The Problem With True Crime
Why True Crime Is Getting Harder To Read
True crime is a fascinating subject that draws in people from all over the world. There’s a dark curiosity about what murders or robberies happened in an area close by. What famous criminals walked the streets you shop on? Is old Mrs Patterson really the sweet lady she seems, or is she an uncaught mastermind of a thief? What makes a person kill?
The questions are not the problem. The research is rarely the issue. We can all forgive missing information that is sealed in police records, or not seeing something because larger pieces of evidence are more commonly focused on. The presentation of the facts, however, has become problematic. This can be broken into two main issues: bias presentation of the facts, and bigotry or personal bias being presented instead of facts.
I would also like to stress that this is my own personal opinion. All authors will have their own style, and all audiences have the right to their own preferences. I am coming from a position of being both. As an author, I find true crime difficult but satisfying to delve into and discover. As a reader I find many true crime authors (which is a term I’m loosely stretching to mean podcasters/youtubers/and others, since they’re all scripted) to be difficult to engage with. There’s always a moment when I will realise one of the two main issues (or, often, both) is prevalent in their presentation of a case.
So, if you’re a writer of true crime, this is not a be-all and end-all of things to look out for when writing. Nor is it a critique of you personally. It’s simply one audience member’s opinions on how a very complicated issue could use a little more tact than some people give it.
There will not be excessive depictions of the violence of the true crimes written about in this particular essay. I am simply using real crimes to represent a version of the things I have read or witnessed in the true crime community. While I will do my best to only present facts, they are not an example of my in-depth presentations.
Bias presentation is, as the name suggests, when the only facts given are the ones that suit the author’s preferred theory. This can be done in multiple ways. Often, we see facts being totally removed from a case. Facts that are considered unimportant to police can also be treated as deeply important clues. Information is often withheld for a dramatic reveal that is intended to shock an audience, even when it would have been available earlier in an investigation. All these things create an unequal discussion of true crime cases.
Facts being removed from a presentation of a case is perhaps one of the most obvious forms of this bias I’ve mentioned. Occasionally, graphic descriptions of the violence committed are not suitable for the platform the case is being discussed on. This is a different removal of information, and done more so to discuss these cases without the pieces being totally removed. Simply deciding that a piece of evidence doesn’t matter, especially in unsolved true crime, gives an incomplete version of the event. Disregarding or “glossing over” major events, crime scene evidence, or suspects in order to present the author’s preferred explanation of the case disregards the fundamental point of researching true crime to begin with. While I believe authors can and should make note of their preferred theory or list of events, since it would be impossible to ask true crime writers to stay utterly impartial on the matter, removing or devaluing evidence takes away the audience’s ability to form their own opinion on the case. It also misrepresents the events as they happened. Misrepresenting a case is disrespectful to the victims as it takes a serious and potentially complex situation and removes it from its own context.
For example, if someone who was biased toward the idea that Jeffrey Dahmer was obviously a murderer, the facts of his first murder (the murder of Steven Mark Hicks) would be presented as such:
- Dahmer used to decapitate and crucify dog carcasses, and keep animal bones in jars. He was obsessed with how animals “fit together”.
- So he sees this shirtless guy, Hicks, and convinces him to come over to his house for a couple of drinks.
- For some reason, Hicks says yes to this and even after seeing his place stays and drinks with him. They talk and listen to music and stuff as if that’s totally normal.
- Hick decides he wants to leave, Dahmer gets aggressive and kills him.
A presentation of the facts that would be more accurate would be:
- Dahmer had a history of keeping animal bones in jars in his parents’ shed as a child. He claimed to be curious how animals “fit together” and would touch animals to see where the bones were inside them. Part of this exploration of animal death included the decapitation of one dog carcass. He nailed the body to a tree and impaled the head in a wooded area on his parents’ property. Despite this strange fascination, at this time in his life he still had friends and was considered well mannered but sociable.
- At least one school teacher noted signs of abandonment or emotional neglect from his parents. As he got older he became more isolated from his peers. Drinking during the day, and acting as a “class clown”:
- Dahmer discovered he was gay as a teenager and began having sexual fantasies that quickly turned violent. His first desire to attack someone was when he was 16. He intended on ambushing and killing a jogger he found attractive, however, the jogger did not pass on that particular day. He was not caught for this.
- On the 18th of June 1978, when Dahmer was 18, he picked up a hitchhiker named Steven Mark Hicks, 19. Hicks was reportedly walking shirtless along the road, something Dahmer viewed sexually and is why he decided to pull over. Hicks discussed his attraction to women, and Dahmer realised sexual advances would not be accepted.
- Dahmer brought Hicks back to his home, suggesting they could drink together. After several hours of drinking, listening to music, and talking, Hicks expressed his desire to leave. Dahmer didn’t want him to, and murdered him with a 10lb dumbbell and masturbated over his body.
