Ethics over morals? The dangerous nature of true crime

By Gloria Marie Alcantara, 12th Grade

In our modern day, the genre that we know as “true crime” has been rising in popularity in the past years, gaining more and more followers as we speak. Found in the form of TV shows,  podcasts, docu-series, and more, the myriad of stories of the lowest forms of humanity on our Earth is among the fastest-growing entertainment genres with tales of terror across all platforms. And with a market that is growing indefinitely at a crazy rate, there will come a time where profit is eventually made at the retelling of real-life crimes and the check that comes from it is of more priority than treating the subject with care. When it comes to creating and even the mere act of consuming true crime, there comes a time where a question must be asked: Is the very nature of the true crime genre inherently exploitative in its nature,  and what line must be drawn at the creation of the content?

If you are not familiar with the infamous genre, true crime is a nonfiction genre in which the author examines an actual crime, detailing the actions of the individuals associated with and affected by the criminal events. The way these examinations are made can vary depending on the author, and most stories revolve around the brutal murder of an individual. With this definition in mind,  one can wonder how such a genre has gained so much notoriety over the others. Researcher and author Coltan Scrivner states that the popularity of true crime, the success of horror films, and the quantity of violence in the news suggest that “morbid curiosity is a common psychological trait.” It feeds on our natural desire to solve puzzles and mysteries. It also gives us an insight into why other people may act the way they do and allows us to examine the darker sides of humanity from a safe distance. 

With this term now defined, it is clear to understand where the ethical dilemma of the true crime genre can be questioned, and rightfully so. If one is not careful, those who engage in true crime could easily be digesting a “story” that has been disgustingly romanticized for socio-economic gain. This is not a “story,” this is a painful part of the victim’s relatives’ lives that they’re reminded of over and over again without their consent. A common problem within true crime content is that the creators have the tendency of romanticizing the murderers in the “tale.” It is already a phenomenon within itself, going by the name of hybristophilia, but its effects are even more accelerated with the growing podium that has become true crime. The media consistently keeps the focus on the lives of serial killers and the ways they were raised, including in-depth discussions on their killing methods and weapons. Despite this part of the story being the most sensitive, those who consume this media seem to be the most eager for this part, seeing their victims as just faceless bodies waiting to be desecrated. For example, killers that happen to be conventionally attractive, like Richard Ramirez and Ted Bundy, have gained despicable defenders during their times when they were alive, and such followers are seen to this day. 

Crime-centric entertainment and its fast-evolving market in the past 20 years can be evidence of a shift in the minds of our society to how we react to crude and explicit content. The fact that such crimes have been publicized in various outlets like the big screen and kept on the trending page for months, and yet we still keep wanting more signifies a lack of sensitivity to these tragedies. The concern of desensitization arises as movies and shows based on famous crimes are sometimes made just months after the tragedy occurred. An example of this can be the 2003 drama film: The Elizabeth Smart Story. This film was released for television 8 months after the rescue and recovery of Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped and kept as a prisoner for 9 months by perpetrators Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. This behavior is also seen in our modern times. The Gabby Petito Story, a movie by Lifetime, was set to release this Saturday, even though it has barely been a year since 22-year-old Gabby Petito was murdered by her fiance back in August 2021. Both of these cases were highly publicized by high-ranking officials and news outlets, so to claim that the main purpose of these films was to educate and bring light to these tragedies would be a lie that is too easy to not detect. A bigger wound is made to those affected by the tragedy when these films don’t even try to pretend to care about the victims by exaggerating the happenings or even fabricating details to make the story more “interesting.” A devastating and brutal murder, usually of a young woman, is not deemed “interesting enough” to make money out of it. If that is not an issue that must be discussed in the entertainment industry, I would really like to know what is. 

With that said, have the loved ones of the victims portrayed in true crime content spoken at all about the mishaps of the genre? Are they being listened to by the producer at all? Even being considered? Unfortunately, the answer is not one you’d expect to hear. The newest true crime docu-series trending in the charts is Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, released by Netflix this past September. The limited series recounts the murders of the Milwaukee Cannibal, his upbringing, and the legal investigation and court proceedings that led to his arrest. The families of Dahmer’s victims have been outspoken about the docu-series, stating how scenes have “re-traumatized” them. One of the cousins of the victims has exclaimed on Twitter: “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need? Like, recreating my cousin having an emotional breakdown in court in the face of the man who tortured and murdered her brother is WILD. WIIIIIILD. The cousin of Errol Lindsey, one of the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer, followed up his tweet by stating that “they don’t notify families when they do this”, confirming my point all along. The victims of the crimes that still remain, that still suffer every day from this tragedy, that must withstand the glorification of the murderer that ruined their lives and ended the lives of the ones they loved, must consistently handle the producers of these films sidelining their morals for profit. An entire form of entertainment is built off the back of the capability of putting your morals aside for the sake of making money, and most importantly, of the thousands of victims who were failed by the officials who were meant to protect them. 

Now, we can answer the initial question: Is the very nature of the true crime genre inherently exploitative in its nature, and what line must be drawn at the creation of the content? The first one truly depends on who makes the content. Although it’s composed by the minority, some true crime documentaries can have some benefits when it comes to being aware of the dangers of our culture and recognizing times when our justice system has shown its tremendous flaws when it comes to protecting these victims. This is not the purpose most of the time, and that has to change. If our society really desires these positive qualities to overshadow the obvious negative ones, a line must be drawn at the creation of true crime content, and it must be done fast before more damage is induced.



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