The Commodification of Tragedy: Why True Crime has Gone Too Far
If you scroll through any social media platform, you’re bound to come across some version of true crime content. On Tik Tok, it’s strangers making cookies while they tell you stories about women being murdered. On YouTube, it’s people doing their makeup while they detail how a child was kidnapped and killed. There is no short of content about the tragic and the bloody. Talking about tragedies isn’t a bad thing, it’s a human response to want to come together when something horrible happens. True crime now, with its Tik Tok fans, podcasts, and tv shows, isn’t about bringing people together though; it’s about making a profit.
The best example of this comes from listening to literally any true crime podcast. The speakers will stop detailing child assault to ask their listeners to join Hello Fresh. The somber music will cut to an ad for better help, just in case the case they’re getting paid to talk about is too much for you. While some podcasters may care about their subjects, at the end of the day, the victims are a way to make money. And it is a lot of money for some people. The “My Favourite Murder” hosts, made 15 million dollars in 2019 alone. This year, Amazon paid 100 million dollars to have the right to release the episodes a week early on their platform. Gossiping about serial killers has never been so profitable.
When Gabby Petito died, it became one of the biggest true crime cases in history. It was one of the first cases to have both every podcast and every TikTok true crime “girly” was talking about it. The problem wasn’t the support for Petito, it was the type of support. People from all over the world decided they were going to investigate. These people harassed anyone who knew the couple, some going as far as to take a road trip to “help” search. It became almost like a game for people, a fictional story instead of a real and heartbreaking crime.
Even now, over a year after her death, Lifetime made and released a movie detailing the story. The movie was announced not even a year after her death, with production starting an alarming 4 months after Brian Laundrie died. The entire case has been a spectacle from start to finish, and no one that knew the two people at the centre has had a moment of peace. Just last week, Jeopardy came under fire for bringing up the case in a question about alligators. If the true crime community hadn’t amplified the case to such heights, there wouldn’t be movie execs and tv shows profiting off of a dead woman.
Hollywood loves the true crime trend. They’ve been churning out both documentaries and fictional accounts of crimes. One example is Netflix’s new series, the first season of which was so popular that they green-lit several more seasons. The first season centered around Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer and was largely a success for the streaming service. It wasn’t a success for the survivors and family members of the deceased. Several family members have come forward, slamming Netflix for the inaccurate portrayal and the lack of input victims’ families had. Dahmer created a picture of an insecure, empathic man who was only a product of the world around him. On social media, you can find dozens of people defending Dahmer, saying he was misunderstood and the hate for him is homophobic. The show has created a narrative where Dahmer is as much a victim as the dozen gay men of colour that he killed, and people are too uneducated to question it.
Another example with the same critiques was Hulu’s 2021 release Dead Asleep. The story follows Randy Herman Jr., who murdered his roommate Brooke Preston. The movie was already a problem before it came out. The victim’s sister took to TikTok, explaining that the streaming service had never contacted her family, portrayed the story incorrectly, and instead opted for only contacting the perpetrator’s family. She stated that the movie was forcing her family to relive the worst day of their lives, but no one from Preston’s family got anything out of it. The actual description of the movie on Hulu’s website doesn’t even mention Brooke. It’s not a story about the woman who was brutally stolen from her family, it’s a way for the murderer to try and convince the audience of his innocence.
Although it may seem the opposite, I don’t think true crime itself is a problem. I think telling the story of victims is worth a lot. I think the advocacy for people like Adnan Syed who had an unfair trial is important work. But the over-saturation of true crime content had commodified very real people’s very real pain. The focus and fantasizing about the perpetrators of monstrous acts have pushed victims to the back of people’s minds, forced to be an afterthought in their own stories. True crime as it is is a problem, and not one we should be contributing to.