In the early hours of April 28, 1908, near a small rural town in Indiana, Belle Gunness’ farmhouse burned to the ground. The fire spurred an investigation that would unearth over a dozen dead bodies on her property, including three charred child corpses and a headless woman, pinning Gunness as the murderer of over 40 to 180 victims and one of the most prolific serial killers of all time. As the tale of Gunness’ “murder farm” swept the nation, thousands flocked to the site where corpses were strung from pig styes, blackened bones arranged on animal sheds and crude wooden stands constructed by opportunistic vendors sold postcards, murder relics and crime scene souvenirs. Families picnicked on the grounds and strolled through the makeshift graveyards as if perusing a fair ground.
The morbid spectacle of murder tourism and death as entertainment, in one form or another, has become one of our country’s most enduring pastimes. The Midwest in particular has hosted an impressive variety of attractions, one of the most grotesque being the property of Wisconsin cannibal killer Ed Gein whose keepsakes included masks made from skinned human faces, a female skin suit, belt made of nipples and human skin lampshade. His 40-acre homestead would become a grizzly tourist draw, and the 1949 Ford sedan he used to transport his victims was coined “The Ghoul Car,” toured around the state by a carnival barker charging 25 cents to pose for a photo with it.
It’s not surprising that in 2017 we find our appetite for the macabre more ravenous than ever. The demand for murder-drenched content seemingly reached a fever pitch in the past couple weeks with the official transition of traditionally lightweight “women’s network” Oxygen as a true crime-centric channel (their slogan is now “True Crime All the Time) and the “breaking news” of Quentin Tarantino’s announcement of a Manson Family murder movieon his development slate, splashed across every digital outlet’s front page like the juiciest bit of meaty gossip ripe to goad our increasingly rabid bloodlust.
In a passage from journalist Nancy Rommelmann’s essay “Destination Gacy” documenting her road trip to visit famed child molester and serial killer John Wayne Gacy on death row, Rommelman explains, “Gacy sells because most people have the same gratingly low opinion of the guy. He’s the great unifier; we cover our mouth at the stench of 33 kids murdered. We choke on, then regurgitate, the carnage in an effort to inspect the great unknown. Like animals sniffing at offal, getting a whiff of what’s ahead.”
I recently attended CrimeCon, a crime convention in Indiana. It’s carrying on a tradition of capitalizing on this enduring collective fascination with wrongful death, apparent in the recent influx of crime programming flooding what seems like every conceivable network and platform, from the ubiquitous amateur sleuthing podcast to network television. The Oxygen network, in fact, partnered with CrimeCon to help launch their rebranding as a crime channel targeted at women, a concept that initially struck me as slightly out of left field but became obvious as I witnessed the demographic of the convention attendees.
In the lobby of the downtown Indianapolis Marriott, the prerequisite murder fans of the teenage-goth variety were nowhere to be found. In their place were primarily Caucasian women upwards of forty, equipped with fanny packs and khaki slacks, paired with pastel-colored official CrimeCon hoodies with the slogan “basically a detective” printed across the chest in white block letters. These middle-aged women on a mission to solve mysteries were a far cry from the horror nerds I was accustomed to. Enter the suburban mommy who champions Nancy Grace and loves watching the Investigation Discovery Network, a channel that streams a never-ending onslaught of violence and terror. The overwhelming impression I got from speaking with these ladies was these stories hit such a personal nerve and made them feel so closely connected to the victims, they feel they actually have a chance to help solve the crimes.
The ethics of producing true crime content and the debate surrounding the exploitation of misery for financial gain has been a part of the cultural conversation since as early as the late eighteenth century with the perversely theatrical allure of criminals like killers HH Holmes and Jack the Ripper who taunted both the police and the press, selling a lot of newspapers. Serial killers have historically been press whores, their desire for notoriety as insatiable as their blood lust. Charlie Manson, the scrawny social outcast and aspiring 1960s folk musician, in and out of juvie his whole life, finally had his lifelong dream realized when in 1970 he landed on the cover of Rolling Stone. Sure, he didn’t cut a gold record to get there as he had planned, but the means doesn’t have to justify the end if fame and notoriety are the ultimate goal. Throughout the seventies, Son Of Sam and the Zodiac Killer followed in Jack the Ripper’s footsteps by contacting the press and inserting themselves into the news, pitting law enforcement against reporters and weaving their own narratives that propped up their chosen personas cultivating a captive and rapt audience who were repulsed and transfixed.
