With Halloween, this time of year brings horror movies to primetime. Your favorite campy shows turn dark and moody. Hollywood launches some blood-filled monstrosity upon us all, daring us to watch it late at night. Starbucks puts something spicy in their coffee and brainwashes millions of people (I’ve never had it, is it soylent green? It’s soylent green isn’t it. Be honest, you can tell me.)
I wanted to write something for this holiday … something weird … something scary. What’s scarier than real life? Happy Halloween, by the way.
True Crime Murder Stories
Is it safe to say that murder has been a trope of entertainment since forever? The human need to set things right seems to drive the eerie fascination into mysteries. The want to know the who, the what, the where, the when, and perhaps most horrific of them all the why.
As much as I enjoy the good tale, cast aside the headline inspired stories of Law & Order, the fabrications of CSI, the near-superheroic detective abilities of Sherlock. Think about the stories of real life events. Just like holiday decorations hitting the shelves earlier, interest in murder smacked the airwaves and broadcasts before the leaves even thought about changing color. (Even though certain masked people decided to pull out the creepy even earlier.)
I’ve taken tourist tours – a lot of them - where guides tell tall tales of what supposed to have happened in the building directly across the street where we stood. I mean a lot, even took one just recently in my own hometown. Sometimes guides add little embellishments for entertainment, because – you know – it can’t be boring. But sometimes…
Sometimes the real story is all but boring.
Start digging. It won’t take long to find a source headlined clever enough to grab your attention. Use Google, your television guide (do people still subscribe to TV Guide?), or scan the various Internet radio show publishers. For example, the show “Unsolved Mysteries” was a favorite show when I was younger. The host’s grave-deep speech while he walked through some fog in a studio enthralled my tiny little warped mind. It seems I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment. Today you can find YouTube videos online, multiple podcasts, and even more television shows exhuming the details of murders – solved and unsolved alike.
A few months ago, my wife introduced me to podcasts like “My Favorite Murder” as it sky-rocketed in the charts to be one of the most popular Internet-based radio shows you can listen to. Each episode has the hosts go through one or two cases (spoiler alert: people die) and discuss the details from collected research. And that is the one thing each and every medium has in common. Three people host “Thinking Sideways,” another podcast online. They cover stranger events than murder cases – solved or no – but the unexplained like alien sightings, cryptids, etc. From the shows I’ve listened to a host is assigned to lead their researched story. Each host seems to take a stab at investigating every story, but it’s clear one person drags the plot with the partners kicking and screaming along the way. It’s the research that gets me. Extreme details are brought out and some get more graphic than others. Then there’s “The Last Podcast on the Left.” I’m not here to review podcasts (perhaps that’ll be a different article later), let’s just say the hosts on this last one are a tad more excitable than others. Funny … entertaining … and excitable.
But all of them are vastly popular and very entertaining. And television isn’t backing down on it’s true-crime story telling.
This past summer brought a sudden rash of documentaries on the unsolved case of JohnBenet Ramsey. There was, what, four? Right? One even claimed to figure it all out seemingly claiming to “know” who did it, while other filmmakers weren’t so brash. Hell, I think I saw a commercial for yet another piece on this case.
It’s not just famous cases from the 90s. In an upcoming episodic documentary Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills take a trip to Long Island. Let’s just say they didn’t go for Adventureland, Sagamore Hill, or even the Old Westbury Gardens, they did visit the beach. (Sorry, no great white shark Jaws reference here.)
“The Killing Season” is an accumulation of four years of research on the Long Island Serial Killer.
If this sounds familiar, it’s the only unsolved – active – serial killing case to date.
After watching networks claim they figured out the Ramsey case and after listening to countless gruesome murders on various podcasts one more show was added to my watch list. I took the opportunity and spoke to Zeman and Mills in an effort to get some insight as to why … why has “murder” enthralled the public? It’s not just the season. The Ramsey documentaries came out summer 2016. The podcasts are year-round. And their show comes out just after the sugar high of trick-or-treating decays away.
Zeman comes from a previous murder story, “Cropsey”. Not one to be stranger to speaking to the fear culture,
“we have this idea based on TV that these cases for whatever reason get solved, it’s called the CSI effect, that somehow somewhere out there there’s a piece of physical evidence that’s going to nail the perpetrator in a half an hour. In this case that wasn’t true and so we wanted to know why wasn’t this getting solved. What is really involved in a serial killer investigation. How difficult is it? Why is it so difficult? … There was something else that made us want to do this case, and I think me personally I always like to show people the real horror about this. And there’s a lot of shows out there, there’s a rash of serial killer shows and they’re portrayed as evil geniuses like Hannibal Lecter or just a female investigator who’s slightly sexually titillated by the serial killer as in the show ‘The Fall’. We wanted to show the harsh reality of what was really going on out there.”
And showing that reality took cooperation with law enforcement, and it wasn’t as easy as checking out querying the librarian at the local library. The serial killings traveled down to Daytona Beach and back again, the investigation followed the breadcrumbs. Mills explains that, “[It] was different from city to city. We actually had a really great interaction and support from Daytona Beach, the Chief Mike Chitwood, who was open. Was open to the community about what had happened and really wanted to solve the case.
She continues, “A lot of times it does come down to individual but at the same time we totally understand law enforcement really respecting these cases and knowing that sometimes you do need to keep clues and facts of the case close to your chest for fear of … false confessions. We understand that from law enforcement’s perspective.”
“Our goal was to try and help bridge the gap,” says Zeman on bringing up investigating certain cold cases after a period of time past. “And say, hey why don’t you try and use these resources that you have available.”
Zeman adds, “what we try to show law enforcement is that you can still be transparent while still having to hold back, while still investigating, while still dealing with the media.” He explains that when the Long Island serial killings took place the media descended upon an ill-prepared police department. “And justifiably so,” he says. “It’s not a usual occurrence. At the end of the day we’re trying to show how the public looks at these cases as well. I think it’s important that police agencies know that transparency is extremely important…because when you don’t have transparency and when you aren’t communicative, the public loves to speculate.
In the age that we are, speculation is a dangerous thing.”
You can find “The Killing Season” on A&E and premiers with back-to-back episodes on Saturday, November 5, 9 p.m. Pacific. Check your local listings.
Oh, if you are interested in those podcasts I mentioned earlier. Each – and probably others as well - also cover the Long Island Serial Killer. Sometimes it’s nice to hear a different point of view on the same story.
But still, what is it about the crime stories, why are they entertaining to some to begin with? Is it the thrill of the story? Do they bring to light something civilians typically do not deal with on a regular basis? My arm-chair guess? Yeah. It’s probably not much deeper than that.
Stay safe out there.