Gut-wrenching and bewildering true crime documentaries and podcasts have surged in popularity in recent years, showing the public has a growing appetite for these real-life narratives and the questions they evoke.
Millions of viewers have already tuned in this year to documentaries about murder and sexual abuse. This month, HBO released The Case Against Adnan Syed, a docuseries that revisits the 1999 murder of a high school student in Maryland, and Leaving Neverland, a film featuring two men who claim pop star Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. Netflix recently released The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and Abducted in Plain Sight, the newest installments in the streaming giant’s wildly popular true crime genre. In January, the Lifetime cable channel aired the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which detailed sexual abuse allegations against the R&B singer.
The documentaries follow a wave of true crime hits that began about four years ago with Netflix’s Making a Murderer and The Keepers, HBO’s The Jinx, and the podcast Serial (about the same murder documented in The Case Against Adnan Syed), all of which gained massive audiences.
Social media has boosted the popularity of many recent true crime documentaries as users gather online to discuss them. In 2015, the finale of The Jinx drew more than 1 million viewers and 35,000 tweets. More recently, Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly, and Abducted in Plain Sight sparked open discussions on social media about the nature of sexual abuse, including a closer look at perpetrators, victims and their families, and how to intervene.
“This is a true pop-culture phenomenon,” Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told me.
The #MeToo era coincided with the ballooning popularity of long-form, high-quality, and multiplatform storytelling by podcasts, streaming TV, and news outlets.
“Now, it is possible for us to hear the victim’s perspective in a way that we have not been open to before. … The silence is breaking,” Houser said.
While true crime narratives often play to viewers’ worst fears, Houser said, they also reveal shared experiences and show that many offenses are not one-off––perpetrators can be neighbors, friends, family, or church members. For the sake of violence and abuse prevention, she said, “it is a good thing that we are more willing now to pay attention to the way people intentionally violate trust.”
For Christians, the stories show the depths of our depravity and voyeurism, said John Stonestreet, president of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and a regular guest on The World and Everything in It’s weekly “Culture Friday” segment. He added that they also represent a “real reckoning happening right now with the bitter fruit of the sexual revolution. … Tragically, because bad ideas have victims, the stories must be told if we are ever going to face how bad some of these ideas were.”
Still, Stonestreet expressed concern that these films turn personal tragedies into public entertainment: “These are stories to us, but wrecked lives to those involved.”
John Schmidt, an associate professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University, agreed.
“Our motives for watching are not always pure,” he said. “We’re at the scene of a crime and we can’t look away. It’s salacious.”