True-crime fixation: Curiosity or morbidity?

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on April 08, 2021

Mind games: The critically acclaimed series Mindhunter has two FBI agents in the late 1970s expanding criminal science by delving into the psychology of murder   -  PICTURE COURTESY NETFLIX

Murder is a theme that is unlikely to darken and yellow with time, the writer Truman Capote had once said. Over-the-top platforms — teeming with real-life crime series — seem to agree

* True-crime drama routinely features in the top 10 most-watched shows on OTT platforms

* People are enthralled by these stories because they actually happened, and they give us an adrenaline rush that is highly addictive

* Miscarriage of justice in serialised format is a particular favourite in the genre


In the embers of 2020, easily the worst year in our collective memory, The Ripper dropped on Netflix. Nothing extraordinary about it. A true-crime genre aficionado would have recognised its rhythm even before it had hit its first note: A vicious killer is on the loose, preying on innocent people. Will the law catch up with him before he kills again?

Rather predictable you’d say, but even so true-crime drama routinely features in the top 10 most-watched shows on OTT platforms, which keep stacking up their libraries with real-life crime stories. For sure it will not be long before another drama comes visiting to satisfy the craving for the genre. In case you find yourself running out of true-crime options to watch, there are podcasts to appeal to your aural senses; you can queue those up on your Apple and Spotify playlists.

The podcast genre, very popular in the US and Europe, is now also taking off in India. The Dosa King podcast, about P Rajagopal, the owner of Saravana Bhavan, who murdered an employee in a bid to marry his wife, is a prime example. Podcasts may be a new genre in India, but there are sure signs of feverish downloading, especially of true-crime series such as Death, Lies and Cyanide — about a Kerala woman who, inexplicably, killed six members of her family.

On serial killers

To return to The Ripper, it quickly made it to the top 10 on the Netflix platform. The four episodes about the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, the British serial killer who killed at least 13 women in the mid-1970s, were binge material. Toggling between archival footage and interviews with key dramatis personae, the documentary paints a frightening picture of incompetence and misogyny on the part of the police in north of England that led to Peter Sutcliffe unleashing a tornado of violence and mayhem.

A few weeks later, in January 2021, Night Stalker arrived on Netflix. Four more episodes of serial killing, this time on America’s West Coast, where Richard Ramirez went on a rampage in the mid-1980s slaughtering 13 people, and attempting to kill five others. Binge time again.

The introduction to the Library of America’s True Crime: An American Anthology reads: “The appetite for tales of real-life murder, the more horrific the better, has been the perennial feature of human society.”

When the erudite Truman Capote, who combined journalistic skill with narrative felicity to write about the slaying of a family In Cold Blood, was asked in an interview why murder was so irresistible, he’d replied, “Because it is not a theme likely to darken and yellow with time.” His 1966 non-fiction novel reconstructed the brutal murder of the family in Kansas in the US. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

To relish or not

My yen for Mindhunter, the brilliant Netflix series that studies the behavioural pattern of serial killers, continues to flourish. Helmed by virtuoso film director David Fincher, the series has two FBI agents in the late 1970s expanding criminal science by delving into the psychology of murder and getting uneasily close to all-too-real monsters.

Is it abnormal to relish a television series about the depths of human depravity? Is there a touch of the morbid to it? Or is it simply like a car crash or a train wreck — you want to look away but you find yourself unable to?

I posed the question to the Delhi-based clinical psychologist Dr Prerna Kohli. She said: “People are enthralled by these stories because they actually happened, and they give us an adrenaline rush that is highly addictive. We all have a negativity bias that makes evil attractive and there is a sense of danger via vicarious viewing that makes true crime watching our guilty pleasure.”

To be sure, crime fiction has always been my guilty pleasure. But for a long time that meant devotion to fictional sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe. Not to forget the indefatigable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s cerebral Belgian sleuth with a waxed moustache. I also devoured the somewhat macabre short stories presented by Alfred Hitchcock with such tantalising titles as Stories to be Read with the Door Locked and Stories to be Read With the Lights On. Good detective stories — whether by Christie, Josephine Tey or PD James — have always sent me into transports of delight.

Later, I was addicted to the work of the Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin and his Inspector Rebus. But at some stage this love for crime fiction became more corporeal, as I started following true crime stories, reading newspaper reports, longform articles and books, apart from obsessively watching films and documentaries. The stories of Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, or John Wayne Gacy, serial killers all, kept me riveted, while closer home, I avidly followed the Neeraj Grover murder case in Mumbai, or the ghastly cannibalistic Nithari killings in Noida. Or for that matter the Jessica Lal and Sheena Bora murders and the 2008 Aarushi Talwar case — adapted for the screen by Meghna Gulzar in Talvar — which consumed my attention.

In public eye: The Jessica Lal murder in New Delhi in 1999 caught the imagination of the nation   -  THE HINDU


Is this fixation with crimes and criminals aberrant, I asked Dr Kohli. Or is it normal to want to go behind the mass media portrayal of the accused in an effort to discover the truth?

