True-crime has exploded in the last decade, with millions of us devouring every podcast, documentary, and ‘tell-all’ book. Seemingly innocuous legal cases now command world-wide attention. Australia, too, is obsessed with digging up our own dark pasts and unsolved cases. When writing my debut thriller Greenlight, in which a true-crime TV producer springs a convicted killer from jail and kicks off a new string of murders, I became fascinated in just what true-crime is, and why we’re so obsessed with it.
On the surface, the answer to our obsession is easy. True crime is the addictive solution to our natural human curiosity. Each episode of a podcast or miniseries ending on a cliff-hanger simply demands that we must revisit for the next answer. But that’s standard thriller fare, and would be prominent in fiction or true-crime, but it’s more powerful here because of the latter’s interaction with the real world. These episodes are often happening in real time.
In Serial and Making A Murderer the accused are both convicted and behind bars. So as each program sheds light on new elements of the cases, we are gripped as we become part of the story. Our natural curiosity is present in fiction – where authors manipulate suspense to make us read towards the answer – but in the real world, when there is no answer, this ticks our suspense into overdrive. Communities of armchair-detectives rally, obsessives become fanatics, and suddenly we’re all pulled into the world of the story in which even the creators don’t necessarily know the answer. Advances in technology allow a microscopic examination of every facet of evidence. We’re all a part of it. And that’s what makes it so addictive.
But I think it goes deeper than that. I think with our new forms of communication we are finding stories from formerly voiceless people. A podcast needs nothing more than an iPhone and a voice, the internet needs no more to share your words than hitting an upload button. It’s important, then, that subjects of true-crime are in cases that are seen as unresolved. An innocent person in jail, a guilty person free. So the stories that come out are victim stories. In The Jinx or OJ Simpson, the subject is protected by wealth or influence or the justice system, their victims don’t get a voice, and in Making A Murderer or Serial the subject is a victim of the system itself. This means to tell their stories – on TV, on radio, or in the newspapers – they must concede to the very systems that are intent on covering up in the first place. With our new methods of communication it is easier for victims to share their stories, and injustices brought to light. We’re hooked on that.
For the true crime afficiando, here are the top five true crime documentaries you need to get your eyeballs on.
There’s a reason too, that we’re hooked on injustices. True crime speaks to our primal human concern of speaking out against injustice. We’re all affronted to see someone so wronged. So listening to a true-crime podcast, getting behind a victim, is actually an act of social change. The world is stuffed – we all know that – but many of the problems feel larger than one person. Trump’s the President; who knows who the Aussie PM is; people are dying in poverty: but that’s a lot to stomach. But what we can do, is filter our conscience in to one finite case of injustice, which allows us to assert ourselves and feel like we are makers of change. We feel like, by taking sides in our favourite podcast, that we are comfortably rebelling against the broken system. It is addictive because it is a safe rebellion.
Lastly, I think true-crime’s focus on the victim propels our curiosity. Many are about wrongfully accused killers, everyday people who are thrust into a series of events that are beyond them (or so the narrative of the shows will lead you to believe, we can debate whether Steven Avery is guilty another time). I think that speaks to a truth in all of us – inside that armchair detective, inside that comfortable rebel, inside the listener of everyday voices – that shows that these stories are not unique. They are in our towns, in the houses next door. They are normal people, with normal jobs, convicted of or getting away with heinous crimes. Fear is even more addictive than entertainment. We are gripped by the fact that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us.
Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson is published by Penguin Random House and is available from today. RRP $32.99.