- Dahmer dissected Hicks’ body in the basement before hurrying him on the property. Several weeks later he uncovered the corpse, pared the flesh and dissolved it in an acidic solution, which he flushed down the toilet.
The first list leaves out crucial information. Firstly, it paints the image of Dahmer’s home as if the animal carcasses are readily visible to Hicks. It also denies the reader the crucial point that Hicks was a hitchhiker, giving him little means of simply leaving when he wants to. The second list shows Dahmer had the ability to make friends and appear somewhat normal to his peers, even if he later lost the friends he had. It shows his issues with abandonment as a motivation for his first murder, but also the fact that it was sexually driven, and that it wasn’t his first attempt at attacking someone. There’s also a completely different tone to the first, which is heavily judgmental of Hicks’ actions. It makes him seem at fault for his own death, despite the truth that he was the victim of a man who killed over 15 men and boys.
Facts being treated with differing importance than is assumed by investigators is a different but related issue. Facts can be highlighted, or discussed in depth when they are considered almost inconsequential to investigators. This point also accounts for rarer but important instances when a case has an important piece of information that is glossed over by true crime writers. This unequal representation of the facts makes research for information more difficult, and it totally changes the way a case is viewed by the public.
For example, if we take the case of Bella down the Wych Elm. Most people know this case, but the run down is simple. A few boys found a skeleton in a Wych Elm in 1943 and it was reported to police. A piece of taffeta (a crisp sort of silk or polyester fabric) in the mouth lead to the conclusion she died of asphyxiation. It is unclear if she was placed in the tree before or after her death.
A common theory is that she was a spy relating to the fact that her clothing had no visible tags on them. (I would like to stress before continuing that there is other evidence toward the spy theory, but this piece is a common one that I feel is misrepresented). The lack of tags is often pointed to as proof that Bella was a German spy, and that the tags were removed to help conceal her identity. This ignores multiple facts about the condition of the clothing and the time period. Firstly, the clothing was in very poor condition as a result of the body being there for (potentially) more than a year. Clothing tags, after a year outdoors, would be indecipherable if they were still attached. Secondly, during world war 2 (the time the body was found) it was incredibly common for clothing to be thrifted or otherwise second-hand. Tags can be cut off for a variety of reasons (to curb attempts of people “returning” thrifted items, sensory issues, to stop it from being visible while the clothing is worn) and the removal of tags does not inherently imply someone is a spy. This is a piece of evidence blown wildly out of proportion for its overall unimportance to the case (especially given the spy theory can hold up without it).
Revealing information for shock value. The problem is that, rather than presenting all of the evidence, true crime authors will present crucial evidence to shock an audience rather than to present the case. A properly presented case is not made to sensationalise, but to inform. Sensationalism is disrespectful to the victims.
For example, there would be alternative ways to present the suspects in the case of Mary and Marguerit “Maggie” Jenkins. The body of the two sisters were found on the side of the road, covered with sticks. One of the theories was a serial killer named Gerard Schaefer. A sensationalist way to present it would be:
Schaefer was a serial killer and rapist in Florida. He was a sheriff’s deputy and trusted member of the community who prayed on people psychologically weaker than him. He bragged about killing as many as thirty women and girls, so was a solid candidate for the slaughter and rape of the Jenkins sisters. He was caught picking up two hitchhiking girls, so it’s plausible that when he saw the Jenkins sisters on the side of the road, he would pull over with intent to kill. His bedroom was full of detailed stories about how he would kill and rape his victims. Actually though, he was in prison at the time of the murders, so he couldn’t have done it.
[Then list further suspects]
A more fitting description would be:
While Schaefer is well known within the area and his crimes fit the description of the brutality the Jenkins sisters faced, he is not a viable suspect as he was in prison at the time of the murders. The evidence for his involvement was circumstantial, such as his own insistence at killing and raping 30 women and girls, and the fact that he would commonly choose hitchhikers as victims.
While the first presentation has more information and evidence, it’s important to note that it isn’t presented with the intention to inform. It’s written to disgust and mislead the reader. The shock value of what Schaefer did is then disregarded due to the fact that he was incapable of committing the crime. This treats the attacks like lead ups to the current presentation’s murder, rather than gruesome attacks in their own right. When it is revealed that he is not able to be the murderer in this case, the audience is almost left to forget about the other victims that have been brought up.
Authors should do their best not to misrepresent facts. If you are writing true crime, it’s natural to have your own/preferred theory, and to view some information as more important than investigators may have thought. Nonetheless, to do this without explicitly stating that it is your intention will give audiences a misconstrued view of the case. It’s essential to remember these are real events that occurred, with real victims. We should present the stories of these victims with as much respect as possible.
