The JonBenét Ramsey Obsession Makes Me Feel Weird

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As I kid, I lived for Rescue 911 marathons on CBS. My brother and I would watch dramatic re-enactments of burglaries gone wrong and high-suspense car chases for hours, hearts pounding. In high school and college, I went through short but intense phases wherein my friends and I would pour over documentaries about serial killers like Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Bundy and The Zodiac Killer. In 2013, I stayed up all night reading about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam and talked about nothing else for weeks. I remember re-enacting the elevator security footage for my friend one night on Haight Street. When the Serial podcast came out in 2014, I listened obsessively every week and debated theories with friends over dinner. In 2015, I watched the entirety of The Jinx and Making a Murderer in their opening weeks. The latter almost ruined my family holiday.

The weirdest part about my interest in true crime is it’s not even really niche. Everyone I know has a serial-killer phase and Serial theory. Such an interest is practically threaded into pop culture these days. So when I set out to re-familiarize myself with the JonBenét Ramsey case in anticipation of Casting JonBenét, the Netflix documentary set to premiere this Friday, it should have felt like nothing. I was seven when it happened; she was six. Before last weekend, I only remembered broad strokes: the pageant photos of her splashed across papers; a ransom note; the story of her parents discovering her in the basement, wrapped in her favorite white blanket; the theories about an inside job; the countless, ominously scored cable specials.

This time though, my research binge was cut off at the knees by alarm bells in my gut. About halfway through a grainy YouTube interview with the Ramsey parents, it struck me that I was borderline delighting in a young girl’s death. How dark is that? It’s not that I’ve never acknowledged the murky morality of true crime as entertainment, because I have. It’s that I’ve somehow always managed to…well, manage. In the case of JonBenét Ramsey, a young girl whose murder investigation was in many ways the victim of its own media circus, the irony was hard to ignore. It felt a little twisted.

The enduring appetite to revisit cases like JonBenét’s, OJ Simpson’s and Amanda Knox’s are proof enough that true crime as a source of public interest isn’t new nor slowing down. Cold cases are constantly warming up, reopening, gaining hype. The channels through which they’re being told are diversifying, too — podcasts, Netflix miniseries, big-budget reenactments. At a certain point, it gets hard to parse which are beholden to ratings or who may be getting exploited. Crime stories as consumable media snacks have serious implications.

Legal ones, in certain cases. Some criticized Netflix’s Making a Murderer and projects like it for working outside the legal system. “[W]e still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project — bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers — comes to serve as our court of last resort,” wrote The New Yorker last year.

True-crime storytelling does more than risk misconstruing the truth, though. It can also sacrifice the humanity of the victims. With Serial, the dramatic, cliff-hanger-laden episodes left a weird taste in a lot of people’s mouths. In a Reddit post titled “I am Hae’s Brother, do not AMA,” the brother of the victim discussed in the podcast wrote: “TO ME IT’S REAL LIFE. To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there…going to court almost every day for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting.”

He’s right. Murder just isn’t supposed to feel so…juicy.

According to criminologist, college professor and former network TV producer Scott Bonn, our fascination with true crime is complex. In Time’s “Why We are Drawn to True Crime Shows,” he says that, on the most basic level, we’re drawn to the spectacle. But it goes deeper than that. “The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us — fear,” says Bonn. “As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.” He compares crime stories for adults to monster movies for kids.

On the one hand, I can’t imagine a future wherein true crimes stories won’t be told. In certain cases, the people involved may even benefit from the exposure. On the other hand, when we consume these stories for the same reasons we watch horror movies — for a fun, quick thrill –we’re liable to erase the full picture: the visceral lives of the victims, the boring details, the process, the truth. It’s then that we enter a moral and ethical gray area. Right? Maybe that’s why this commodification of crime is starting to feel so off.

Do you feel it?

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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