Opinion: True crime and the problem with morbid fascination

S-Town, a new podcast from the Serial team, debuted today, but reducing real murder to entertainment is a fraught exercise

Opinion: True crime and the problem with morbid fascination

S-Town producer Brian Reed in rural Alabama [S-Town]

If you happen to be waiting to board a transatlantic flight right about now, it’s your lucky day.

S-Town, the new true-crime podcast from the people behind Serial, has just been uploaded to the Internet, with all six hours and 24 minutes available to binge all the way to taxiing on a Dublin runway to the city that never sleeps.

Expect to hear lots of stories of fans losing sleep over the coming days, as podcasts addicts mainline the series with its Netflix-like distribution model. Presented by radio producer Brian Reed, a long-time reporter on Serial’s drag mother podcast This American Life, S-Town stands for ‘Shit Town’, a rural place in Alabama where, to quote the show’s trailer, “Something happened.”

In production over three years, Reed was first tipped off to the feculent goings on in the town by John, who called This American Life with a tip. “There’s just too much little crap for something not to have happened,” John said in his thick southern drawl. “And I’m about had enough of Shit Town and things that goes on.”

Just what went down in S-Town is unclear from the show’s pre-release trailers, though a lengthy introduction frames the story around the craft of repairing antique clocks, something which will become a leitmotif throughout the seven episodes – though given what S-Town stands for, shitemotif might be a better concept. Regardless, the podcast builds off the back of the success of Serial and other pieces of entertainment derived from acts ending in mysterious disappearances or violent deaths.

S-Town producer Brian Reed interviewing the antique clockmaker who first alerted the This American Life team to the strange goings on in Alabama [S-Town Podcast]

A morbid fascination keeps us hooked, hanging on every word and detail in an effort to figure out whodunit or how he got away with it. But behind that lustful yearning to reach the truth – or at least the truth as doled out by those telling the story – lies another, inescapable one; a dead body, a family in mourning, victims and survivors, miscarriages of justice, or avoidable institutional failures.

When a real person is reduced to a plot point or a MacGuffin in the story of his or (more typically) her own murder, savouring the morsels of a true crime as a consumer can be very hard to swallow.

Historical fingerprints

As genre goes, true crime has long fascinated us all, proving enduringly popular among readers. A subgenre of non-fiction, most of the crimes pored over in excoriating detail are murders, killings for which the murderers have most likely been caught. The graphic nature of the crimes, their gruesome itineraries accounted for, can be assuaged with the knowledge that those responsible have been apprehended by police, tried by their peers, imprisoned by a judge, and, as in very often the case, executed.

True-crime stories have captivated us for more than two hundred years. The American novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates, writing in the New York Review of Books about the murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, argues that the publication of grisly tales “would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.”

Victorian literature first saw true crime establish itself as a codified piece of popular entertainment. William Roughead, a well-known Scottish solicitor and amateur criminologist, is considered one of the most significant early writers in the field. Attending every major murder trial in Edinburgh from 1889 up until after the Second World War, Roughead chronicled dramatic accounts of butchery and carnage, betrayal and desperation in his essays on “matters criminous.”

Author Truman Capote stands in the living room of the Clutter ranch house in Garden City, Kansas, April 26, 1967, where four members of the Kansas family were murdered in 1959 [AP/Press Association Images]

But despite Roughead proving incredibly influential in the early days of true-crime publishing, it would not be until more than a decade after his death that high brow literature caught on, first to the expressive capabilities of the genre, and to its commercial profitability.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel of the murders of four members of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, first published in four serialised parts in the New Yorker starting in 1965, ignited literary circles. The novel, playing somewhat loose with the facts, made real murder sexy and wildly popular. Capote was reportedly hugely disappointed not to have won the Pulitzer Prize the following year after the novel was released in a single bound copy to a rapturous reception, but In Cold Blood paved the way for Norman Mailer to do so in 1979 with The Executioner's Song.

Since then, every medium has responded to the bloodlust of its consumers by furnishing their down time with foul play. Books, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and graphic novels don’t shy away from the exhilaration of assassination, and the advent of digital media means that ethical guidelines are often thrown out the window.

Second opinions

Take, for instance, the most recent podcast to capture the world’s imagination. While never reaching the same zeitgeist zenith as Serial, Missing Richard Simmons quickly climbed the ranks of iTunes, fast becoming the most popular podcast on the streaming service. While not dealing with a brutal murder, the six episodes told of producer Dan Taberski attempts to contact the eponymous Simmons, a famous American aerobics and fitness magnate, who appears to have receded from any public appearance after spending a lifetime appearing in public.

Throughout the show, which does an excellent job at explaining Simmons’ back story, Taberski tiptoes over a number of ethically dubious decisions in the quest of speaking to his subject.

Unlike Serial, which painstakingly re-examined the murder conviction of Adnan Syed for the killing of Hae Min Lee in the attempt to expose a potential miscarriage of justice, Taberski, well intentioned as he appears, appears to pester those connected to Simmons in an effort to expose what appears to be a very private part of someone’s life. He entertains wildly speculative theories about elder abuse with the scantest evidence to back them up, knocking on doors unannounced and thrusting recording devices at doorstepped relatives.

This kind of amateur sleuthing is risky for everyone involved, but also rarely satisfying for the listener - though when explored for comic effect, such as in the satirical sitcom Search Party, the payoff is worth the peril. Compare and contrast Taberski, a jovial but careless narrator, with Serial’s Sarah Koenig, a seasoned journalist, whose delicate approach to contacting the relatives of Hae Min Lee was widely applauded online during the peak of the podcast’s popularity:

S-Town comes from that same production family, so it’s safe to assume that the same high standard of provocative and appropriate reporting is what awaits those eagerly waiting to consume it. That show isn’t going to be the problem. It’s all of the other podcasts that pop up in the wake of its inevitable success.

And they will. Serial made podcasts cool, but it wasn't lightening in a bottle. It was brilliant reporting, meticulously researched and respectfully presented. It was true crime handled perfectly. But when those with lesser skill grope at the truth, the whole genre gets tainted with invasive storytelling gawking at the worst of human nature.

Watch this space, but consume with caution.

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