Bigotry and Personal Bias
Bigotry within the police force is well documented, but a less documented (likely because of its less immediate dangers) reality is the way that carries into true crime communities. This ranges through all types of prejudice, but today I’m talking specifically about racism, misogyny, and ableism. Obviously, there’s also homophobia, transphobia, ageism, the list is almost endless which I could write an entire seperate essay on, but for today, we’re sticking to those three. The reason is because they’re the ones I see reoccurring most frequently.
Assuming guilt based on skin colour is one of those things people say they don’t do, but it seems quite clear when it happens. If there’s ever a case where two people are suspected of a crime, regardless of the evidence, if you find a picture of the one everyone thinks “looks guilty” it will be the suspect with the darker skin. This point also extends to the concept of assuming that the police were correct in arresting a person of colour even when the evidence for their arrest is lacking or procedure wasn’t followed.
A famous example is the handling of Nicole Simpson Brown’s and Ron Goldman’s double homicide that resulted in the arrest of O.J. Simpson. The trail of O.J. Simpson, “the trial of the century”, is infamous for people claiming that he was guilty of the crime despite the not guilty verdict. This claim itself isn’t necessarily the problem, true crime authors are entitled to have an opinion on the matter, the problem is in the way people say that he should have been imprisoned. This claim ignores the fact that the case was mishandled and the racism that surrounded the trail. Other suspects — Joseph Simpson, Glen Roger, and there are theories of drug dealers — are rarely named. The decision that bothers me in engaging in true crime media about this case is the idea that Simpson should have confessed and gone to prison, despite the jury declaring him not guilty, despite the blatant mishandling, and despite the lead detective, Mark Fuhrman, being incredibly racist and refusing to answer under oath if he had planted manufactured evidence (including the infamous glove). Regardless of anyone’s opinion on if he is guilty or not, it’s racist to imply that a black man should have confessed for a police force, and that his refusal to is inherent proof of guilt. It’s racist to not assume he is innocent until he can be proven guilty, especially in a case that is lead by an actively racist detective in a racist legal system. Before Simpson is pronounced guilty in a presentation, the author must look beyond the word of a racist detective.
When faced with a case that has a suspect that has been hounded by police, it’s important to note if this was a person of colour. When they are, the harassment rarely begins and ends with asking questions about the case, and often becomes racist. Additionally, the police is an piece of a racist institution and grants a level of power that is enticing to bigoted people. This means any suspect who is a person of colour should be looked at more closely by true crime authors to see if there is legitimate evidence or if the case is just built on circumstance and racial prejudice.
The racism within the presentation of these cases also goes deeper than just this. Presenting men of colour as frightening and aggressive or women of colour as sexually promiscuous regardless of the actual lives lived by these people. Authors will gloss over the way the police treat people of colour during a case. Authors will not account for racism in the handling of a case where the person of colour is the victim, even with wilful disregard of protocol by police. Harmful stereotypes are applied to victims and suspects alike. This makes true crime a more hostile environment for people of colour to become involved in. Thankfully, this is something that is changing over time, but it requires true crime authors to consider their own prejudice when writing stories involving people of colour.
Treating sex workers as “lead ups” to a “real” victim is misogynist. While I recognise that there is an entire group of so-called feminists who claim that sex work is inherently misogynistic, we’re going to focus on the fact that treating sex workers like they are inhuman is rooted in patriarchal ideals. (This is something else I could write multiple essays on, but won’t because they would likely be seen as “too political”.) Sex workers, ranging from strip dancers to full-service workers, are often brushed off in true crime conversations. I believe this is likely to do with the fact that sex workers going missing or dying is often ignored by the police. By continuing to discuss these cases in this way, true crime authors strip the victims of their humanity.
For example, let’s compare two different ways of presenting Peter Sutcliffe’s victims.
Sutcliffe was a grave digger who would brag about stealing bodies from the morgue he worked in, and killed four sex workers
In 1977, he killed 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald.
Sutcliffe was a grave digger who would brag about stealing bodies from the morgue he worked in.
Sutcliffe attacked multiple women with intent to kill, but was unsuccessful.
In 1975, he killed Wilma McCann, a 28-year-old woman. He picked her up when he found her walking home drunk. After discovering she was a sex worker, he killed her.
In 1976, he murdered Emily Jackson, who was 42. Due to economic hardship, she was convinced to engage in sex work by her husband. Tragically, she met Sutcliffe and was killed.
In 1977, he killed 28-year-old Irene Richardson. She had been homeless and was working in the sex industry to support herself. Sutcliffe attacked and killed her. She was the first corpse he purposefully rearranged and covered her with her own coat.
Two months later, also in 1977, Patricia Atkinson, 32, was killed. She was found in her own apartment.
