True crime entertainment should be more ethical

We need to stop making narratives out of victims’ lives

A person watching a TV show in a dark room
Cruelty in entertainment forms is still cruelty. PHOTO: Nick Romanov / Unsplash

by Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Content Warning: mentions of death, violence, and disappearances

When a true crime case becomes infamous on social media, there is a tendency for it to be turned into entertainment through popular media. As of 2020, true crime is the “third-most popular genre” in podcasts, as well as the largest and fastest growing documentary subgenre. These podcasts and documentaries often have gruesome depictions or descriptions of murder. The true crime genre, especially where death and disappearances are involved, needs to take a considerable step towards empathy. 

Think about how many Ted Bundy films have been released. Through these adaptations, the serial killer’s victims suffer again as audiences take in the details of their case, and his infamy grows. Why do we need to platform his horrific actions again and again, and why do we cast conventionally attractive men to play him when we do so? Honestly, we know the answer: it builds public perception of Bundy’s charm, and distracts from his monstrosity.

This is where the problem lies: turning these cases into entertainment boils real people down to mere characters for audiences. Adaptations like Bundy’s make a serial killer into a celebrity. This has ripple effects for how audiences come to treat these cases as they become intrigued by the shock value curated by these documentaries, movies, and other adaptations. Audiences get to speculate on the thoughts and decisions of the victim, the culprit, their whereabouts, and then create theories based on them. Audiences continuing to watch these movies also draws more money towards another popular Netflix documentary, and the cycle starts anew. 

This has become even more pressing with Gabby Petito’s case. Petito was a woman who disappeared between August 27 and 30, 2021, and was later found deceased on September 19. 

Millions of people have speculated about what happened to her. The hashtag #gabbypetito reached 1.3 billion views on TikTok. I could theorize the mass attention Gabby Petito’s disappearance has garnered put pressure on her case, which is good. However, with millions of videos under that hashtag, that is an immense pool of social media noise for investigators to look through in the hopes of finding some helpful information. What irks me about this case is how quickly people turn to consuming Petito’s case as though it were entertainment. Her case is being digested through aesthetic social media posts made in pastels and trending TikTok sounds

This is how people turn victims and culprits into caricatures for stories. Petito is a real person who is confirmed to be dead, and millions of people are pouring over her personal life to find details on her case as if they were sleuths themselves.

If, as a society, we are producing this kind of content in response to a tragedy, we must really be desensitized to death. This is something we need to confront. Petito is far from the only person whose death and identity have been used for entertainment.

The same has been done through I Am a Killer, a Netflix documentary centred on the case of Robert Mast, a man who was strangled in a Walmart parking lot. A Time article says family and friends of the victim “pleaded with producers to abandon the project” so they could grieve, but they were just ignored. The documentary decidedly portrays the victim’s murderer in a sympathetic light, and is set to renew for a third season. If we are concerned about the victims’ families (as we should ethically be), the consenting families should be at the forefront of these adaptations. 

There are many examples like I Am a Killer across true crime entertainment, where the victim’s family wishes are blatantly ignored. Instead, as these cases get retold, they get to relive this horrible moment again and again. 

Because people are consuming this content, producers will inevitably make more because it makes money, regardless of the wishes of the victims’ families. True crime should strive to be more ethical by emphasizing and working with the wishes of the victim’s family. We shouldn’t be trying to humanize culprits in serial killers, nor should we be only portraying people as victims. On a smaller scale, we can also be cautious of scrutinizing people’s lives and making trendy memes on social media in the case of Gabby Petito. She, and many true crime victims, deserve more than to be defined by their tragedies.