Killer storytelling is everyone's guilty pleasure

Over the past couple of years there has undoubtedly been a tremendous rise in popularity towards a genre of journalism that has been around for decades. Whilst works such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter were bestsellers at the time of their publication in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, modern day works of investigative crime journalism such as WBEZ’s hugely popular podcast, Serial, and HBO’s critically acclaimed documentary miniseries, The Jinx, bring a new audience to the world of true crime. But what makes murder so appealing?

 

The newest addition to the world of true crime is Netflix’s ten-part documentary series that took ten years to produce, before being released last December. Making a Murderer, despite receiving minor criticism that it was not entirely objective, has captivated the minds of many people, including BBC journalist Louis Theroux, who said he was “hooked”. 

 

For those not familiar, Making a Murderer documents the trial, conviction, exoneration, further trial and further conviction of Steven Avery, who was initially arrested for the sexual assault of a local woman, despite not remotely fitting her official description of the perpetrator. He was wrongly convicted and ended up serving 18 years in prison. After his release, he filed a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, before a photographer named Teresa Halbach, who was due to meet with Avery, was reported missing. Her car was eventually found in Avery’s scrapyard, with the keys inside his house, however he maintained his innocence. Avery was convicted once again and currently resides at Waupun Correctional Institution, where he is serving a life sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

 

Viewers of the show find themselves changing their opinions on Steven Avery’s innocence as the story unfolds further, but regardless of someone’s views on Avery himself, we can all agree that there were undoubtedly some miscarriages of justice on the behalf of Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and even the prosectors on the case. I believe this is partly why true crime has become so popular, because people like to be presented with evidence and then asked to form their own opinion. Or simply even because people are fascinated by stories about other ordinary people in unimaginably difficult situations, such as, in this case of Stephen Avery’s first trial, being wrongly convicted. In the end, whilst Making a Murderer focuses much of its attention on Steven Avery, the alleged perpetrator, the real story is about the victim. The real question isn’t: “Did Steven Avery kill Teresa Halbach?” It’s simply: “Who killed Teresa Halbach?”. Journalism isn’t about pointing fingers, unless you have the necessary facts to back up your accusations. 

 

We are faced with a similar situation in Serial, a podcast launched in 2014 by the producers of popular public radio show, This American Life. In Serial, listeners investigate the 1999 murder of a high school student, and her ex-boyfriend’s subsequent conviction, alongside former Baltimore Sun journalist, Sarah Koenig.

 

To briefly summarise, in 1999 the body of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee was found in a notoriously dangerous park in Baltimore. Weeks later her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for her murder, and then by the next year he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In the podcast, Koenig interviews Syed, who is now in his thirties, as well as several other people including another suspect, Jay Wilds, the prosecution’s star witness. 

 

At the end of the 12-episode season, Syed asks Koening: “Do you have an ending?”, to which, she later concludes that, whilst she is still unsure of who murdered Hae Min Lee, there was not enough enough evidence to convict Adnan Syed for the crime, saying:

 

“It’s not enough, to me, to send anyone to prison for life, never mind a 17 year-old kid. Because you, me, the State of Maryland, based on the information we have before us, I don’t believe any of us can really say what happened to Hae. As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors. But I’m not a juror, so just as a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think? If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean most of the time I think he didn’t do it. For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence but also small reasons, things he said to me just off the cuff or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear. Just the bare fact of why on earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion. I used to think that when Adnan’s friends told me ‘I can’t say for sure if he’s innocent, but the guy I knew, there’s no way he could have done this.’ I used to think that was a cop out, a way to avoid asking yourself uncomfortable, disloyal, disheartening questions. But I think I’m there now too. Not for lack of asking myself those hard questions, but because as much as I want to be sure, I am not.”

 

Many people were disappointed with Serial’s ending, saying that Sarah Koenig was indecisive sitting on a fence, but I personally, agree with her decision. Serial is a work of journalism and Koenig stated the facts, however none of those facts proved, without a doubt, that Syed did or did not kill Hae Min Lee. So, Koenig looked at them from a different angle and concluded that the criminal justice system failed Adnan Syed, regardless of his guilt or innocence. What if Koenig had said that she believes Syed was innocent? However then, later on, further evidence was found that undoubtedly proved his guilt? There are simply not enough facts to come to an absolute conclusion in this situation. 

 

As a work of journalistic storytelling, it doesn’t get much better than Serial. The way it blends court recordings, police interviews, phone conversations, music, and Sarah Koenig’s dulcet tones makes it truly interesting as well as entertaining. It definitely makes Serial deserving of its 2014 Peabody Award.

 

But is that why it has appealed to so many people? I would argue not. Perhaps some were pulled in by the dramatic theme song and kept interested by the non-linear narrative structure and artistic use of audio, but it is my opinion that there is a more simple reason why so many people, particularly young people, show a great interest in true crime journalism such as SerialMaking a Murderer and The Jinx - everyone loves a classic murder mystery. And that’s essentially what these are - real life murder mysteries. Even the shows themselves are long-form, not only to give them time to introduce all the facts, but also to build up suspense. When she appeared on stage in 2014 to collect the Peabody for Serial, Sarah Koenig said: “Contrary to what we thought, people out there who listen to and read and watch the kind of work that we do, they do have patience for journalism that takes its time and they like complicated stories about complicates people who do complicated things.”

 

Some might say that we should be disappointed at our personal fascination with stories revolving around tragedy and the misfortune of other, real-life people, but that is just the nature of human curiosity. This is real and gritty journalism, wrapped up in fancy paper with a bow on top, and if loving it is a crime then I'm guilty as charged.