Our insatiable appetite for true crime leaves behind a moral hangover | JR Hennessy

After four years, the peak of the genre’s renaissance has passed, but have we really learned anything?

You may or may not consider it a telling indication of what stage we’re at culturally that the first victims in the shiny new Halloween reboot are a pair of true crime podcasters. Before meeting their end at the hands of slasher icon Michael Myers, the film pokes subtle fun at their desire to wring narrative value and meaning out of a slew of senseless spree murders (“I’m an investigative journalist,” one of them says self-assuredly, hours before getting their head kicked in by a serial killer.) This winking satire reflects a growing malaise among audiences of the phenomenally popular true crime revival: does any of this really have a point beyond lurid entertainment? Does it really matter, in the way the creators tell us it does?

Part of that feeling comes down to oversaturation. Since the new wave of true crime kicked into gear with podcasts like Serial and TV shows like Making a Murderer, there has been an absolute glut of content to churn through, across basically every medium we have at our collective disposal. It’s all a bit of a blur at this point. The thread that ties them together (and distinguishes them from the Forensic Files-era of true crime) is a commitment to being higher-brow, and providing more than just raw titillation. The creators of these shows pitch themselves not just as storytellers, but also as activists and critics of the system at large.

Sometimes that holds up. The Curtain podcast, for example, is an effective lens on the injustices experienced by Indigenous people dealing with the Australian justice system. Similarly, the Australian’s Bowraville podcast genuinely did set in motion events that are on track to bring the case before the high court. Dan Box, who spearheaded the Bowraville podcast and is well-regarded for his methodical approach to the genre, has said that crime reporting by its very nature cannot be entertaining.

“It’s not entertainment,” he told the Australian’s Behind The Media podcast. “Short of war reporting, it’s probably the most emotional kind of reporting you can do in terms of the damage you can do to the people you’re reporting on.”

Of course, this isn’t really supported by the evidence: true crime is hugely popular right now, and we very much consume it as entertainment. It’s becoming much harder to pretend we’re doing it for any other reason.

At the beginning of the new season of Making a Murderer, the documentarians show us the cultural impact of the first season – and it doesn’t look particularly flattering. A montage of news coverage about the case of Steven Avery and the journey towards a retrial quickly degenerates into something ickier: Netflix lovers showing up to protest outside Wisconsin courthouses; people sending death threats to lawyers involved in the case; even a hundred thousand-strong petition landing on President Barack Obama’s desk. It looks less like a criminal justice campaign, and more like the standard, weird hostility of modern fandom culture. This kind of rage could just as easily be about Doctor Who or ethics in video game journalism. By the time you get to Avery’s lawyers going on a speaking tour – with tickets at $40 a pop – you get it: this is just content churn, the same way it happens with everything else. The difference is, obviously, that someone had to get murdered to make it happen.

There’s a queasy compact that allows us to enjoy true crime as content while keeping the actual grisliness at arm’s length. Sometimes that compact is violated, and we get a sense of how precarious it all is. Fans of My Favourite Murder, the phenomenally popular podcast featuring hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark talking about crime in a light, funny way, are all familiar with the “Melbourne incident”. During a live show, a man – who obviously was not a faithful listener – stood up and heckled the hosts, admonishing them for “laughing” over a case involving the deaths of two young men. By all accounts, it killed the vibe.

None of this is to suggest that it’s immoral to enjoy this stuff. Indeed, there are threads of this kind of entertainment going back almost as far as storytelling itself. What’s been added is the slick Netflix sheen of it all – and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that behind the production values and newfound social conscience, we’re really watching the same stuff we always have. At least Forensic Files, with its janky re-enactments, roughly edited interviews with beefy Midwestern cops, and Vincent Price-esque voiceovers, didn’t pretend to be anything more than it was.

It’s evident that the peak of the true crime renaissance has passed. I’m certainly less inclined to watch every new entry in the canon, as creators probe more and more oblique angles to keep the genre fresh. What we’re left with is a kind of moral hangover as we come to terms with the question the past four or so years of true crime has raised: have we really learned anything from it?

• JR Hennessy is a Sydney-based writer


JR Hennessy

The GuardianTramp

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