It was as if someone stopped the music in the middle of a party.
In the fall of 2014, millions of people suddenly found themselves gripped by a new addiction: Serial, a podcast from the creators of the popular public-radio program This American Life, was investigating the 1999 murder of a Maryland high-school senior named Hae Min Lee. Every Thursday morning, another episode would drop online, raising more questions about the guilt of Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who had been sentenced to life plus 30 years for the crime. Listeners would gobble up the instalment and then hit discussion boards to parse the tantalizing new clues, a cacophonous flock of amateur Philip Marlowes chasing a real-life mystery.
But in early November, someone purporting to be Lee’s brother posted a beseeching note in a forum dedicated to the show on Reddit, scolding fans that their entertainment came at the expense of someone else’s trauma.
“TO ME ITS REAL LIFE,” the note read. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattack when she got the new[s] that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup … you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.”
For a brief time, some listeners stopped partying and chewed over the note. Then, the music started up again. By the time the 12th and final episode of the show’s first season dropped in late December, each instalment had been downloaded an average of 3.4 million times, for a total of 40 million downloads. By June, 2017, the total was 175 million and climbing.
Still, that plaintive cri de coeur and others like it haunt a genre that is in the midst of an extraordinary efflorescence. Entertainment based on true tales of crimes have been a quiet mainstay of popular culture for centuries. (Millennia, if you count Cain and Abel.) But now, fuelled by social media, shifting tastes and new technologies that enable almost anyone to become a podcaster, true crime may be the dominant genre of our time.
Serial’s success sparked dozens of true-crime podcasts – last week, seven of the top 10 shows on the U.S. iTunes chart belonged to the genre – joining a wave of similar programming across other electronic media. Two U.S. cable channels are now all crime all the time. In September, this year’s Emmy for best limited drama series went to the FX network’s American Crime Story (the Gianni Versace edition). Later this month, Netflix will launch the sequel to Making a Murderer, the 2015 series which spawned a steady flow of crime docs on the service. At the second-annual CrimeCon convention last May, more than 3,000 aficionados gathered in Nashville for three days of bloody delights that included a live DNA-collection demonstration, crowd-sourced cold-case investigations and a panel of Dateline: NBC hosts discussing their favourite cases. Even the Weather Channel is jumping on the bandwagon with Storm of Suspicion, about forensic meteorologists who investigate connections between crimes and weather events.
But behind those giddy thrills are gutting stories of psychological harm, of families and communities left irreparably shattered. Fans and those who produce true-crime content often speak about the care that is taken to ensure victims’ stories are told with respect; they will note that those left behind often find it therapeutic to think that the death of their loved one might spur a change in, say, law-enforcement practices or domestic-violence laws.
Yet it is also a fact that many families – known in the profession as secondary victims – are retraumatized when the stories of their loved ones are plucked from the case files without their consent, to become grist for the entertainment mill. And as the industry continues to expand, searching ever wider for the raw material to feed fans’ evidently insatiable hunger, it needs to grapple more forcefully with that black hole at its core: Harm as a byproduct of entertainment may be the true cost of true crime.
There is perhaps no more piquant measure of our collective obsession with reality-based crime stories than the fate of the U.S. cable network known as Oxygen. Launched in early 2000 with the backing of empowerment queen Oprah Winfrey, the channel initially offered uplifting programs for women such as the yoga-centred Inhale and the financial-literacy show ka-Ching. Later, it joined the wave of reality-TV broadcasters.
But last year, after seeing ratings steadily increase for its handful of crime shows, and noting that women comprise 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the audience for such content, Oxygen pivoted fully to the genre, with specials such as The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway and Dahmer on Dahmer: A Serial Killer Speaks joining its long-time franchise about homicidal women, Snapped.
The network’s logo, originally a calming pastel blue, is now a yellow-and-black riff on police caution tape.
An executive with NBCUniversal, which bought the channel in 2007, told The Hollywood Reporter that its female viewers get a kick out of being “armchair detectives … they are trying to solve the mystery or the crime as it’s being revealed to them. Something we have seen that our audience loves is the play-along.”
“People say that, on a first date between a man and a woman, a man is worried about being embarrassed and a woman is worried about being killed,” notes Daryn Carp, a co-host of Oxygen’s alcohol-soaked Martinis & Murder podcast. True-crime programming has a “protective” effect for women, she says. “The more that they know about [crime] and the more that they feel comfortable with it, it puts it into a scope that they’re able to handle.”
