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  • Writer's pictureCavendish Chronicle

Serialising the Homicidal Maniac: An Ethical Quandary?

By Joe Short A 2021 Adweek report highlighted the rapid rise of true crime as one of Netflix's most popular genres, specifically among younger viewers, with 32.8% of content consumers aged 19-29 identifying 'True Crime' as their preferred documentary genre. The rise of crime dramas, podcasts and other forms of media raises a host of ethical concerns, both in relation to production practices and public engagement and criminal justice, the latter of which I was privileged enough to discuss with an experienced forensics practitioner, Dr Robert Gowland.

'Monster': An abdication of ethical responsibility? Serial killer TV drama Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022) has been in the news recently and, at face value, for all the wrong reasons. Ed Power of The Telegraph gives Ryan Murphy's series a 2-star rating, locating its problem in "[setting] itself the challenge of being entirely unwatchable." Within the review, he also taps into the central debate surrounding the show, specifically in questioning the "value of delving into the agony and ecstasy of Jeffrey Dahmer." This poses an important question in relation to the nature of true crime media: is there any purpose in making it, and do the pitfalls outweigh the benefits? For close relations of Dahmer's victims, the exploitative nature of this show is clear-cut. One key complication is that, given the Dahmer trial's extensive coverage, much of the information to it is on the public record. Regardless, victims' families are furious. "I don't see how they can use our names and put stuff out there," said Shirley Hughes, the 85-year-old mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring model lured to Dahmer's apartment and killed in cold blood in May 1991, in an interview with The Guardian. Shockingly, the families of victims depicted in Monster received no compensation or notification when the series began production. "My cousins wake up every few months with a bunch of calls and messages and they know there's another Dahmer show. It's cruel," remarked Eric Perry, cousin of Errol Lindsay who was tragically killed by Dahmer at the young age of 19, on the human cost of shows like Monster. Rita Isbell, Linday's sister, is also critical in her assessment of the project. "I could even understand it if [Netflix] gave some of the money to the victims' children... If the show benefitted them in some way, it wouldn't feel so harsh and careless." Meanwhile, producer of Monster and President of the Color of Change, a US-based racial justice organisation, Rashad Robinson defended his intentions. In his September 2022 interview with Netflix, he explained his aims to, among other things, enforce the "humanity of victims and their families" and, through the actors portraying Ronald Flowers and Glenda Cleveland, demonstrate how society "doesn't treat the people who should be the protagonists in our stories as protagonists." While Robinson summarised his aims as charting the narrative shift from "victimisation to aspiration," the question remains: to what extent is this achieved? A useful way of addressing this question is to look at how audiences have responded to the series. One example is a video posted on TikTok entitled "Jeff's crush," containing edited of a Monster side-plot that depicts Dahmer humanely in his high school years. The video, which has received just shy of 750,000 likes on the platform, is posted alongside tags like "#evanpetersismyhusband." Considering this, maybe a re-examination of the message Monster is sending, and how it conveys that message, is required. Geoff Hamilton, in a submission for the Canadian Review of American Studies (2010), points out that notable serial killers have by now achieved a "level of name recognition and 'brand' prominence to be envied by any Hollywood actor." The question we should now be asking is - why? My best answer relates to the rise of true crime podcasting. One massively popular example, "Serial", is an investigatory podcast hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig. By March 2017, its episodes boasted a whopping 175 million listeners, precipitating a flood of new true crime podcasts dubbed the 'serial effect'. Kelli S. Bolling's 2020 research on the impact of the true crime podcast quantifies the "serial effect": from 2014 to 2020, over 200 true crime podcasts were launched, occupying many of the spots on the Top 20 podcast chart on iTunes. Of their listeners, 65% are women, who often refer to themselves as "Murderinos" - true crime "junkies." This phenomenon is highly significant given its relation to the viewing demographics of other true crime media, whether in movie or other forms. Ella R. Johnson fleshes out this debate: her article on the female "Romanticisation of Violent Male Offenders" finds its roots in psychological factors. As a result of "processing and reprocessing the childhood histories and subsequent actions of serial killers [...] women find themselves moving on to the next Ted Bundy documentary, to excitedly repeat the process of seeking an explanation for why angry men viciously target women." 'Extremely Wicked': A tool for improving societal awareness surrounding violence towards women? Joseph Berlinger's 2019 drama film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, centers around the crimes of Ted Bundy. The titular serial killer murdered over twenty young women (this is the estimated figure, the real figure is likely to be higher) for his own gratification. As a result, female fascination surrounding serial killers forms a key part of the film's cultural fabric and, in some respects, addresses it in a socially sensitive sensitive way. One example is the story of Elizabeth Kendall, Bundy's girlfriend from 1969 to 1974, which is one of survival. After intervention from Kendall's attorneys, she was able to collaborate with Berlinger and Lily Collins, who portrayed her in the film. The sharing of memories and photos meant she was happy with the finished product, which served as a springboard for later projects like the 2020 Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer docuseries, re-examining the Bundy murders with the recognition of gender norms and expectations in the 1970s - it included the participation of Bundy survivors and Elizabeth's daughter, Molly. This is evidence of the positive impact that true crime media can have in terms of empowering female voices in stereotypically egocentric male narratives of serial killing, setting a positive precedent for the future media of this genre. The Hollywood-shaped problem It is nonetheless disappointing that, despite these positive strides on the part of Extremely Wicked, one glaring issue remains: problematic Hollywood production practices.

"The dominating A-list presence of Efron [...] results in female characters being portrayed as naïve caricatures, as opposed to the three-dimensional identities they should be afforded."