The 1980s was the age of the television addict, propelling the practice of the media’s marketing of tragedy to new heights. The average American’s infatuation would only escalate during the heyday of tabloid sensationalism in the nineties, from the murder of Colorado child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey and nihilistic Columbine school shootings to the carpeted stages of daytime talk shows where live audiences gawked as families aired their grief. Upping the ante and ushering in the age of reality TV was the practice of televising trials, starting with the Pamela Smart murder trial, immortalized on celluloid by Gus Van Sant and Nicole Kidman in the cult film To Die For. The Brentwood-set, preppy rich kid-cast soap opera of the Menendez Brothers trial segued into the the electric, socially charged OJ Simpson proceedings that engulfed the nation with a drama in real time that represented a microcosm of the political and racial tensions seething within Los Angeles.
In this “post-truth” climate we now find ourselves, in which the reliable airing of neutral facts seems nearly impossible, a heightened interest in the genre from a investigative journalistic angle has materialized. The need to dig deeper and seek material that can potentially unearth the uncomfortable realities surrounding abuses of power, discrimination and our country’s ultimately flawed justice system was kicked into high gear by the phenomenal success of 2014’s podcast Serial, produced by NPR’s This American Life. A so-called wave of “prestige” true crime programming has emerged as a foil to the exceedingly exploitative television that perpetuates fear and victimization, while glossing over the far more complex social context surrounding any act of violence. By departing from the realm of guilty pleasure and into that of social awareness, the viewer is urged to question the often corrupt and systemically prejudiced structures of our judicial system and the practice of law and order itself, gaining an insight rarely offered to us in the past by the likes of television personalities who posed as journalists, like Geraldo Rivera.
The Killing Season, an A&E docu series created by Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills and inspired by the book Lost Girls by Robert Kolker, is a devastating exploration of how existing prejudices towards groups of people who are marginalized enable crimes of an alarming magnitude to remain unsolved. In this case, the victims of the Long Island Serial Killer were sex workers, thereby dehumanized in the eyes of the police and apparently not worthy of their attention. By the time law enforcement finally took notice, the trail of the killer was already cold.
Netflix’s Making a Murderer focusing on the trial of Steven Avery and HBO’s The Jinx about Robert Durst offer depictions of characters on opposite sides of the coin in terms of class and status. One extremely wealthy and privileged and the other poor and of low social standing. The stark comparison presented in the disparity of their treatment by the law exposes the deeply disturbing reality that justice in this country, time and again, is hijacked by the wealthy and white. Although the Steven Avery story is a much needed exposé on bias and corruption, the ethical dilemma presented in cases of filmmakers creating material with a strong agenda and an emphasis on narrative over facts. Filmmakers are viewed as purveyors of entertainment, not always held to the same ethical standards and moral codes as print journalists, the dire consequences of which are evident when the content being produced has the potential to change the course of a person’s fate and the outcome of their sentencing. Documentarian Errol Morris states in A Wilderness of Error, his book on the infamously bungled Jeffrey Macdonald murder investigation and trial, “What gives journalism it’s authenticity and vitality is the pursuit of truth. This applies to the law, as well. The real story is our attempt to separate fact from fiction-to find out what really happened, no matter how difficult that might be.” In the same book the man convicted of murder, Jeffrey Macdonald quotes Hippocrates, “To know is science; to merely believe one knows is ignorance.”
With this renewed interest in the true crime genre have we evolved as viewers and consumers into social justice warriors, amateur sleuths and victim activists? Or are we still just good old-fashioned fetishists seduced by the luridness of it all? Whether we’re reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song or a trashy murder drugstore paperback, the primal desire to probe the darkness is what will forever be driving us. The existential terror of having the knowledge that unspeakable horror can crawl out of the shadows at any moment and strike without reason or judgement is paralyzing to any rational mind. If we become experts on the subject maybe we can stave off the boogeyman and keep the tragedy in our own lives at bay. By living vicariously through the horror of fatal victimization without having to suffer in reality perhaps we can exercise our fears and gain some control over the senselessness of it all. At the end of the day, murder sells. All great drama springs from conflict and crime is conflict in its most heightened state. As is intrinsic to our nature, as long as the drama ensues we won’t be able to turn away.