“Nothing abnormal,” she replied. “We are intrigued by the reasons for the killings. Some of us psychologically want to know what drove the killer — to make sense out of seemingly senseless crimes. Others are driven to get an inside look on the working of the police and the justice system.”

Vicarious frisson

The Scotsman Rankin said about the lure of true crime: “There is a vicarious frisson for the fan... the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.”

A web documentary or drama series or podcast is now increasingly looking like the continuation of a true crime story rather than the end. Miscarriage of justice in serialised format is a particular favourite in the true-crime genre. Much after the series gets over, the guilt of the convict is hotly debated among viewers.

Making a Murderer is the strongest example of that. Filmed over 13 years, it follows the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin native, who served 18 years of his life in prison for a crime of which he was exonerated following DNA evidence. Upon his release in 2003, Avery filed a $36 million wrongful conviction suit against the county, but in 2007 he was indicted for another murder, again seemingly wrongly.

A seminal true crime documentary, the almost 20-hour series captures the ebb and flow of a criminal investigation and the subsequent criminal trials and became something of a sensation. Its re-enactments of the crime, the working class protagonist and his seeming innocence kept audiences worldwide hooked. Importantly, Making a Murderer does not come to a firm conclusion about the innocence of Avery, instead leaving it to the audience to decide — a rhetoric that paved the way for countless similar shows around the theme of wrongful conviction.

None more so than The Innocence Files, the recent nine-part series on Netflix that examines the weaknesses in the US criminal justice system that leads to wrongful convictions. The stories told in the series come from the files of The Innocence Project, an organisation founded in 1992 which works to exonerate the innocent through DNA testing and to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

All the incarcerated convicts in The Innocence Files have been freed after years of wrongful conviction. Most of the cases featured in the series usually deal with the poor, often people of colour, who don’t have the means to defend themselves. As one of the committed attorneys who fights a wrongful conviction case says: “For me it’s the best thing a lawyer can do — get an innocent person out of prison.”

True crime isn’t just about killers unleashing mayhem; there are many films and series that focus on non-homicidal crimes. Here’s a sampling of four recent ones:

What prompted an art dealer to commit the biggest fraud in history and sell $80 million fake art (the just released Made Me Look on Netflix)

How a doctor in the US was able to sexually abuse hundreds of pre-teen gymnasts in a toxic culture that placed medals over morals (Athlete A on Netflix)

How a Texan high-school American football star was falsely implicated and convicted for sexually assaulting a four-year-old boy (Outcry on Voot)

The harrowing new HBO documentary Allen v Farrow that effectively removes all lingering doubts about whether or not film-maker Woody Allen sexually abused his seven-year-old daughter

As the true crime genre proliferates, and some of us try to come to terms with our infatuation with it, perhaps the best explanation is that we love stories. Creepy stories. But real ones, about a real person, involved in real things.


Home as the crime scene: Allen v. Farrow

Mired in controversy: The documentary ‘Allen v. Farrow’ deals with accusations that director Woody Allen had molested his daughter, Dylan   -  REUTERS


The ensnaring appeal of true crime documentaries is exemplified by the four-part HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow. The story about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow has been around since 1992, driven by media headlines. Allen, a leading light of the film world, has faced accusations that he had abused their daughter Dylan.

It is extraordinary that Hollywood still backs Allen, who, while he was with Farrow, started a relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom he later married. In light of these charges by Dylan, does it matter that he has made some of the most iconic American films?

“There’s so much misinformation, there’s so much obfuscation, and so many lies,” says Dylan Farrow in the documentary. “I have been subjected to every kind of doubt, and every kind of scrutiny and every kind of humiliation over this. In the last 20 years he was able to just run amok.”

Allen maintains that Dylan Farrow was coaxed into imagining the abuse by her mother. Mia Farrow says of her partner of 12 years: “You don’t get to have sex with my children. That isn’t part of the deal.”

Many actors who worked with Allen have regretted that they worked with him. Among them are Kate Winslet, Natalie Portman, Rebecca Hall, Mira Sorvino, Rachel Brosnahan and Ellen Page. Incredibly, Diane Keaton and Alec Baldwin continue to support him.

Allen v Farrow is a devastating documentary made by film-makers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. The two have doggedly followed sexual abuse accusations in institutions such as the military, in The Invisible War (2012); colleges, in The Hunting Ground (2015); and the music industry, in On the Record (2020). The film-makers say on their website: “Allen’s was the most public case to ever look at an alleged case of incest. The way the case has been interpreted speaks of the way America to this day views incest cases, and more often than not sends children back to the homes of their abusers.”

The documentary features interviews with most of the Farrow family, notably her son Ronan Farrow, now a journalist for The New Yorker, whose story about Harvey Weinstein won him the Pulitzer Prize and was instrumental in setting off the global #MeToo wave that found thousands of women coming out against their past tormentors.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

Published on April 08, 2021

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