Stephen King is considered a master of the creepy and terrifying. The HBO show The Outsider, adapted from his novel of the same name, is like every horrific true crime story wrapped into one. Even worse, there is a mythical creature behind the child murders the show tries to solve, making it even scarier than the real stories we consume as fans of the genre. And this hooded man, who is wreaking havoc on innocent people in The Outsider, offers an explanation for the mysteries that plague us.
The Outsider begins with a brutal child murder, one of the worst acts imaginable. However, it seems that the killer has been found quickly and the case will be solved thanks to Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn). Community baseball coach and all-around loved father Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) has his DNA all over the scene, but he also has evidence he was in another town as the murder took place. The case continues to get more confusing when it seems like there were two different versions of Terry. Eventually, the detective’s investigation points to a mysterious figure that has the ability to take people’s DNA. But he refuses to believe it.
The murder of the young boy in The Outsider has similarities with very famous unsolved murders. The body was found in the woods, mutilated and apparently involving some kind of sexual element, which mirrors victims in both the West Memphis murders and the Atlanta Child Murders. Both are horrific and remain with so many unanswered questions to this day. To have the true culprit captured so early in The Outsider is as we wished had happened in those real cases. However, it also mirrors the fact that in those cases, the people brought in were not the actual killers. That false justice may seem like the answer to what happened to the victims, but it only opens up more questions.
As in the West Memphis and Atlanta Child Murders cases, irregularities in the investigation are what makes them so fascinating. The reason we keep coming back to those horrific stories is that we do not have all the answers. We want to find them, even if it just means creating a believable theory in our own minds. In some true crime cases, it can feel like there is someone in two places at once or the DNA simply cannot justify the theory that investigators have concocted. In order to solve those crimes, wrong people are convicted just to punish anyone for the crimes, but it does not erase the questions we have about what really happened. These mysteries haunt us and most are never fully answered, but The Outsider has an explanation for them in the form of a supernatural man.
This early on in the show, we don’t have a complete understanding of the hidden antagonist of the show, but we know enough to understand the impact he’s having on the community he haunts. Once he injures someone, he is able to assume that person’s identity, but only for a little while. He contains their DNA and leaves behind traces of them, as with fingerprints and blood. Eventually, though, his borrowed identity wears off and literately begins fading away on his face. He commits brutal murder before that happens and pins his actions on the innocent person whose identity he has assumed, without them ever knowing. That is until the real person is arrested for something they didn’t do.
This man or creature is unknowable at the present moment of the show, but he is at least something physical we can point to for the string of clues that don’t make sense. In The Outsider, there is a person to blame for an investigation following the wrong man. He is a being that Detective Anderson is chasing and that physicality is something only pulled off thanks to the supernatural tone of the show. The man they are trying to catch has the ability to do things unthinkable in our world. The real cases that involve child murders feel like they are only capable of someone who is not of this world as well. It feels impossible that a normal person could mutilate young boys. Three teens were targeted in the West Memphis case because they were believed to be acting with the supernatural in mind, by performing human sacrifices to the devil.
In true crime, acts of evil are more understandable when we can prescribe a somewhat supernaturally evil to them. If they are in the name of the Devil, they are not truly the act of humankind, and that can be a little comforting for people scarred by the gruesome child murders. Perhaps that’s why the man in The Outsider provides a reason for the crimes in the show without proving humans are capable of such things at the same time. He is terrifying, but he is not one of us and so it does not require us to question what we could be capable of if acting in the name of evil.
While investigators are also chasing a person they believe is the culprit in the crime, that person does not embody the consequences that a crime has on everyone involved. The man in The Outsider is also behind the lasting effect of the case on Terry’s family. He haunts his little girls at night. He embodies a version of their father they do not recognize but cannot fathom to be anyone else. Despite Terry’s innocence, this man continues to ruin Terry’s family, just as real cases do to those who have been proven innocent.
Detective Anderson is also plagued with the mysterious man’s presence. He threatens Anderson’s wife in their own home. The pressure to solve the murder and catch this guy is not the normal pressure every cop feels to find justice. There is someone threatening to uproot Anderson’s life unless he backs away from the case. Having a physical being looming over the detective and his wife is so terrifying because it actualizes a fear we have when cases go unsolved. That person could still be out there, that danger still exists, and in The Outsider, it is looming in the shadows.
In true crime documentaries, we never get to see the real killer as they are evading capture. All we see is what the cops know, and when that is very little, it creates a tragedy that is unexplainable. In this drama, the audience gets to see glimpses of the hooded man that is to blame for everything going on in this town. He may remain anonymous and mysterious, but at least we have some hope that Detective Anderson will catch up to him. The Outsider is as frightening as it is suspenseful but still offers a more coherent narrative to a horrific crime than we usually ever get in real life.
You can watch The Outsider Sundays on HBO.