Cinematography plays an element in this, such as the camera lingering on Efron's Bundy in his charming, electric moments during the trial. This glorification is to the detriment of Bundy's victims and their stories, which should be at the center of any 'true crime' media. Particularly for a movie which grosses $100 million at the Box Office, there is a moral responsibility to communicate the killer's horrors to its millions of consumers. Perhaps the best example in Extremely Wicked is when, because of the film's exclusive cinematographic focus on Bundy, women become merely a framing device. Carole Ann Boone, Bundy's former wife, disappears for extended segments of the film, only finding her relevance and intrigue in the plot when physically with Bundy - not to mention that "groupies" are a feature of rarity on-screen. If Extremely Wicked sets out to demonstrate how one is drawn in by Bundy's "psychopathic seduction," it only does so in terms of Bundy's pre-established story arc. The dominating A-list presence of Efron, aside from the obvious Hollywood commercial quotas, results in female characters being portrayed as naïve caricatures, as opposed to the three-dimensional identities they should be afforded. A potential reprieve? True crime and social change There is, however, the argument that 'true crime' media can be a force for good. One example is the pressure that these podcasts can exert in order to draw attention to unsolved cases, as was the case when Series One of the 'Up and Vanished' podcast led the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to reopen investigation into the murder of Tara Grinstead. Ultimately, the podcast created the "necessary impetus" for Ryan Duke's arrest, according to Joshua Dudley's Forbes article on the case. He was eventually convicted of concealing a death and given the maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Dudley also cites an Australian example - "The Teacher's Pet", a true crime podcast in a similar vein to "Serial", aired audios of missing person Lynette Dawson and interviews of people who knew her, which garnered 28 million total downloads and led to the arrest of her husband, Chris Dawson, on charges of murder. In this sense, true crime media can encourage public involvement and interest in open cases, often aiding in the process of delivering justice. Industry expert on true crime media and its impact on forensic science: A double-edged sword To investigate the bearings of the true crime media on law enforcement, I spoke to an experienced forensics practitioner, Dr. Robert Gowland, who provided insight on the impact the public's morbid curiosity has had on the operations of, and perceptions surrounding, forensic evidence and the wider criminal justice system. On one side of the argument, he identifies lots of positive aspects of true crime on forensic work. Firstly, it is the "greatest recruitment tool imaginable" and, to an extent, ensures a steady stream of staff. Most prominently to the affirmative, it assists with public engagement: Dr Gowland provides the example of the high profile "Golden State Killer" case, raising the important issue of the rising popularity of DNA genealogy websites. In this case, had the case remained "solely in court transcripts and forensic casefiles, far fewer people would have been aware of the potential power and risks of forensic genealogy," and its bearings on civil liberties, a discussion which is important for our society to have. Finally, the principle of transparency within forensic science is helped by true crime programmes like Forensics: The Real CSI, which play a role in "making the forensic industry more transparent and understandable." This insight certainly has bearings on true crime's capacity for social good, specifically in relation to improving the tools and operations of forensic investigation. However, the central issue Dr. Gowland identifies in the impact true crime has on forensics is "how reality affects fantasy and vice versa." He details how the duty of a reporting forensic scientist, to "accurately communicate the scientific evidence" and "interpret those findings" so juries can draw the most accurate conclusions possible, could be impacted by the associated "CSI effect". This manifests as a juror's over-emphasis on DNA, gunshot residue or fingerprint analysis over other forms of evidence, given true crime media's tendency to suggest forensic evidence "[cracks] a case" or is "crucial," which could then lead to the "potentially dangerous" expectations of forensic evidence in cases where there is none available. Dr. Gowland clarifies the fact that the "absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," and points to the fact that jurors may effectively have to "unlearn" what they have consumed regards true crime media to avoid the risk of misinterpretation; the role of a forensic scientist is just as much to report the facts as it is to highlight their limitations. Here we see a perspective on true crime as a kind of "poisoned chalice," whereby engagement with cases within the justice system can be compromised as a result of the biases or inconsistencies of TV production. From a more procedural perspective, Dr. Gowland was surprised at various fictions or absences of conventions of typical forensic procedures - fictions like DNA profiling taking 30 seconds, "rather than the 4-8 hours it took even in our most urgent cases", the CCTV "zoom and enhance function" so frequently used in fictional investigations, which he notes "many CCTV expert witnesses would be delighted to have," and absences like the many long hours waiting outside a courtroom to give evidence, and cleaning of a DNA-free laboratory to internationally regulated standards. Most striking, however, is Dr. Gowland's observation that if the "double-edged sword" of true crime truly wished to convey the reality of current forensic practice, it should document "ever-increasing court backlogs," the "appalling conviction and reporting rates for sexual and other offences," and the "fall from grace of the U.K's formerly world-beating forensic science." I echo his sentiment in that the fiction of made-for-TV criminal procedures are more appealing than the realities of the everyday, certainly containing the potential for wide-ranging ramifications. Conclusions True crime, in its various forms, can educate and increase access to, and transparency of, criminal justice. This even extends to docuseries and television dramas like Monster and Extremely Wicked. However, the mode by which this content is presented, specifically related to this 'serialising' the homicidal maniac, must change. This is both in terms of true crime media's production, with amoral Hollywood practices and attitudes clearly requiring revision, and in its focus, which should be squarely placed on victims, their families and those historically under-represented in the face of the dominating voice of killers and their stories. 'True crime' media has an intrinsic moral responsibility to educate and uplift which is not currently being met. I sincerely hope this changes.


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