Netflix and kill: the creepy obsession with true crime

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

Thumbing avidly through Heat magazine recently in a fevered search for the latest on the Cheryl/Liam/Naomi infernal triangle, I was startled to find a pull-out preview of a new true-crime magazine called Crime Monthly. It was aimed at an audience that is presumably satiated with seeing celebrities tormented and now wants to read about ordinary people being tortured. Heat magazine — once a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon — is often now found on free magazine stands, so the publishers, Bauer, are chasing the money. The self-important actress Kristen Stewart once compared being papped to being raped, but there’s obviously more profit now in flogging the real thing.

The preview was so crass — the words GRISLY, AGONY and SHOCKING leaping out amongst the smiling faces of young female victims — that at first I thought it might be the sort of tasteless joke that has got Heat into hot water before. I wasn’t the only one; as the Press Gazette put it: ‘News of the launch has already prompted criticism online, with some even asking if it was a joke.’ But it’s worse than making the victims of crime into a joke; a joke is short and sharp and over quickly. This is making their murders into time-killing entertainment, featuring, as it will, ‘a 16-page gore-guide to all the TV, film, book and podcast crime content that might interest readers’. Spectator-sport sex-slaughter, me-time toddler-torture, idle-moments infanticide — roll up, pay your £1.99 and take your pick.

I’m not a squeamish person but I find this totally repellent; I read a book about Charles Manson when I was a teenager and that was enough for me. It’s not so much respect for the dead; more that I just can’t help thinking of the living, left to see their beloved children become grist to the cheap-thrills mill.

In the past, you could dismiss the consumers of this trash as semi-literate, barely housetrained weirdos, but The Cultured have had their retroussé snouts in the charnel–house trough for some time now. Since 2016, we have witnessed the rise of ‘Death of a Woman as Hipster Diversion’ programmes: Serial, Undisclosed, Making a Murderer, The Jinx. Then came the recent Oscar nomination of a film about the murder of James Bulger. The distressed parents of the murdered child had not even been contacted by the film-makers.

With educated types, there’s always some attempt at justification for having Netflix and kill as their default entertainment mode. But the arguments about miscarriages of justice are pretty weak in the age of DNA profiling. As for it being helpful to know what makes a criminal mind, I don’t see how this is relevant. It’s not as if we can travel back in time in order to stop a murder. Fascination with forensics is another excuse — but I suspect that most viewers probably didn’t pay too much attention in science classes at school. The addition of attractive corpses seems to provoke this sudden desire to learn. It’s like when people used to claim they bought Playboy for the essays.

This true-crime cult has the effect of making one yearn for the now wholesome-seeming version of yesteryear, wherein gangsters nailed each other to occasional tables for fun. At least these were stories about men taking on similarly matched men, whereas the first issue of Crime Monthly includes pieces on the murdered backpacker Grace Millane, the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, the murdered child JonBenét Ramsey and, inevitably, the Wests. I know there have always been half-witted women who fall in love with serial killers, but it still shocks me to read that true crime is a ‘female-driven interest’.

With real violent crime going up, you’d think the taste for crime as entertainment would be decreasing. The poor interchangeable stabbed boys who are collateral for a society more interested in policing thoughts than policing crimes won’t get a look-in. I’m sure, however, that some zeitgeisty publisher is hoping for a sexual element to the death of Jodie Chesney, the 17-year-old stabbed in the back on 1 March by three men, so they can feature her as their cover girl in the near future. If you happen to be one of the many people who binge on the deaths of real people as though they were a particularly tasty packet of cupcakes, I’m sure you’ll lap it up.

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