Pulp NonfictionThe Unnerving Fascination with Prime-time True Crime

Illustration by Angie Wang

Illustration by Angie Wang

This article appears in our Spring 2013 issue, Pulp. Subscribe today!

Fear excites. It always has. That is, after all, its job: The adrenaline, the flush of excitement we feel when we’re afraid, is meant to save us from harm. Fight or flight as a primal reaction probably never required that much evolutionary honing. But there’s another form of excitement brought on by fear that is less direct and not related to survival instinct. There’s that voyeuristic tingle we feel upon witnessing harm perpetrated on another. When the 10 o’clock news reports about a body found in a ditch somewhere, we lean toward the TV, our senses sharpened, to hear more.

We read about a murder in the paper, and we disregard every other story on the front page, instead soaking in the grisly details in between bites of breakfast. This particular branch of fear-induced excitement may not serve any real purpose, but it’s certainly made its mark on popular culture. Investigation Discovery is an entire network devoted to documentary-style true-crime programming, covering elaborate cons, murders, and other tawdry tales via pulpy journalism like On the Case with Paula Zahn, broadcast newsmagazines like Dateline, and original crime dramatizations like Final Witness and Wives with Knives.

Other networks like OWN, truTV, Biography Channel, NBC, and A&E have their own true-crime television offerings, but ID is the only network entirely dedicated to them. Most of ID’s programs deal with crimes against and harm done to women—watching for just a few hours can feel like watching a marathon of women being assaulted, manipulated, and found dead next to rivers. ID’s viewership is in the millions—an astounding number for cable. And many of these viewers are women. By 2012, ID showed a 45 percent increase since 2011 in the 18- to 49-year-old female viewer demographic, making it number four in daytime delivery and outperforming larger networks.

ID’s president, Henry Schleiff, crowed in a 2012 press release that it’s becoming a “major player in the competition for female viewers,” with programming that reflects “real-life drama that our female audiences crave…as ID quickly becomes the number one guilty pleasure for women.” But are ID viewers discouraged from synthesizing reality in favor of believing spooky, misleading anecdotes? Do these programs educate and sharpen our antennae for danger, or do we just feel more scared and disconnected afterward? When “truth” is buried in bias, sensationalism, and comforting mythology and then delivered with cinematic finesse, it’s tempting to embrace reality as fiction.

“The more we think we’re not affected by media—stereotypes, advertising—the more potential those forms of media have,” says Jennifer L. Pozner, media literacy expert and author of Reality Bites Back. “Of course it affects our empathy if we think we’re too smart to be affected.”

Ambivalence comes at a high cost. When you pair the formula for such impressive ratings (misogyny, abuse, and psychological and physical exploitation) with real-life statistics about sexual violence and crime, you might get queasy. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, one in five women in the United States has been raped—that’s almost 22 million. And 42.4 million women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking, with assault and murder disproportionately affecting trans women and women with disabilities. Only a fraction of cases are reported and brought to trial.

Michael Peterson in “The Staircase”

Michael Peterson in The Staircase (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

But ID viewers aren’t exposed to these realities—instead, they get vetted anecdotes about assault, sexualized corpses, and manipulative vamps, as well as twisted object lessons about violence and crime. And while the popularity of these shows has continued to increase, a look into their use of troubling tropes proves that, when it comes to women, our cultural relationship with fear, excitement, and true crime hasn’t evolved at all. If anything, it’s moving backwards.

A True-Crime Takeover

According to Harold Schechter’s 2005 book Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, grisly dime museums and escapist penny dreadfuls were 18th-century forebear for murder as cultural pastime. Schechter traces murder ballads—typically starring rapists, child-killing madwomen, and resentful husbands—back to Victorian England. These “Elizabethan equivalents of supermarket tabloids” were equally popular in the United States, illustrating unchecked male fantasies and warning women about the mortal dangers of impropriety.

The American author Edmund Pearson expanded the crime genre’s preoccupation with middle-class bad behavior in his 1924 book, Studies in Murder. Although his work depended on the authenticity of trial records and newspaper accounts, the characters were complex, the stories detailed and addictive—the most famous essay chronicled the case of the wealthy Lizzie Borden, acquitted of axe murder. Highly instrumental in presenting crime as amusement, Pearson helped create Hollywood’s caterwauling, doomed Bride of Frankenstein years later.

Based on these shows, you’d never know that most women are raped by acquaintances and that their attackers almost never serve jail time. Creating a 30-minute arc out of the uncomfortable reality of a premeditated, unprosecuted assault by an acquaintance is a tough sell.

