Have you finished Making a Murderer yet? Are you onto the second series of Serial? The hype around true crime as a genre since the latter first entered our lives has been astounding. It turns out that we just love a chilling, blood-curdling story full of intrigue and/or gruesome detail. And, there’s no denying it, Serial and Making A Murderer – both true stories – are every bit as compelling as the first series of True Detective or Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan’s The Fall, both of which were complete fiction.
We love a good villain, think about Bret Easton Ellis’s creation, Patrick Bateman, and how obsessed many people become after reading/watching American Psycho for the first time. Or, Patricia Highsmith’s* The Talented Mr. Ripley*, originally published in 1955, and later turned into a film staring Jude Law, Matt Damon and Gweneth Paltrow. Think about how the story of Meredith Kercher became a guessing game as to whether or not Amanda Knox was guilty. Incidentally, a new film based on her trial, starring Kate Beckinsdale and Cara Delevigne, titled The Face of an Angel, is due to be released in March.
The way that stories like these enthrall us is nothing new. Crime, as a popular genre for literature, TV, theatre and film is also nothing new. Looking back to the 19th century, for instance, writers and readers loved crime, some of the greatest writers of the time focused on sensation: think of Sherlock Holmes or the fact that most Charles Dickens novels have a crime element. The bit in Oliver Twist where Bill Sikes brutally and misogynistically murders Nancy is possibly one of the most famous fictional murders in the canon.
As historian Judith Flanders has written for the British Library, in the Victorian period murder broadsides were very popular. What are murder broadsides? Well, Judith writes, they were ‘printed sheets that provided members of the public with the topical information of the day, from shipwrecks and royal gossip to riots and murders.’
Typically, Judith says, ‘They included an account of the crime committed, a lurid woodcut illustration of the murder or execution, and often a simple song (sometimes moral, but often lewd, comical or admiring of the criminal)’ that the people who bought these papers could ‘sing with friends or family at home or over a drink in their local pub’.
Judith says our interest in crime isn’t new — whether it’s Greek tragedy, or Macbeth, we’ve always been fascinated. ‘What is new(er) is the way we can consume it, the way it’s part of popular culture, and that has been happening since the arrival of the popular press, which was driven, you might say, by murder – 19th-century newspapers were blood-saturated, and that’s the way their audiences liked,’ she says.
And why do we like it so much? ‘My idea is that crime as an entertainment genre thrives in places that are in reality very safe,’ she says. ‘We know that the odds of any one of us being killed by Colonel Mustard in the library with the pipe are minute, and therefore, we’re happy to play the game, or read about it, or watch the TV show. It’s like blustery rain on the windowpane, wonderful when you’re indoors safe and warm.’
Today we have courtroom dramas, detective drama series, blockbuster whodunits and perhaps most recently, true crime series in the style of hit podcast, Serial and the hit Netflix series, Making a Murderer.
Making a Murderer has captivated us so much that there is now a ‘free Steven Avery’ petition, people want Obama to pardon him (which he doesn’t have the power to do by the way), Etsy is awash with memorabilia, memes are floating around on the internet featuring Dean Strang (Avery’s defence attorney, in case you’re the only person who hasn’t been watching) surrounded by melty pink love hearts and think pieces about how he and, the other attorney, Jerry Bunting, have become unlikely heartthrobs and poster boys for justice.
Notice anything odd about the paragraph above? In fact, can you see a problem with this article so far? Not once have I written the name of the woman at the centre of Making a Murderer, the woman who died, Teresa Halbach.
We’re so busy talking about Steven Avery, about whether he did or didn’t do it, after he was wrongly initially imprisoned for sexual assault, then exonerated, that we rarely talk about the only inescapable fact, which is, beyond reasonable doubt, a fact, that undermines the entire documentary drama: a young woman, aged 25, by the name of Teresa Halbach is dead. And, somebody killed her.
In this multilayered, multifaceted case that is the what. But, as with any good story, it’s the who and the why that makes for good viewing. And, to be fair to the makers of Making a Murderer, they’ve avoided sensationalism, though they carefully and dexterously edited the material they managed to collect to make a thrilling, captivating and suspense-filled series of programmes. The phrase ‘you couldn’t make this up’ springs to mind when talking about it, and therein lies the draw of true crime as a genre: it isn’t made up.
And, because it is a real life story, it affects real people, with families and friends. And it’s easy to forget that. I say this as someone who is completely gripped by the programme right now and who devoured Serial the first time around. I’m as confounded by Steven Avery’s case as the next person, as keen for justice to be served as everyone who signed the petition to Obama and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have spent several hours debating the ins and outs of the American legal system with my boyfriend (even though neither of us really knows what we’re talking about).
He’s been watching interviews with Dean and Jerry on the sly on YouTube in an attempt to stop himself from jumping ahead without me and I’ve been secretly Googling spoilers behind his back.
However, today, when I saw the vast array of ‘Murderer Merch’ on Etsy, it dawned on me that I’m as guilty as more or less everyone who’s written about it so far, made a meme or got cross with a colleague because they’ve been carelessly letting spoilers slip of forgetting that this is a true story.
Teresa has become little more than a footnote in Steven’s story, seen only a few times, only ever mentioned in the context of the crime, on the whole, spoken for by the men who were in her life throughout the series. Of course, this is inevitable because she’s not around to speak for herself, but where does this series leave the victim? Where does it leave her family?
During the widespread wave of first-wave hype about Serial Hae Min Lee (the murder victim at the heart of the show) became the subject of a Reddit thread after someone claiming to be her brother took to the forum. He wrote, ‘To me it’s real life, to you listeners, it’s another murder mystery’ and went on to say, ‘I pray you don’t have to go through what we went through.’
Of course, there’s something to be said for the fact that the people behind Making a Murderer have drawn global attention to the failings of America’s judicial system. According to Amnesty International, at any one time there around 10 million people in prison worldwide. They estimate that 3.2 million of those people haven’t yet had a trial and that in developing countries, there’s roughly one lawyer per 50,000 people. There are also cases of wrongful imprisonment all over the world, and as Amnesty points out, in some places in the US this is a particularly pressing issue because of the death penalty. Since 1973, 151 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions.
But, when all’s said and done, the merchandise on Etsy is about Steven, his lawyers and his family. The campaign is ‘free Steven Avery’, not ‘find justice for Teresa Halbach’. That’s what we should take away from watching the series: that her life was taken, that she and her family deserve justice and that – if he is innocent – would free Steven Avery in the process.
Making a Murderer is well made, there’s no doubt about that and something’s definitely amiss in the case, but we shouldn’t forget that at the centre of it are real people, dead and alive. We obsess so much about the perpetrators, the villains, that we lose interest in and overlook the victims. Our after-work viewing and the Cluedo-style whodunit that ensues is the heartache and tragedy of two people and their families.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.