After the death of 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald, in June of 1977, the media began legitimately reporting on the deaths. Richard McCann, the son of Wilma McCann who was a child at the time of his mother’s murder, said that police referred to MacDonald as the first “innocent” victim. The police deny this. Jayne MacDonald was walking home late one night and Sutcliffe, assuming she was a sex worker, murdered her.
A key difference in these two presentations is that the first four murders are completely removed from the first list. The victims are treated as the equivalent to stealing bodies from a morgue. It’s also common that the killing of sex workers will be listed with the mutilation of animals. It’s disrespectful to the women who were killed and implies that sex workers (including people currently engaged in sex work) aren’t worth mentioning.
This sort of misogyny also spreads into the wider realm of true crime. Women who have affairs are treated with much harsher language than men. The women who kill are labeled as “crazy” (more on that as we talk about ableism) rather than looking into what may have driven them to crime. The treatment of women in true crime requires more authors to consider their bias toward women, especially in regards to their sexuality.
Treating schizophrenia as an untreatable and violent disease is damaging to people currently dealing with psychosis. The hallucinations and confusion that people suffer from can, on occasion, make people violent. This has been proven to be avoidable with therapy and medication. Still, true crime authors will treat violence as an untreatable inevitably of psychosis. While not every patient will be totally receptive to treatments, it’s very important to note that a minimal number of patients with psychosis are violent, and an even smaller number are violent after treatment.
In true crime, this manifests as authors pointing out a history of violence beside a history of schizophrenia without addressing if a diagnosis was made or treatment was ever sought. Additionally, when treatment is sought and it works, it’s presented as if violence is an inevitability of a relapse. An example for this sort of treatment is Richard Chase, otherwise known as The Vampire of Sacramento, a title given to him for his tendency to drink the blood of his victims. I will not deny the gruesome nature of his attacks, but it is still important that they be presented in the context of his illness. Before the attacks, Chase was institutionalised, medicated, and deemed no longer a danger to himself or others. For reasons I haven’t been able to find, he was weaned off his medication and no longer provided therapy. Given my own understanding of the American health system, I believe this was an economic decision rather than a medical one. When Chase started to show symptoms of his illness affecting him again (drug use and self-isolation) he was not provided with additional care. Instead, his symptoms worsened and he became violent. After committing six murders, he was found guilty despite his insanity plea and sentenced to die in a gas chamber. While in prison, waiting for his death sentence, he discussed at length the delusion that Nazis in UFOs had made him kill. His cellmates were known to encourage him to kill himself and in 1980, he did so by overdosing.
The dismissal of his illness is often paired with the idea that Chase deserved to die. This is likely agreed by the jury as he was given a death sentence. While I could make my own personal judgments on the validity of capital punishment, let’s instead focus on the alternative. If Chase had been found guilty of second-degree murder instead of first, he would have been institutionalised again. Treatment for his illness was working in the past and there’s no reason to believe that he would have been dangerous with continued help. Ultimately this case (and many cases involving schizophrenic people) is treated as a personal failing rather than a systematic one. It’s viewed as Chase being evil and deserving of death rather than Chase falling through a poorly designed system that doesn’t assist people with disabilities. While violent criminals should be held accountable for their actions, it doesn’t change that these actions might have never occurred if the health system were functional.
Within the presentation of true crime cases, authors must consider their prejudice. While I have listed some of the more heinous versions of bigotry affecting the discussion of a case, there is also the fact that authors will use words or phrases that are offensive. While the points I have made are more focused on overarching issues that can seep into an entire case, smaller one-off sentences can still be hurtful to read. It alienates current readers and it disrespects the victims. This is often unintentional, but regardless of why people are using this type of language, it can still be harmful.
So, we are left with the finality of this discussion. As I’ve stated, this is all based on my opinion and experience within the true crime community. I have seen the way authors twist facts to suit their own opinions and prejudices until the original case is almost unrecognisable. It’s a terrible thing to change the truth into a spectacle that is meant to shock and horrify.
Now, naturally, I should discuss readers in all of this. If these problems are mostly engineered to make a spectacle for an audience, why are people still reading these works? The answer is quite simple: true crime interests people because it is, usually, already horrifying. If facts need to be twisted, excluded, or exaggerated then the case might not be as interesting as it’s made out to be. Alternatively, the authors might need to consider restructuring their presentations. If the presentation of the facts can’t hold the interest of the audience, is it the fault of the fact or the writer? If the fact is not gruesome, does it give the author the right to butcher the stories of real victims to make audiences shudder? I would say no.
About the author
Blake Smith is a student and aspiring author in Australia. Their work is influenced by their political leanings, trauma, and reading nonsense online. Who's isn't though? Did y'all see that orange with the limbs and the face? Terrifying :/