Is It Possible To Have “Ethical” True Crime Consumption?

By Gwen Farrell
·  6 min read
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It’s patently obvious that our culture has a preoccupation with true crime which has now crossed into a full-on obsession. Back in the day, we’d see coverage of grisly murders or home invasions on the nightly news or in the papers; now, there are hundreds if not thousands of books, podcasts, shows, documentaries, and other media solely dedicated to the subject.

With the intersection of influencer culture, this obsession has widened into an even more popular genre, especially with the likes of makeup and true crime videos. Weirdly enough, this genre has launched the career of many influencers, elevating them from small time creators to well-known social media figures with massive followings. But fans and other consumers are finally beginning to ask: Haven’t these creators built their careers on actual, horrible circumstances – cases with real victims and real impact? This begs a bigger, broader question: Is it possible to have “ethical” true crime consumption?

Behind the Obsession

It’s one thing to get lost in a juicy book or fictitious show that deals with crime. But many true crime fans would agree there’s just something different about the element of their obsession being nonfiction. With fiction, we distance ourselves from the circumstances. It’s an escape for us. The characters and the crime itself, however gory and nasty, never took place. It’s for that very reason that so many have become dissatisfied with fiction alone.

With true crime, the element that most piques our interest is that such a thing could happen, but that it happened to someone else. It was someone else’s misfortune and tragedy to be taken advantage of, to be victimized, to have their loved one become a victim or the perpetrator of a nightmare. While we might tell others (and ourselves) that these crimes disgust us, the popularity of the genre demonstrates otherwise.

There are, of course, psychological and indeed rational reasons behind our enthusiasm. An interest in what psychologist Dr. Paul Mattiuzzi labels “a most fundamental taboo” and at the same time “a most fundamental human impulse” draws us in to an extent, in addition to our human fascination with evil and what drives an individual to extreme depravity. There are countless other reasons why true crime has the grip on us that it does – but we can’t deny that it’s now spiraled into something many of us don’t even recognize.

When these cases are treated with the motivation of garnering subscribers, we risk victimizing the injured party again. 

Imagine Your Worst Nightmare Made into TV

Brooke Preston was by all accounts a hard-working, fun-loving woman who was deeply cherished by her friends and family. Prior to her murder in 2017, the Pennsylvania native had moved to West Palm Beach, Florida to live with her sister, Jordan, and their childhood friend Randy Herman Jr. The trio was inseparable, according to their friends, until Brooke decided to move to New York to be with her long-time boyfriend, whom she hoped to marry one day.

Brooke returned to West Palm Beach to collect her things, but before she could start the newest chapter of her life in New York, she was brutally stabbed countless times by Herman. Herman called the police and confessed to the murder, and when he eventually went to trial, he and his public defenders argued that he had been sleepwalking when he killed Brooke. The defense was unsuccessful, and Herman was sentenced to life in prison. Despite later appealing his sentence, the ruling was upheld.

Last December, Hulu released a documentary titled Dead Asleep which documented Brooke’s case. The documentary touches briefly on Brooke’s life, but mainly focuses on Herman and his unique legal defense. Herman’s mother and sister are interviewed and attest that Herman did sleepwalk throughout his childhood. Brooke’s sister Jordan, who lived with both of them, testified during the trial that she never witnessed him sleepwalking. Jordan took to her TikTok account to protest the documentary, in a video which gained 15 million views. 

Brooke’s family never approved of the production nor its release, with Jordan saying that her sister “deserved more” and that they were “never [given] the opportunity to grieve in peace.” According to Rolling Stone, when the family learned that the documentary would focus less on Brooke’s legacy and more on her murderer, they wanted nothing to do with it. The film’s director, Skye Borgman, said, “I really would love for people to walk away from it and really question and ask each other and talk about sleep.” The documentary, despite the Preston family’s best efforts and even a petition to remove it from the site, is still available on the platform.

Crime Made into Content

Brooke’s case is just one of many which has become fodder for true crime aficionados. Podcasts like Doctor Death, as well as shows like The Girl from Plainville and Under the Banner of Heaven, all heavily romanticize real-life crimes. While some might argue that media coverage of these cases can be beneficial to solving a cold case or even memorializing a victim, the controversy with the Hulu documentary illustrates how fine a line that can be. In a perfect world, the documentary would have served solely to commemorate Brooke’s achievements and the love and care she exhibited during her young life. Instead, her murder was used as a mere plot point in a larger project which was more geared towards covering the defense of her murderer. 

The most appropriate words to describe this approach, and the approach of most true-crime centered content in general, are callous and exploitative. When content creators on YouTube produce true crime “get ready with me” videos or even mukbangs, there seems to be little to no reverence for the victim or their family, only an intense focus on the perpetrator and the more gruesome details. Over time we’ve forgotten that an actual crime occurred. We only see our favorite influencer talking behind the camera.

The evolution of this genre, as popular and profitable as it is, has serious consequences. Over time, as we obsessively consume more and more content that trivializes and minimizes these cases, we dehumanize the victims at the center of them. We become acclimated to viewing a family’s devastation as our entertainment. In an essay for The New York Times, Rachel Chestnut aptly describes this phenomenon: “For the sake of the perfect murder story, tragedy is ruthlessly dissected in the limelight without considering those actually affected. Although the coverage of crimes often converts them to tales for public consumption, the prolonged suffering of these victims is gut-wrenchingly real, yet often forgotten by engrossed viewers.”

Closing Thoughts

It’s unfortunate that a favorite passion and interest for many could have such ugly connotations. In the past, in a culture without a 24-hour news cycle and the pervasive nature of social media that seems to permeate all aspects of our life, true crime might have been viewed through a lens with more gravitas. But now, it’s impossible to ignore that when these cases are treated with carelessness and with the sole motivation of garnering subscribers and views, we risk the victimization of the injured party over and over again. 

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