Has true crime become false advertising?

Credit: Unsplash

Sofia Stephens
Writer

Sofia Stephens asks if our fascination with true crime is idolising violent criminals.

When asked, the majority of my friends – male and female – were delighted at the imagined scenario of waking up in the morning to find Zac Efron in the kitchen making them eggs. Imagine looking up to a warm smile and a loving gaze, feeling your heart flutter, just to remember that you’re watching a true crime film – it inevitably changes your feelings about the eggs. Perhaps that’s why casting a famously good-looking actor as the notorious rapist and violent serial killer, Ted Bundy, is peculiar and somewhat uncomfortable, although likely representative of the intended audience of the true crime industry. Upon reflection, I feel this choice could be driven by an industry determined to make as much money as they can, and the misleading aim of trying to understand mentally unbalanced criminals.

So why has popular culture recently been accused of overtly sexualising criminals? The choice of a dazzling actor and the romanticisation of real-life events is not news in the movie industry (just look at Hannibal), but it acquires controversial implications once it affects the reliability of historical accounts. Albeit unoriginal, the quasi-enshrinement of criminals in popular entertainment has bewildered many in recent months, especially after American Horror Story 1984 depicted the story of Richard Ramirez, a famous serial killer from the mid-80s, and the previously mentioned Zac Efron attracted thousands to theatres by starring as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Statistically, the true crime industry’s target audience is overwhelmingly female, therefore it may make sense from an economic point of view to maximise profits by attempting to portray criminals as attractive as they are dangerous. However, a surprising number of women – and a frequently cited study published in 2010 – claim to value true crime material for its educational value, alluding to the possibility of acquiring real-life survival tips, as women are much more likely than men to be victims of domestic and sex-related homicides, constituting respectively 64% and 82% of victims in analogous cases. However, if the objective of true crime consumption were that of strategy accumulation, wouldn’t the frequent romanticisation of the assailant prove to be counterproductive?

The sexualisation of criminals leads, perhaps in an obvious way, to a difference in how we perceive them. By increasing their appeal, we strip – pun intended – them of a layer of remoteness which we tend to associate with mental processes, such as that of brutally killing someone, which we struggle to fathom. The portrayal of Ted Bundy in the recent hit biographical chronicle is a perfect example, depicting the serial killer’s experience from his former girlfriend’s point of view. What the media at the time, and many documentaries shot since, portrayed as a law-student-cum-violent-criminal, we suddenly see as a romantic interest, someone sexy and loveable and, perhaps, innocent. This may be an interesting way of acknowledging an underlying sense of humanity that I believe to be present in all of us, and may possibly lead us to have a better understanding of how one comes to stray so violently from moral law. However, I believe that by seeing him through the adoring eyes of a lover we seem to belittle the atrociousness of the situation. The romanticised version of criminals, who terrified nations at a time, could incentivise an unhealthy conception of potentially dangerous individuals, leading serial rapists to be trivialised as “bad boys” by narratives that forgetfully allude in stride to long lists of victims, focusing rather on the captivating charm that sells cinema tickets, exploiting tragedy under the facade of truth-seeking.

Everything considered, it’s perhaps time to sacrifice shirtless Zac Efron for a more realistic portrayal of facts, if that’s what the entertainment industry is pretending this is. Most contemporary cases have left a long-lasting legacy of suffering and trauma in victims and families, which continues to this day. Romanticising it only fuels a hurtful misconception of events – even if we claim to be interested in survival strategies, or in the hidden thought processes of the mentally ill. If we’re labelling it true crime, we need to leave the romance out of it.