It started its ascent with ‘Serial,’ the podcast about a 1999 murder case in suburban Baltimore brought to us by ‘This American Life’ producers and continued with HBO’s series The Jinx, about Robert Durst, who potentially killed three people over a 30 year period. This month Netflix will add a new true crime series Making a Murderer to the millennial era of true crime.
True crime, according to Wikipedia, “is a non-fiction literary and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people.” An amateur criminologist and a Scots lawyer, William Roughead, attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Edinburgh in the years between 1889 and 1949. Roughead wrote about the crimes and the trial proceedings in essays which were collected in best-selling books.
Across the pond, Edmund Pearson was the American true crime pioneer, publishing a series of books starting with Studies in Murder in 1924. Before his stories were collected in book form, Pearson’s stories of crime appeared in high-class magazines such as Liberty, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. These publication credits distinguished his narratives from those found in the penny press.
Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, is often credited with establishing the novelistic style of the genre and the one that rocketed it to profitability. Helter Skelter, the story of the Manson Family murders by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi is the best selling true crime book, followed by Capote’s In Cold Blood.
While there have been many stories, essays, and books written on the subject since the late 1800s, true crime came to our television screens in the 1990s during the trials of O.J. Simpson and the media’s sensationalization of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Middlebrow entertainment like Deadline or 20/20 discussed grisly murder cases or kidnappings. In today’s plethora of reality programming, it’s even easier to find similar programs on one of Discovery’s off-shoots, MSNBC, or former network Court TV.
Though the literary genre has been consistently strong since its inception into popular culture, the popularity of ‘Serial’ and The Jinx have made true crime leap from the page to our ears and screens. Why this renewed interest in the genre?
While podcasts are not a new medium, ‘Serial’ harnessed the auditory platform as a way to explore a 15 year old murder, the investigation unfolding week by week. It reopened the case of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student who was found strangled, and her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who is now serving a life sentence for the crime.
Sarah Koenig, a former journalist and ‘This American Life’ producer, narrated her investigation and exploration of the case to listeners. Koenig was candid about her shifting feelings as she explored the case, making her audience feel like she was more than a narrator—a close acquaintance, perhaps or a friend.
The podcast managed a feat in the ever-growing news and entertainment markets: it got people to step away from their screens and listen. The suspense of the story was enough to make listeners return every week, but in the conversations that bubbled up weekly, the addictive quality of the podcast became personal. People sympathized with Adnan and Hae or simply wanted answers to questions that had been unanswered or forgotten about in the original investigation. It was refreshing to hear the audience wanted justice.
Armchair sleuths appeared out of the woodwork in rapid numbers, many of them congregating at Reddit, which has long been a place to post questions, theories, and memes about news, pop culture, and now, crime.
‘Serial’, the title of which, is a word play on both its format and its content, received 1.5 million listeners per episode and as of November of last year, had been downloaded or streamed on iTunes more than 5 million times.
Not only has ‘Serial’ spawned a new generation of detectives taking to the Internet to pick apart the case, but it has led to direct spin-offs, in which lawyers, journalists, and writers discuss the show. While the series was still airing, Slate started a weekly Spoiler Special for each episode. After ‘Serial’ wrapped up the Adnan Syed/Hae Min Lee case, ‘Undisclosed’ began. In this podcast, lawyers discuss the evidence, interviews, autopsy, and other minute legalese about the case. Yet another, ‘Crime Writers on Serial’, began airing at the end of 2014, the panelists made up of, you guessed it, crime writers, who discussed ‘Serial’ and other pop culture in the true and fictional crime worlds.
During ‘Serial’-mania, several articles were written which listed books or other programs that could fill the ‘Serial’-sized hole in audience members’ hearts, including books like Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss which was an insider take on the Captain Jeffrey McDonald trial in 1970 and the response to McGinniss’ book, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. Of course, both Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood appeared on the lists, as well as more recent books like Lost Girls by Robert Kolker and Columbine by Dave Cullen.
When it comes to HBO’s The Jinx, television critic Maureen Ryan, says the series took this “sturdy, reliable TV premise” from shows like Deadline and Discovery Channel’s investigatory fare and “polished it up to a high, glossy shine.”
She argues that none of the subject matter in The Jinx was new material, but instead the stuff that usually makes up most mysteries: murder, money, marital discord, swanky real estate, dynastic squabbles, grieving friends and family, trial scenes, and unexpected revelations. Yet the subject, New York real estate heir Robert Durst, was compelling enough (and creepy enough) to compel viewers through his strange story. Durst first rose to media attention in the 1980s when his wife, Kathie McCormack, disappeared. Nearly twenty years later, long-time friend Susan Berman, who was Durst’s alibi after Kathie’s disappearance, was found murdered in her Benedict Canyon home in Los Angeles. In 2001, Durst was arrested in Galveston, Texas after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found in a body of water in town.
