The True Crime Dilemma

The world craves true crime. Our thirst for it is apparent in the dozens of Serial-adjacent investigative podcasts and no fewer than 20 seasons of the headline-ripping procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. As of this week, there’s also a Hot Ted Bundy Discourse. That’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d have to write, but the combined powers of Netflix algorithms and Twitter’s tendency to default to either outrage or horniness made it so.

If you missed it, the topics at hand are two new projects centered on the life and crimes of prolific serial killer Ted Bundy. The first, The Ted Bundy Tapes, is a four-episode docuseries that debuted on Netflix last week. The second, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, is a narrative film starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins — the trailer for which dropped days before its Sundance debut. Both are directed by Joe Berlinger, a longtime true crime filmmaker who most famously directed the integral, justice-seeking Paradise Lost documentaries that ultimately helped free the West Memphis Three.

Depending on who you ask, Ted Bundy either was or wasn’t hot and it either does or doesn’t matter. There are points to be made there, but the unexpected discussion calls to question larger concerns about true crime’s spot in the zeitgeist. In our eternal craving for more true crime content, when do we cross over from armchair investigators to shameless rubberneckers? What’s the difference between an ethical and unethical presentation of — and on viewers’ end, consumption of — real violent crimes?

When a portrayal of real-life tragedy crosses over from informative to being in bad taste, tone usually has a lot to do with it. The Extremely Wicked trailer showcases a grinning Efron and borders on comedic, a whiplash-inducing shift from the serious Netflix documentary which immediately turned some people off. Yet focus on Bundy’s looks and apparent affability makes sense since those are factors that empowered him to get away with so many heinous crimes for so long, weapons of distraction that during his lifetime kept audiences hypnotized by his story and in some cases convinced of his innocence. Real violence should never be outright funny, but rarely — as in retellings of press-heavy true stories like I, Tonya or even The People vs. O.J. Simpson — a darkly comic edge can serve a larger point about our own boundary-crossing cultural obsession with morbid stories. Think about the drunk and celebratory crowds that The Ted Bundy Files shows camped out for Bundy’s execution; at this point, retellings of his life would be negligible if they didn’t skewer sensationalistic media coverage along with the killer himself.

So, tone matters, but maybe it’s not the bottom line dividing a normal preoccupation with true crime — one that’s rooted in something rational like a passion for social justice or a knack for piecing together clues — from one that’s unhealthy and unethical (see, again, Hot Ted Bundy fans). Early in the post-Serial true crime boom, perceived prestige was a heavy indicator of how much a docuseries might satisfy viewers’ morbid curiosity without devolving into a lurid cash grab. Just as critical readers know there’s a valley of difference between TMZ and the Associated Press, any crime junkie worth their salt would know that hour-long cable docuseries with dramatic narrators and a dozen commercial breaks were, quality-wise, a far cry from the comprehensive, investigative docuseries airing on HBO or Netflix.

With January’s release of The Ted Bundy Tapes and Surviving R. Kelly, our subconscious established standard for true crime media literacy doesn’t hold up. Lifetime has long been known for soapy, corny original movies, but the R. Kelly exposé was a departure: important, engrossing, and exclusive in much of its information. On the other hand, Netflix’s most recognized crime docuseries, including Making A Murderer, Wild, Wild Country, and The Keepers, are comprehensive investigative projects focused on little-known cases, while, The Ted Bundy Tapes is an abridged retelling of a hugely famous story that offers relatively few new insights. Despite our tendency to make ourselves feel better by labeling it as such, visual art never quite fits neatly into the categories of “trashy” and “prestige,” and true crime series are no different.

Aside from perceived humor and potential trashiness, there’s another polarizing factor of the true crime genre: empathy, or lack thereof. People hate to think of serial killers as humans, so any humanizing moment is uncomfortable and is often mistaken for a filmmaker’s over-identification with the killer. It would be easier for us to just see a movie where Ted Bundy is killing people the whole way through than it would be to sit through one that shows him having a family that loves him because we have families who love us. The same principle, oddly, explains the morbid curiosity that draws so many of us to stories like Bundy’s: an urge to understand how a human like him could exist, to learn the dry scientific patterns of his pathology and by doing so allow ourselves to imagine a more orderly, explainable universe. Take it one step further and you’ve got schadenfreude, a sick joy or feeling of affirmation in having escaped the misery that befell someone else. This is by no means a decent reason to consume true crime stories, but it is a very real one that’s empowered by our fear-driven news cycle.

Empathy cuts both ways, and true crime has in the past been guilty both of over-empathizing with the bad guys and under-empathizing with their victims. While early reviews out of Sundance indicate that Extremely Wicked falls into neither of these categories, responsibly portraying all involved, there will always be another fresh-from-the-headlines true story around the corner, ripe for the retelling. Another new Sundance film, Mope, tells “the shocking true story” of a porn career that ends in murder and suicide by police. As a part of its advertising, condoms emblazoned with the film’s title were handed out. People are also describing it as a comedy. Later this year, noted controversy-courter and gore-lover Quentin Tarantino is taking on the story of the death of Sharon Tate, whose real-life murder kicked off a victim’s rights movement, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These might end up being responsibly told, entertaining or informative movies, or they might not, but we know there will be more where they come from.

The bottom line is this: true crime is about real people whose lives were undisputedly changed for the worse by the events of the story in front of us. We think about the tragedy for a week or a day or maybe even the length of time it takes for Netflix to queue up another series, but the people affected and their loved ones think about it every day. Do responsibly told stories about serial killers and criminals have value? Certainly. If you need proof, look to books like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark or the CBC podcast Missing and Murdered. The former has a true crime credo we’d do well to take note of, whether we seek entertainment or information: “I’ve always been aware of the fact that…I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy.” McNamara says, “So like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make.” Her requirements are simple, yet rare: doggedness, insight, and humanity.

Valerie Ettenhofer: @aandeandval Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.