Why are true crime dramas becoming our new guilty pleasures?

It’s all about true crime this January as colleagues stumble into work like zombies having been up all night binge watching Making A Murderer. This latest Netflix must-see comes in the
aftermath of stellar true crime shows, The Jinx and Serial. What is making true crime so hot, asks Ed Power 

The year has had its first water cooler moment with the success of Making A Murderer, the Netflix documentary exposing the seemingly wrongful conviction of small-time Wisconsin criminal Steven Avery.

As anyone who has ventured near the internet in the past two weeks will testify, the documentary, released with little fanfare on December 18, has become a phenomenon — fuelling endless online discussion and pet theories, and a clamour for a review of Avery’s 2005 murder trial.

The popularity of Making A Murderer has not occurred in a vacuum. Last year, HBO, the American network behind Game Of Thrones, had a huge hit with The Jinx, which told of the alleged crimes of real estate millionaire Robert Durst while around the world listeners are still reeling from the first season of the Serial podcast and the doubts it raised over the conviction of high school student Adnan Syed for the murder of his girlfriend in 1999.

Robert Durst
Robert Durst

We are, it is clear, in the midst of a spree of compelling true crime shows. And the onslaught is just beginning. In February, the FX network will debut American Crime Story, a fictionalised retelling of the OJ Simpson murder trial starring John Travolta and Friends’ David Schwimmer (sports broadcaster ESPN is preparing its own OJ doc). Avoiding the true crime genre is going to be murderously difficult in the months ahead.

Long regarded as the whodunit’s gaucher cousin-twice-removed, true crime is all of a sudden respectable and inescapable. No doubt this is in part testament to the creative talent responsible for the documentaries listed above: it would take a stony soul not to be deeply moved by Making A Murderer’s laying bare of America’s brutal and callous criminal justice system. Yet something else is surely at play also. Having languished beyond the bounds of polite taste why has true crime suddenly captured the imagination?

“All crime stories, fictional or true, claim that there’s more to life than meets the eye,” says Cormac O Cuilleanain, a professor at Trinity College who writes true crime as “Cormac Millar”. “Whether fact or fiction, these stories strip off the outer layers, and let us bite into the soft underbelly of guilt.”

Shot over a decade, Making A Murderer is indeed an often gruesome experience to sit through. It also has the “couldn’t make it up” quality that characterises the best true crime. Having served 18 years for the rape of a woman attacked while running near her home in 1985, Steven Avery was finally freed when DNA evidence established his innocence. However, shortly after filing a $36m wrongful incarceration lawsuit he was arrested again — accused of a murder it seemed, on the face of it, unlikely he would commit (and for which he continues to languish behind bars).

Steven Avery
Steven Avery

“In a good fictional crime story, we get a personal plot with a wide resonance,” says O Cuilleanain. “If it’s true crime, then the story is limited to hard facts, which can make it less gripping. But in practice, the two genres, fictional crime and true crime, are often interchangeable.

“Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is based on true stories of political malpractice in mid-century Los Angeles, and as we follow the personal lives of Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, we also grasp universal themes of greed and scandal that we can also find close to home. The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is also based on true facts, though the names of survivors have been changed. It’s a work of art, and a true picture of a sad world.”

“The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us — fear,” writes criminology professor Scott Bonn in Time magazine.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real. For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children. Moreover, by following an investigation on TV, people can play armchair detective .”

As it happens The Jinx and Making A Murderer do have precedents — though these tend to be literary rather than screen-based.

Truman Capote’s 1966 classic In Cold Blood may, for instance, stands on a pedestal as one of the great non-fiction books of the 20th century — yet it is also a visceral true crime yarn that enthusiastically delves into the specifics of the murders at its centre.

What’s different is that the internet did not exist when In Cold Blood was published. Thus, Capote’s musings as to the guilt or innocence of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who received the death sentence for the 1959 killings of the Herbert Clutter family in Kansas, were not chewed over endlessly on Reddit.

In Ireland, the Graham Dwyer murder trial — the horrific details of which surely outstripped even the sickest imagination — have added a further frisson, says Niamh O’Connor, crime journalist-turned-author. Dwyer was found guilty last year of the murder of Elaine O’Hara, who he had met through a fetish website and with whom he had conducted a violent sexual relationship.

Graham Dwyer
Graham Dwyer

“When you have an extraordinary real life drama playing out in the courts, like say the Graham Dwyer trial did in this country, where headlines are dominated by stuff fiction writers cannot make up, it definitely fosters an interest in the genre,” she says.

“Plus, the Serial podcast in 2014 captivated people who maybe wouldn’t have been interested in true crime stories by dramatising, in the best fictional sense of the word, the doubts about the real-life murder conviction of Adnan Syed.

"The fact that a real individual’s freedom was at stake just heightened the tension.

Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed

“Making A Murderer is put together with the classic story values of a noir film,” adds O Cuilleanain. “ It’s partly the way that the story reinforces the sense of ingrained institutional injustice that we saw in The Shawshank Redemption.

“It’s partly that details and bits of evidence point in two opposite directions, each equally disturbing. What really stuck in my throat is that justice can be bought and sold. A person’s fate depends on being rich enough to hire the best lawyers. That’s a crime in itself.”


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