Netflix’s True Crime Boom Is at a Dangerous Crossroads


The hit Elisa Lam documentary Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel brings true crime back to its disreputable roots.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel vaulted to the top of Netflix’s Top 10 when it was released, part of the streaming service’s relentlessly growing portfolio of true crime product. The series follows the story of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who mysteriously disappeared from a Los Angeles hotel, only to turn up dead in the hotel’s water tank two weeks later. It’s an intriguing mystery, but, at least based on Crime Scene, not enough to be the centerpiece of a four-hour series. Instead, we are taken on winding tangents about Skid Row, downtown Los Angeles, and the supposedly creepy history of the Cecil Hotel. There’s even a discussion of serial killer Richard Ramirez—hang on, didn’t I just watch Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer on Netflix only a month ago?

The true crime genre has exploded over the past decade, and is becoming an unavoidable part of mainstream media. From podcasts to print, on Reddit and YouTube, there is a vast number of true crime content creators producing anything from long-form investigations to videos that are half stunning make-up tutorial and half murderous deep dive (some of the best examples of multi-tasking I’ve ever seen). And Netflix has unleashed a seemingly endless stream of true crime shows to meet that nearly bottomless demand. In 2020, there was an average of one new notable release each month, and with Night Stalker and Crime Scene released in January and February this year, that streak hasn’t broken yet. (Tune in next month for Murder Among the Mormons.) But in feeding, and stoking, that appetite, Netflix’s true-crime tsunami risks sweeping away the frameworks that true crime authors and fans have spent decades building, and stripping away a layer of respectability that the long-disreputable genre has only recently acquired.

Instead of focusing on Lam, Crime Scene ends up spending a vast amount of time with a nearly countless number of interviewees, many of whom are true crime YouTubers and self-styled web sleuths. We see recordings of them visiting the hotel to gawk at the scene of the crime or obsessing over the famous elevator footage, pointing out any strange detail they’ve “discovered.” Some even believed they had found the murderer, a gothic heavy metal musician whose life was temporarily destroyed by these Elisa Lam obsessives. Of course, there are plenty of true crime creators who research obsessively and can put together engrossing and cohesive content. They’ve even been known to incidentally help solve a case or two. But when does it become a problem if, to make the fanbase feel more involved, people who would otherwise be part of the show’s audience are needlessly inserted into the narrative? In Crime Scene, we’ve become part of what we’re consuming.

Making true crime fans the subject of a true crime documentary isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw. Don’t F**k With Cats, also on Netflix, similarly brings the web sleuths into the action, but there the observers are the story. The series focuses on a small online community that becomes obsessed with tracking down the source of anonymous internet videos that show a man killing kittens, and eventually, a person. It goes into intricate detail about their methods, taking us with them on the journey of how they track down the killer to an astonishingly exact location. Without them, there is no documentary, so they’re not being inserted where they don’t belong.

Crime Scene’s diversions, on the other hand, feel like an effort to ramp up the spookiness of the story and stretch out the mystery to fill out Netflix’s multi-part template—the creators of Making a Murderer, which laid the groundwork for the service’s true-crime boom, initially pitched an eight-hour series, and Netflix suggested 10. Crime Scene doesn’t have a solution to work towards, so it fills the space with the testimony of people who’ve become obsessed with the case. One of the most bizarre moments is when one web sleuth tearfully asks, “Why do I feel like I just lost a friend, a sister?” Later, the same man enlists someone to go and place a hand on Elisa’s grave so he can gain closure. We never hear from Elisa’s family or her friends, so highlighting a stranger’s emotions and need for closure (to what?) is particularly uncomfortable. The Ripper, released last December, was accused of being insensitive for changing the original title of the series—Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire—to include the killer’s moniker, distressing the victim’s families as a result.

True crime fandom is rife with ethical quandaries, but most fans are attracted to the subject because of their fascination in the why, rather than the how. The gore and mystery are, let’s be honest, intriguing elements, but they’re not the priority. It puts me at ease to know that ultimately, I get more enjoyment from learning about the good (the survivors and those who solve the cases) than the bad (the killers and the crimes themselves). There is a thin line between honoring a victim’s story and capitalizing on it, and the more recent Netflix true crime documentaries fail to stay on the right side of it.

You can trace the lineage of the recent boom in true-crime series back through Making a Murderer to 2004’s The Staircase, the eight-part documentary about the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson. Over the course of 10 hours—including follow ups released in 2013 and 2018 (the latter, of course, for Netflix)—The Staircase delves into extreme detail, and allows us to explore our own theories. (It’s worth noting that The Staircase also includes loopier aspects of conspiracy such as the notorious “owl theory,” but at least these elements were explored by the subjects and included in the trial as genuine possibilities, not just foisted on from the outside like the conjectures in Crime Scene). These shows were part of the movement that made true crime more accessible and attractive to a wider, perhaps more sophisticated, audience. With the help of Serial and its podcast descendants, a love of true crime became a respectable pastime, an accomplishment that Netflix’s recent productions risk undoing with their emphasis on dramatization and flare.

This is an exciting time to be a true crime fan, as we can be positively gluttonous with how much content there is to consume. But it’s worrying that Netflix feels the need to enable such questionable methods. By stripping back and intently focusing on the facts and the victims, these shows can build a foundation from the already compelling and mysterious stories to create something inherently engaging without needing to try and trick us with conspiracies and exaggerated eeriness. When it comes to true crime, we need to be challenged, not flattered.

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