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Meeting a serial killer: What’s behind the dark fascination with True Crime?

What’s behind our collective thirst for abomination? Tamara Khodova explores the dark, immersive world of true crime podcasts and TV shows.

These are just a few of Netflix’s biggest true crime hits

In a YouTube video, an unidentified man picks two kittens from a bed covered with a blanket featuring a tacky wolf image. Quickly, he puts the kittens in the vacuum sealed bag, callously suffocating them. The man’s next step will be a human sacrifice – again, evidence of his crime is posted on the internet. Later, the story of the porn actor/killer Luka Magnotta and the controversy surrounding it became the subject of Don’t fk with cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, one of the many wildly popular, true crime TV-series spewed out by streaming services in the last couple of years. Eventually, Magnotta did achieve his goal. He became famous: Don’t fk with cats was one of the most-watched shows on Netflix in 2019 – including in Germany.

According to the streaming platform’s statistics, the most popular show on German Netflix last month was Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story about one of America’s most notorious killers who committed the murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys in the 1970s.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a serial killer, streaming media have you covered.

True crime is one of today’s hottest genres, bridging the chasm between day-to-day mundanity and the depths of atrocity. As the label suggests, true crime explores the real misdeeds of real people. The genre choices are mind-boggling: sexual abuse in cults (Seduced: inside the NXIVM cult); exploitation of wild animals for financial gain (Tiger King); selling tickets to non-existent festivals (Fyre Fraud); using Tinder to seduce and steal money from women (The Tinder Swindler); rape and decapitation (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes); or simply good ol’ fashioned murder (The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst).

Natural-born voyeurs

Humanity has always been fascinated by crime. Hangings and executions have been public spectacles since the dawn of time. Cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ told the stories of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper in Victorian England – a tradition perpetuated by today’s yellow press. Gruesome reality has inspired artists for centuries, with some scholars claiming that William Shakespeare himself was an early creator of the true crime genre, scribbling cheap reality-based theatre plays such as Arden of Faversham for a quick buck. Fritz Lang’s M, a timeless thriller unfolding on the streets of Berlin, partly owes its unsettling psychological undertones to Lang’s decision to use real delinquents as extras. While working on the screenplay, Lang conducted a series of interviews with child murderers, including Peter Kürten, who killed at least nine children and was nicknamed the ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’ as he often attempted to drink the blood of his victims.

Markus Spiske, Unsplash

New heights – and new lows

Nonetheless, the true crime genre has never previously achieved the mainstream status it enjoys in today’s popular culture. Tickling nerves has become a legal high. In a 1967 article for Esquire, American writer and journalist Tom Wolfe claimed that modern society had become obsessed with a new perversion: the ‘pornography of violence’. Public fascination, wrote Wolfe, resided in the detail, usually provided at the victim’s expense: “In porno-violence, the camera angle, therefore the viewer, is with the gun, the fist, the rock.” The most notorious example cited by Wolfe was the assassination of John F. Kennedy – scrupulously analysed and replayed with every tiny detail, usually from the murderer’s point of view. Admiration for the killer has rocketed. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a serial killer, streaming media have you covered. They invite the most horrifying maniacs into your house, and you don’t even have to get off the couch!

“As a homicide investigator, I always investigate once the murder has happened but now, I am witnessing what happened as if I were behind the murderer – seeing him commit the murder,” said detective sergeant Claudette Hamlin, recalling her experience of watching Magnotta’s video in Don’t f**k with cats. Recounting the experience, she bursts into tears thinking of the horrible details she witnessed. The act of violence she saw in the video became an irrepressible part of her life. True crime shares killers’ experiences with an audience, making us complicit in their misdeeds. In The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh), which tells the story of German serial killer Fritz Honka, director Fatih Akin mocks our desire for this never-ending thrill by creating a gut-wrenching spectacle of booze, vomit, violence and degradation which could be interpreted satirically. The film received mostly negative reviews.

