True Crime and Tragedy as Entertainment

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about using real life pain, tragedy, and abuse as entertainment. A part of this comes from listening to the podcast Missing Richard Simmons, in which one journalist looks into the enthusiastic fitness instructor’s rather sudden retreat from public life a few years ago and the turmoil that the show caused. Listening to that show felt weird at so many moments and Amanda Hess over at the New York Times nailed exactly why it felt so invasive.

There are so many other examples similar to Missing Richard Simmons that are based on that same sort of premise: using and telling someone else’s story in a very public way. Many (but not all) of these productions are about events that are traumatic and violent, making them moments that I’m sure not many would want to constantly relive on a public stage.

There are numerous episodes from the hit show Law & Order: SVU that are based on real events and headlines and other shows, like Making A Murderer, that have had a huge audience prying into real life crimes and the lives of the people involved; hit podcasts like Serial, My Favorite Murder, and Casefile: True Crime all take someone else’s story and poke at it with a large audience listening; plus, there’s the film Alpha Dog, one of many films to be based on a true story.

These stories always seem to be popular not because humanity is all terrible and that we thrive on another’s misery. But rather, I think we’re a curious species – we like mysteries and puzzles and finding the answers. Or at least, that’s why I’ve listened and consumed that same entertainment. I’d like to think that many at least come from a place of good intentions but I wonder if that’s just the optimist in me.

Others have also wondered why there’s such a cultural obsession with true crime shows and films and if our obsession is a morally and ethically responsible one. Over at Jezebel in 2015, Julianne Escobedo Shepard took a look at why women are so obsessed with the grisly shows on the Investigation Discovery channel. And Kathryn Schulz has an amazing piece over at The New Yorker about why we’re so obsessed with true crime and related shows and how good intentions don’t always translate into the best actions.

I don’t think we should stop talking about crime because doing so will only make getting help for marginalized folks even more difficult. I’m just concerned about the way we currently talk about it. We often treat real life stories as pieces of entertainment, as if there’s not people on the other side just trying desperately to get through what’s probably the worst period of their lives.

For me, there seems to be a line between investigative work in its many forms and entertainment. To put these stories out for the public to see and look at themselves also invites a wave of attention and correspondence for those involved. Hae Min Lee’s brother reportedly slammed the podcast Serial for bringing back the worst experience his family had to go through and presenting it to over five million people.

A few months ago, I wrote about some of the podcasts that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks and months. In that post (found here), I wrote a bit about this same topic:

*While listening to both Someone Knows Something and Casefile, True Crime, I’ve been thinking about the idea of using someone’s tragedy as entertainment. These podcasts, and many others, take what is probably the worst time in people’s lives and present it to the world for everyone to consume as entertainment. Is there a line between using the tragic events like disappearances and murders to potentially further a cold case and using those same things to further a journalist’s career? While not the first to do so, the hit podcast Serial seemed to really take this idea into a new level and at the same time, brought a whole host of white privilege to the stories of people of color. Some articles related to all this that I’ve been reading include:

  • Serial: How a schoolgirl’s brutal murder became casual entertainment by Radhika Sanghani

  • From “the greatest podcast ever made” to “shamelessly exploitative”: A guide to the “Serial” backlash by Anna Silman

  • Is Serial Podcast Problematic? By Stephanie Van Schilt

All of this is something I think about regularly, especially as someone who has listened to podcasts like Missing Richard Simmons and Serial. While I, like many other listeners, are far removed from the impact that these podcasts have and the stories they look at, I wonder if it’s acceptable that I’m taking part in this same phenomenon. I do think that for those of us in the audience, we shouldn’t contact the people involved if we don’t know them. Hearing from a plethora of random strangers on a regular basis is probably very overwhelming, not including the fact that the ways we hear about these stories might not include all of the details about the situation.

There’s so much that goes into this conversation that I know I haven’t even to think and write about. But this is a topic that I’m always thinking about as someone who’s only been on the audience side of these stories.


5 thoughts on “True Crime and Tragedy as Entertainment

  1. It’s funny that you bring this up, as my girlfriend and I have been more or less binge-watching Forensic Files lately. The whole collection is on Netflix and she started watching it on her days off, then got me hooked. I think for both of us, but her especially, the show is a way to see justice served when it feels very lacking in the world currently. Every episode of Forensic Files ends with an identified criminal, and almost every one ends with that person getting (close to) what they deserve. It’s comforting to see that no matter who the victim was, or even if the victim is never identified, people (both professionals and others) cared enough to try to solve their death and give them a proper burial. It’s satisfying to see the times the system actually WORKED.

    I totally agree with what you’ve said up above, though. I know we’re guilty of treating FF like entertainment sometimes, especially when the criminals do something that will obviously get them caught. We definitely try to guess who the killer is at the beginning of the episode, too. But by the end, I think we’re always left a little subdued and thoughtful, if not sorrowing for the people involved. The last episode we watched was particularly disturbing and we’ve agreed to take a break for now. Though now we’re watching a show called Unusual and Curious Deaths, so… *cough*

    I didn’t mean to write an essay in your comments section, sorry. I just think this topic is so fascinating! I wonder, as well, what makes us so drawn to death in other arenas, like natural disasters. Even as a young kid, I was OBSESSED with the sinking of the Titanic, which is definitely kind of a weird and morbid thing for a kid to get enthusiastic and excited about. I always assumed I was a weird one-off, though – it would be interesting to find out what percentage of our society is interested in death in one form or another.

    • I definitely think that there’s a certain sense of curiosity around death that many people have – I know I’m guilty of that too! For me though, a lot of what bothers me about this trend is the crossing of boundaries from audience members to the people who went through that crime/ordeal. A big part of why I wrote this is because I just finished listening to the Missing Richard Simmons podcast and as someone who hasn’t had a whole lot of contact with Simmons in any sort of way, it felt like a very invasive journey. His manager even went out to say that the coverage that the podcast brought was extremely overwhelming for Simmons. That’s what I was really thinking about while writing this – that boundary crossing that audiences might partake in around these stories.

      And I’m honestly so glad for the comment!! It’s always really fun to talk about this kind of stuff because I think that many people have watched shows/films or listened to podcasts that are based on true crimes.

  2. This has given me something to think about! I’ve always felt that movies based off of horrific terrorists events like 9/11 and the Boston bombing were wrong. People shouldn’t be cutting a check off of someone elses tragedy. I never applied those thoughts to shows like Law and Order or the Serial podcast. I think giving air time to criminals only encourages other people to commit crimes for the fame. Whenever a mass shooting or terrorist event takes place the suspects picture is everywhere and news stations talk about what their lives were like, essentially making them famous. I completely agree that we shouldn’t be treating crime as entertainment. Thank you for writing such a thought provoking post, do you mind if i re-blog it?

    • Thank you for this! I’m glad it resonated with you. And feel free to reblog – thanks for asking!

  3. Reblogged this on Queerly Texan and commented:
    I found this post from ContagiousQueer really thought provoking. They brought up many good points about how our society turns tragedies into entertainment. Give it a read!


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