens. Behind the high viewing figures, whether for fiction or the coverage of real crimes, there are people living with murder bereavement on a daily basis. And an intrusive media experience can often compound this original trauma. If deemed ‘a good enough story,’ private grief becomes public property.

Grief, public and private, is an incredibly complicated subject in modern society, where, notably, people are supposed to button it up and return to normal life as quickly as possible, rather than wallowing in it. For people like Bradford, though, the dramatisation of a real thing that affected her actual family made it impossible to avoid the memories of that incident, instead hammering it home again and again. It was entertainment media, it was something the media discussed, it was something brought up in their daily lives. A private matter turned into an aggressively public one.

For some families, maybe that’s fine; some people derive immense benefit from being open about traumatic experiences and sharing them with the public. After all, the memoir is also a very ancient and well-respected genre. Some grieving families want the public to think about the deaths of their loved ones, especially when it comes to situations where the public is complicit in how their family members came to die, as for example when disabled people are murdered and their deaths are not properly investigated because law enforcement are indifferent.

Other families, however, want privacy. And their requests for privacy are not honoured in cases like these, where they can easily be overridden without consent; the murder is regarded as part of the public commons, as are the lives of family members who were or are in the news. Testimony at inquests and other aspects of the public record are available for adaptation and creative reuse, and creators are also free to attempt to gather their own evidence, including interviews with people surrounding a case, and other information that they feel will enrich their stories.

That means a highly intrusive world in which people are never really left to process the deaths of their loved ones on their own terms. When people know families and loved ones of victims, this kind of media also creates an incentive to hound the people they know about the gory details — after all, it was on a podcast that millions of people listen to, so surely they’d like to share. Wherever people go, they are followed by invasive reminders that their private lives, and their dead, don’t matter.

There’s a complicated balance in the media — I don’t support suppression of creative work and would never argue that true crime should be banned or even regulated, because that strays too close to limiting freedom of the press for my liking. I’m also hesitant to cast categorical value judgments on what is and isn’t ‘in good taste.’ But situations like this do make me wish that we encouraged people to exercise a little more discretion in the media they choose to make, and how they choose to present it.

Image: Chalk Outline, Ben Smith, Flickr