In 2010, the film All Good Things was based on events surrounding Durst. The director of the film was Andrew Jarecki, who then went on to direct and produce the docu-series that recently aired on HBO. Even if viewers find the Durst story chock full of cliché and oft-used elements of drama from other mysteries, the series’ ultimate reveal is worth it.
Netflix’s Making a Murderer will focus on Steven Avery, who was convicted in 1985 for sexually assaulting a woman in Wisconsin near Lake Michigan. Avery’s team continued to appeal his case, but not until 2002 when attorneys from the Wisconsin Innocence Project obtained a court order for DNA testing did evidence clear Avery of guilt. In 2003, Avery was released from prison. Sadly, two years later, a young woman was murdered and Avery and his nephew were both sentenced to life in prison.
Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have been working on the show for the last decade. Presumably, the 10 episode series will explore the sexual assault case and what holes in the justice system allowed Avery to be convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, as well as what psychological harm the 18 years in jail could have wreaked, turning a previously innocent man into a killer.
It’s too early to tell about Making A Murderer‘s level of success and while ‘Serial’ and The Jinx used elements that occupy most true crime or well-written murder mystery, there was something unique about their rise to the top of pop culture over the past couple years.
As mentioned, ‘Serial’ managed to get a screen obsessed culture to drop everything and listen. In today’s era endless content available at our fingertips and day long binge watches of television shows, ‘Serial’ adopted yet another old school format by dropping a new episode every week rather than releasing all of its content at once. (Remember the days when we had to wait a week or a full summer before the next episode of our favorite TV show?) The week by week format worked for ‘Serial’ not only because it gave time for word of mouth about the podcast to spread, but because unspooling the story out over 12 weeks maintained the inherent tension and mystery in the story. It became water cooler discussion. Every Thursday, millions would listen to the new episode and dissect the episode over lunch with co-workers, dinner with friends, or thousands of listeners via the Internet.
In a sense, the same set-up worked well for The Jinx. Although HBO has a high profile with shows like Game of Thrones, in comparison, The Jinx was hardly promoted by the network. Instead, like ‘Serial,’ it caught on by word of mouth. Friends were recommending the show to friends or sending out mass texts or emails to discuss the new episode, which also aired week by week.
So perhaps true crime hasn’t become a new pop culture obsession. After all, many documentaries and books have been written about murders, serial killers, or other weird events and haven’t necessarily catapulted to the top of the world of entertainment. Word of mouth and the format of ‘Serial’ followed by the one-two punch of the podcast ending almost as soon as The Jinx began made the genre of true crime have a pop culture renaissance.
Other True Crime Recommendations
Once setting foot into the territory occupied by Serial and The Jinx, it’s easy to find previous cases which rapidly turn into Wikipedia black holes. Paradise Lost, a 1996 documentary, covered the trials of three teenage boys who were known as the West Memphis Three, for killing three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The first film resulted in two sequels: Paradise Lost 2 and Paradise Lost 3. More recently, director Amy Berg also made a documentary about the case, simply called West of Memphis.
The West Memphis docs were all long-form documentaries, but the docuseries model followed by both The Jinx and Making of A Murderer was perhaps created in 2004 by The Staircase. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, a French writer and director, filmed the proceedings of the Michael Peterson case. In North Carolina in 2001, Peterson reported his wife Kathleen had fallen down a set of stairs and died. However, upon police investigator, they concluded that Peterson had beaten his wife to death, most likely with a blowpoke from the fireplace. The novelist was charged with murder and the docuseries follows the case through Peterson and his defense team.
Michael Peterson, like Robert Durst, has strange events from his past that seem too bizarre to be coincidental to his current situation. It is discovered that while Peterson was living in Germany, a family friend died from a brain hemorrhage, which was followed by the person falling down the stairs and sustaining similar head injuries to those by Peterson’s wife. The Staircase aired on Canal+ in France, BBC Four in the UK, and in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel.
Due to the success of ‘Serial,’ more and more cultural critics, historians, and journalists are taking to the Internet airwaves to tell their stories or share their thoughts. The latest is Karina Longworth, a film journalist and academic, who started the podcast, ‘You Must Remember This,’ about the forgotten history of Hollywood. Although the podcast examines a range of figures, mostly movie stars like Bogart and Bacall, she devoted ten episodes to the Tate/LaBianca murders committed by Charlie Manson and his “Family” in 1969. Longworth manages to connect counterculture figures like Manson to what many think of as mainstream Hollywood stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
Even fictional shows are trying to cash in on the true crime genre. Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story, announced that his latest season, American Horror Story: Hotel would focus on a group of misfits who live in a haunted hotel. It turns out this group of misfits is mostly famous (or infamous) figures in history, such as Sid and Nancy and John Wayne Gacy. Murphy said in an interview said that the idea had been somewhat born from reading about the Elisa Lam case. Lam, a Canadian student, was on vacation in Los Angeles when she disappeared. She was staying downtown at the Cecil Hotel, which has an ominous history, to say the least. Recently, Josh Dean wrote an article on Medium about the Lam case, mentioning the connection with the new season of AHS.