Audiences are responding: Oxygen claims it is the fastest-growing entertainment network on U.S. cable, with total prime-time viewership up 16 per cent this year.
The channel’s strategic shift came after prestigious outlets such as HBO and the public-radio stalwart This American Life re-established the genre as worthy of critical praise, with the miniseries The Jinx and Serial, respectively. Truman Capote had already achieved this in the mid-1960s with In Cold Blood, his account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family that he called a “non-fiction novel” (and which was subsequently criticized as more of the latter than the former). In 1979, Norman Mailer became the first author to win a Pulitzer for the genre – albeit in the fiction category – with The Executioner’s Song, his tale of the murderer Gary Gilmore. But over the years, true crime had fallen on hard times, becoming chiefly the province of kitschy network fare such as NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries.
Still, changes in the culture had been priming the pump. “The past two decades, the post-9/11 era, where we have to take off our shoes to get on an airplane because bad things might happen – there are not a lot of places you can go to feel secure,” notes Kevin Flynn, an author who, with his wife, Rebecca Lavoie, co-writes crime books and co-hosts the podcast Crime Writers On…. “There’s a growing anxiety about whether we’re safe in our own homes and whether we’re safe in our own families.”
Yet Serial demonstrated a different kind of hunger, showing that audiences were eager to engage with the messy reality of the world as it exists – that is, beginning to acknowledge the biases and other flaws baked into the justice system – rather than merely gorge on one after another prime-time gloss, in which a brisk narrative arc resolves itself by the final commercial break.
Flynn says he’s noticed a telling shift in the types of stories that people want to consume. “When I started writing books about true crime, the formula was: The cops do the investigation and the bad guy gets his comeuppance,” he said in a recent interview. “And now, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. People now want stories about where the criminal justice system breaks down and where people have been wrongly convicted. And just, cold cases that are open and there’s no resolution to them.”
With its new embrace by high-end outlets, “true crime went from being a tabloidy thing into something more sophisticated,” notes Lisa Gallagher, the director of the Toronto True Crime Film Festival, which premiered its inaugural edition in June. “The audience has always been there, but there are so many more people willing to say [they like it] out loud.”
Inexpensive podcasting software means that anyone can feed that growing appetite. In January, 2017, Kristi Lee, a Burlington, Ont., mother of two who works in marketing, launched Canadian True Crime, a podcast that takes deep dives twice a month into this country’s most notorious cases, from serial killer Paul Bernardo to the 1989 massacre of female engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. She now claims about 100,000 regular listeners.
“Podcasting is the rare [media] space where literal independents like me – you know, busy mums recording in walk-in closets – are competing with established companies, all on the same playing level, with the same access to the audience,” she said in an interview.
Similar technological innovations have enabled everyday fans to offer their opinions on cases, weighing in with their expertise (or lack thereof) on message boards or social media.
Still, Lee sees her show as “really honouring the victim and the survivors.” At one point, working on an early episode about a domestic homicide in the Maritimes, she noted that a relative of the woman who was killed had been in the press trying to raise awareness of spousal abuse, so she approached him to be a guest. But he had stopped giving interviews and was, she said, “triggered” by her contact. She scrubbed the episode.
Professional journalists generally agree that subjects who have suffered trauma should be cautioned about the possibility of an interview inducing more harm.
In producing the new CBC podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, which has been in the top five in North America since its release in early September, journalist Josh Bloch spoke with former members of the suspected cult, some of whom alleged physical and emotional abuse. One woman explained that she could only speak with him in the evening because, she said, “‘after I do an interview about this I can’t do anything else in the day. I’m done. Like, I’m totally spent.’ That’s a case where I understood that the consequence of my interview was going to be some kind of harm to her, and at the same time what I heard her telling me was, ‘I’m conscious and aware of what that harm is going to be. I know what I’m getting myself into. I still want to do it.’”
Not everyone seems as attuned to the potential consequences of their actions. For years now, the popular U.S. podcast Sword and Scale has been constructed largely out of 911 calls, broadcasting to a wide audience the most traumatic moments in people’s lives. But one episode last year went over the line even for some regular listeners: Host Mike Boudet played a chilling call from 2008 in which a 14-year-old boy breaks down in tears watching his father stalk his mother with a gun before killing her and then himself. During the show, Boudet gave the boy’s name and the street where the murder took place. According to one online report, after the now-grown-up boy learned of the episode, he and other family members complained to the host over social media; Boudet, who has a prickly online persona, allegedly responded abusively. (He did not respond to two e-mailed requests for comment from The Globe and Mail.)
