Digital Culture

The True Crime Trend: Sickening Fixation, or Social Commentary?

by Liv McHarrie

The true crime fascination is no longer taboo but a common place source of entertainment. This trend has risen through the ranks, from the darker corners of Reddit to the heights amongst podcasts that now dominate listening platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. True crime is now the talk of the town as a result of its more recent transformation into the infamous Netflix Documentary – of which most of the population seems to engage with and subsequently tweet about with a fervent mania that has fans attempting to take up the mantle of P.I. 

Whilst it is the Netflix Documentary that has wrought the more recent fascination, the podcast has long dominated the true crime scene. The beginning of said ‘scene’, although hard to pin down, is often attributed to the podcast Serial which began in October of 2014. It immediately had a viral impact, as the host, Sarah Hoenig, talks us through two seasons of fairly anonymous murders; the first being the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee – an eighteen-year-old student – and the second following the murder of an American Army soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for five years.

Already, the podcast begins a discussion that moves away from the typical narrative of the psychopathic serial killer, but this abnormality is distinguished in season three of  Serial.  In an unusual move, they decided to follow cases that involved the Criminal Justice Complex within the state of Cleveland. This, in turn, launched conversations surrounding the injustices faced within the prison system whilst acknowledging the crimes that instigated its survival.

This led to the popularisation of the “socially conscious” murder schtick, which now dominates podcasts across all platforms. However, the Netflix Documentary has seemingly found it harder to follow, instead releasing documentaries that have been frequently criticised for their idolisation of the sycophantic killers within the true crime narrative. A prime example is Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which Guardian writer Lucy Mangan called ‘a Bundy monologue’, as the documentary hones in on him with a garish spotlight. The heavy focus on Ted Bundy and his so-called ‘charm’ comes across as freakishly reverent and displaces any interest in his numerous, voiceless victims. Serving none of the critique that its podcast brethren offer up, this particular documentary falls frighteningly tone deaf. 
That is not to say that the true crime fascination must be condemned. When utilised properly, it has been wielded to discuss topics that open up its parameters as a sickening fixation and is instead utilised to discuss issues such as domestic abuse, the impact of toxic masculinity, and of course, the injustices that occur daily within the Criminal Justice System. So, if you enjoy listening to the twists of an unsolved murder on your walk to work, don’t blush, but perhaps think over whether your favourite podcaster is saying all that needs to be said.

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