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Elsewhere, Gertrude Stein was intrigued by the artistry of Borden and the boundary-pushing tenets of feminine criminality, publishing “American Crimes and How They Matter” in New York’s Herald Tribune in 1935. She identified the two kinds of crime that people cared about: “The crime hero and the crime mystery—all the other crimes everybody forgets as soon as they find out who did them.” These days, the industry adage “fast, cheap, and good—pick any two” could easily apply to the millennial upswing in reality shows and the downturn of conscientious TV journalism. Mainstream media’s m.o. has been to scoop quickly and cover hyperbolically.

And in the past decade or so, the investigative-journalism industry has caught up. CBS’s 60 Minutes now offsets expensive, solid stories with fluff segments. NBC’s Dateline, once airing five nights a week, began eliminating time slots in 2001, a move that correlated with the boom of reality television (with a going rate of $200,000 for a half-hour, reality’s a steal compared with the $2 million production cost of an hour-long cable drama). Reality TV has been a thorn in the industry’s side for years; one of the demands of the 2008 Writers Guild of America strike was better WGA standards for reality programming (six out of the top 10 shows at the time)—a demand strikers ended up backing off of.

“Pick any two” claimed investigative journalism, once a venerated genre in both print and TV. In 1980, 60 Minutes was the top-rated show with 28.2 percent of Nielsen households. In 2011, it drew 7.4 percent. It’s worth noting that Investigation Discovery began in 2008, around the time when the nation’s print and TV journalism cut thousands of jobs. Conglomerate deference to sponsors, cutbacks, and reduction in investigative reporters (several original TV crusaders literally dying off), have shrunk journalism’s resources, as well as its spirit of adventurous reporting.

Along with the rise of the internet, thorough research and investigation couldn’t compete with emerging media’s immediacy. Newsmagazine topics shifted from malfeasance to today’s infotainment: human interest and, of course, true crime. In 1988, CBS News debuted 48 Hours on prime time (originally premiering two years prior as the cinema-vérité documentary 48 Hours on Crack Street) with the goal of keeping entertainment and news separate. That year CBS News President Howard Stringer confidently told the L.A. Times, “We had no business being in prime time and were a handicap to the entertainment business…. I’m not going to get into an agreement with entertainment to go into co-production or anything ridiculous like that.” Fast-forward to 2012: 48 Hours Mystery airs episode “Soccer Moms Confidential,” about the downfall of a narcissistic, unbalanced con artist.

A Dying Art

As Thomas De Quincey wrote in his 1827 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” there’s more to the composition of a murder than “two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane.” Instead, “design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.” Today’s true-crime mise-en-scène involves eerily fogged camera work, elaborate lighting, and clichéd but visually arresting backdrops. Hosts stroll by studio green screens of fearsome, shadowy warehouses, or travel to the tip of a perilously remote Colorado cliff. But it’s not just the scenery that’s used to create a mood: The sentiment of these shows when it comes to gender, race, and class rely on ratings at the expense of reality.

Women—mostly white—are usually portrayed as victims on these shows. A&E’s Cold Case Files, an Emmy-winning genre dinosaur, is heralded by law enforcement for its authenticity. Unfortunately, its “vicious stranger/pretty gal” template and conviction that forensics can solve everything sway viewers’ critical filters and perpetuate grave misunderstandings of sexual violence. Based on these shows, you’d never know that most women are raped by acquaintances and that their attackers almost never serve jail time. Creating a 30-minute narrative arc out of the uncomfortable reality of a premeditated, unprosecuted assault by an acquaintance is a tough sell.

Gina Grant in the “Mean Teens” episode of Deadly Women

Gina Grant in the “Mean Teens” episode of Deadly Women (Photo credit: Investigation Discovery)

And then there’s the victim-blaming. In the promo for ID’s Fatal Encounters, a show that ticks down the final hours of a murder victim’s life via an onscreen clock, female voices lament, “If I hadn’t gotten in that car, if I hadn’t opened that door, if I hadn’t missed that call…I might be alive today.” Not only is it absurd to speak for the dead, this framework excuses and validates rape myths. Monika Johnson Hostler, teen mentor and president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, is unnerved by the speed and degree to which TV has hypersexualized “women and girls in a way that [fuels] rape culture…in both an obvious and passive manner.”