Glenn Carstens-Peters, Unsplash

When reality beats fiction

It’s not hard to see the allure of true crime: reality will always be more inventive and bizarre than any work of fiction. Could Australian director Emma Sullivan have imagined that in the middle of her work on the documentary Into the Deep – following Danish entrepreneur and inventor Peter Madsen – her protagonist would decapitate a journalist on his submarine? Isn’t it crazy that during the trial of a man accused of pushing his wife down the stairs to her death, police discovered that the accused had found another dead woman at the foot of a different staircase – 20 years previous? Was there a connection? Did one death serve as a model for a later murder? The unfortunate gentleman at the centre of this case is American writer and politician Michael Peterson, the subject of The Staircase, a 2004 true crime docuseries that became one of the genre’s most successful examples. French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s work is the perfect example of a documentary ‘jurifying’ the audience by giving it the means and opportunity to judge the character as if in a criminal trial. We tend to forget that it’s often the director, keen to achieve maximum TV success, who steps in as a kind of proxy defence lawyer for his protagonist, and that objectivity suffers as a result.

True crime is one of today’s hottest genres, bridging day-to-day mundanity and the depths of atrocity

Let’s rewind. In 2001, Peterson found his wife Kathleen dead at the bottom of the stairs – or so he claimed. The amount of blood and bruises on the victim’s body convinced police otherwise. Peterson was subsequently arrested and charged with murder. Lestrade had the unique opportunity of depicting Peterson’s case in the making. He was granted unlimited access to the accused’s house and all his legal proceedings, including the intimate process of building his line of defence. Lestrade more or less ignored the prosecution’s side of events, presenting only one side of the story – eventually eliminating the distance between himself and his subject.

American filmmaker Antonio Campos made a fictionalised version of Peterson’s case in the 2022 HBO mini-series The Staircase. Borrowing its title from the original documentary series, Campos collapses the fourth wall by including Lestrade and his team in the plot, showing that the French director was no longer an unbiased observer but a character in the story.

Michael Held, Unsplash

Precisely how much truth is left in ‘true’ crime? In the 2006 performance documentary The Kick (Der Kick), German filmmaker Andres Veiel drew on the tradition of Brechtian theatre with its ‘estrangement effect’ to strip his film of any sign of emotion or manipulation. Veiel’s work is based on a play first performed in Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre which recounts the 2002 murder of 16-year-old Marinus Schöberl by self-proclaimed Neo-Nazis Marco and Marcel Schönfeld and their friend Sebastian Fink in Potzlow, Brandenburg. Veiel and the screenwriter Gesine Schmidt spent months interviewing the families of the killers and victim. These interviews were transformed into 20 monologues performed by two actors, Markus Lerch and Susanne-Marie Wrage, in a neutral space. Easily flowing between roles, the actors performed seemingly opposed parts, shifting in one case between playing the accused’s father and the prosecutor, cutting emotional ties to the characters and encouraging the audience to reflect on circumstance, not submit to high drama.

The Kick remains a true crime anomaly. Milking misery for entertainment remains the norm. We need work like The Kick which reflects truthfully on situations that engender crime rather than the crimes themselves. There’s enough of those around anyhow.

Binge-worthy true crime

Chilling documentary miniseries Dig Deeper: The Disappearance of Birgit Meier tells the story of Birgit Meier, sister of the police officer  Wolfgang Sielaff, who went missing in 1980. Twenty-eight years later, investigations put in motion by her brother led to the clarification of another notable cold-case: the notorious 1989 double murders in Göhrde.

Criminal yoga tweens, a famous football player who never played football, a newspaper vendor who became the king of porn – these are the subjects of the Weird Crimes podcast in which two ‘true crime junkies’ discuss history’s most peculiar cases.

Im Visier is RBB’s Berlin-based true crime podcast. As ever, the devil is in the detail and this is what hosts Uwe Madel and Teresa Sickert specialise in. Investigating cold crime from Wedding to Werbellin, Im Visier has a YouTube slot and grounds true crime reality in real-life locations. You might have walked right past the crime scenes. Now there’s a free frisson.