But even when individuals agree to participate in true-crime coverage, they may not realize how little control they have over the outcome.
In July, 1978, 19-year-old Eric Wilson set off alone in a Volkswagen camper van from his home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park, bound for a summer course in Colorado. A few days into the trip, he picked up a pair of hitchhikers who robbed and stabbed him and left him to die by the side of the road. When his family didn’t hear from him, Eric’s older brother, Peter, set out with their father to retrace his route and try to raise the alarm with local police forces; the authorities seemed uninterested, suggesting that Eric was “just another missing kid” who would no doubt show up soon.
He didn’t. The family paid $50,000 to a private investigator, and in May, 1979, Eric’s body was found in a ditch. A drifter by the name of Raymond Hatch was arrested in another state while driving Eric’s van, but police there seemed indifferent to the murder case. So, in early 1980, hoping to apply pressure on the authorities, Peter sent a letter to the CBC’s the fifth estate, suggesting there might be a good story there.
The re-enactment was extremely painful. Going for the first time to the place that he’d been murdered was extremely difficult.— Peter Wilson
They agreed. That summer, Peter accompanied a CBC crew on the road, working as an unofficial, unpaid consultant to producer John Zaritsky, offering him advice on whom to interview and what questions to ask. Zaritsky felt the best way to bring the story to life was through the then-novel form of re-enactments – soon to become a staple of the genre – so Peter ended up playing himself on camera, questioning police officers and others as he pretended to look for his lost brother.
“The re-enactment was extremely painful,” Peter Wilson recalled recently, in an interview with The Globe. “Going for the first time to the place that he’d been murdered was extremely difficult.” Still, that fall, he sat in on the editing of the piece and watched it take shape as a feature-length documentary. When Just Another Missing Kid aired the following April, “It was cathartic,” he says. “I really felt it made a difference. People were outraged. It really moved people, and not just because of the loss of an innocent, but how fundamentally lazy and inept the whole justice system was, and how apathetic.”
Zaritsky felt there was still more to tell, and he began work on a book, with Wilson’s input. And then, at some point, he told the Wilson family that the CBC was selling the film rights to a Hollywood producer. (The corporation’s division known as CBC Enterprises was then boosting efforts to commercialize its intellectual property.)
The family was floored: They hadn’t been consulted on this, never mind given it a green light. “I had been stolen from,” says Wilson, adding that he objected to the loss of control rather than the loss of income. “The most intimate personal story of my life had been usurped by the CBC. [Their position was] they owned it. They owned Eric. They owned his death. They owned my family’s efforts to find out what happened to him. It was as if it was fiction they had created.”
Ruth Palmer, an assistant professor of communications at IE University in Segovia, Spain, and Madrid said in an interview that people who find themselves in the middle of a news story frequently feel exploited by journalists. “Our stories, especially when we’re the protagonists in them, are precious to us. They’re our experiences, they have implications for our identity and our reputation,” she said. “And especially if you have to deal with the [negative] consequences of your story going public, you feel you should get the benefit.”
Last month, a CBC spokesperson said it would be difficult to comment on Peter Wilson’s allegations, considering how much time had passed. “And while we can’t speculate about decisions made by others 35 years ago, the senior management team in place at the time would have undoubtedly considered many variables before making the decisions they did.”
The family sued CBC and Zaritsky; things got progressively uglier. When the film won an Academy Award for best documentary feature in April, 1983, Zaritsky mentioned Eric Wilson in his acceptance speech, but pointedly neglected to acknowledge the family. The next day Peter Herrndorf, then head of CBC English Television, scrambled to issue a press statement thanking them. In the end, to preclude a potentially sensationalist film being made from their story, the family sold their own film rights to Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), whose company produced a TV docudrama on the case, starring Ellen Burstyn, called Into Thin Air. The CBC objected. There were demands for the family to hand over the $52,000 they had been paid for the rights.
At one point, the family was trying to prevent Raymond Hatch from being granted parole, and asked the CBC to send material back to them about his violent past which Peter Wilson had helped gather; Wilson says they refused to do so. (Press reports at the time corroborate his story.)
No book or other movie was ever made, and Zaritsky and Wilson, who had become good friends during the production of the documentary, have never again spoken to each other. Last month, Zaritsky told The Globe that he had been saddened by the turn of events, especially since he’d never had any influence over CBC’s attempt to sell the film rights, anyway. “It was really unfortunate,” he said. “I was sorry that things got bad between the two of us – over, really, business matters. Typical Hollywood stuff, unfortunately.”