Female true-crime victims often fit the bill of what journalist Eugene Robinson described as the “damsel in distress” trope in a 2005 Washington Post op-ed. “A damsel must be white…. She must be attractive…. Her economic status should be middle-class or higher, but an exception can be made in the case of wartime…. Put all this together, and you get 24-7 coverage.” When women of color are featured, they are in dehumanizing roles. Egyptian-born murderer Omaima Nelson, for instance, has been the subject of two ID reenactment shows, Deadly Women and the nutty Happily Never After, portrayed in both as a sexually ferocious foreigner in lingerie. Or take the representation of 17-year-old Felicia Morgan on Deadly Women.

Subjected to rape, poverty, and violence as a child in Milwaukee, Morgan eventually murdered another teenager over a leather jacket. But the 10-minute segment, titled “No Good Reason,” doesn’t investigate socioeconomics and its cyclical relationship to violence in low-income areas. Rather, as the narrator jokes, it’s just “a crime of fashion.” In fact, according to 2011 statistics from the Office on Violence Against Women and the National Institute of Justice, sexual assault rates are higher for black women than white women in most age groups.

Marc Evonitz and one of his victims in the “Insatiable Lust” episode of Deadly Sins

Marc Evonitz and one of his victims in the “Insatiable Lust” episode of Deadly Sins (Photo credit: Investigation Discovery)

Another NIJ study, When Violence Hits Home: How Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role, found the rate of intimate partner violence against Black women to be about twice that for white women, with economic distress hugely proportionate to violence. Yet on a show with 24-7 programming, we rarely see women of color unless they’re out for blood. Stories of missing or exploited men of color are rarely acknowledged—though perhaps that’s not surprising on a channel that valorizes the criminal justice system.

In addition to race, programs draw clear lines between geography and class. Another of ID’s crime dramatization and documentary shows, Sins & Secrets, examines cases that unfold in bucolic suburban and rural towns, with scripts steeped in parochial clichés. In one episode, “Boone,” a pretty Appalachian State University grad is murdered by a “hillbilly” on an isolated trail as a new moon crests the rolling mountains. The message to middle-class living rooms is clear: Never go into the Southern woods, you hear?

Then take Behind Mansion Walls. The bowtied Brit Christopher Mason hosts this giddy drama-doc hybrid about “murder in fabulous houses.” It recalls the over-the-top stylization of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but here, rich people murder each other, letting us relish recession-era schadenfreude. As dialect blogger Ben Trawick-Smith has noted, voiceover is used to convey divisions between white- and blue-collar worlds. Regarding the juxtaposition of BMW’s English host and the grave Dateline NBC narrator Keith Morrison, “Mason’s crisp Cambridge diction is clearly supposed to evoke wealth and privilege. Morrison’s dramatic falling inflections are similar to Garrison Keillor and Paul Harvey, which is no accident: although Canadian, his voice suggests the small-town Americana that are Keillor and Harvey’s specialty.”

“Truth” and Consequences

Networks laud their true-crime programming as a revelatory genre; more educational than reality, more vital than scripted dramas—after all, they’re based on true stories. Pozner calls this kind of work “pseudojournalism”—material packaged “under the mantle of news using techniques of film with the goals of film, as opposed to the goals of journalism—reporting for factual accuracy, with nuance, to get to the truth. Instead, the goal is to mirror what we see on Law & Order.” Even Paula Zahn, host of ID documentary series On the Case, tellingly referred to participants as “characters” in a 2011 New York Times piece.

Real participants are sometimes conscious of their own tragedy’s dramatic structure in interviews. In one of the most meta moments on 48 Hours, a suspected murderer marvels, “I’m the ex-husband. I’ve watched 48 Hours. The ex is the first one you go to!” There are untold real-life occurrences of physical and psychological abuse, realities the hyperbolic, illogical, and influential crime narrative has no stake in exploring. Casey Anthony is today’s “bad mother” pastiche, shaping perceptions and bias. Rather than explore the systemic violence that leads to tragedies like school shootings, racial profiling, and gang rape—shows like those on ID are more interested in exploitation than explanation.

With reality presented as gory cautionary tales, the onus is on producers as well as consumers to explore unpleasant truths in ways that don’t distort them. “There is a space for all media to assist in our efforts to eliminate violence against women,” Johnson Hostler believes. “It just requires those of us who are working to end violence to hold everyone, including those that produce this type of programming, accountable.” Otherwise, when real violence, bias, and hate present themselves, unedited and appalling, they’ll be so tied up in fiction we might not know the difference.


by Nadine Friedman
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Nadine Friedman is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer. She is currently completing a book of portraits and stories of individuals living with multiple sclerosis.