Act One, Scene One: A small town in the American Heartland
Sirens scream down a quiet street. Five squad cars, lights ablaze, race to a most unlikely location: the quaint home of Mary Jane X.
Officers arrive at a shocking scene: an unknown assailant has brutally murdered the sweet, 25-year-old schoolteacher; her life snuffed out in its prime.
The investigation starts with the unseen victim’s body. Investigators examine the scene, body out of sight, and discuss the clues.
Police discover signs of sexual assault on the victim. Her clothes are gone, ligature marks ring her neck, and an investigator finds DNA samples under her fingernails. Mary Jane, tough in life as in death, fought her attack bravely but lost.
The clues give the police a starting point. Investigators surmise the victim knew her attacker; this was a crime of passion.
The search for a killer is on.
* * * *
Thus starts another episode of a true crime “documentary” television show.
During the show, the audience will be taken on a dramatic ride of plot twists, the shocking secrets hidden in a quiet life and always, the revealing of an unexpected killer at the end. The police investigation into her death will have stops and starts, frustrating pauses, red herrings and finally, justice.
What the show won’t have is Mary Jane’s story. While the tale is ostensibly about Mary Jane, she is never truly present as a human being. Mary Jane, as a person, is absent.
For Mary Jane and her body, their role is over after the first three minutes of the show; her life is persona non grata, save for 30-45 seconds of biographical description at the top of act one. Throughout, Mary Jane, and her body especially, are stripped of context, devoid of meaning and sanitized for mass consumption.
But the audience needs to have an emotional connection for the story of a procedural investigation to work. How then, is a complex story told about a person and a body without the audience ever seeing or engaging with that person or their body? How does a storyteller weave a tale without the catalyst of the story?
We’ve all seen at least one serialized, cable-caster, true crime show. The genre purports to be a non-fiction depiction of the course of a homicide investigation.
Told retroactively, they often feature many of the police investigators, interrogation tapes, crime scene photos and locations of the original case. The visual cues are clear to the audience: this is who conducted the investigation and how they did it.
Their style is one of breathless narration and editing, with an emphasis on action, surprise and prurience. Many prominently feature a single aspect or characteristic of police investigative methods such as criminal profiling, crime scene investigation or cold case units.
Examples include, “Body Of Evidence”, “Cold Case Files” “Suburban Secrets”, “Missing Persons Unit” and “Snapped”. The major, but not only, cable broadcasters of this type of material are A&E, TruTv, Investigation Discovery and the Biography Channel.
I’ve worked as a researcher or associate producer on over 150 of these shows. My most recent project was researching 26 episodes of a true-crime series for Investigation Discovery called “Main Street Mysteries”.
Over time, I’ve come to recognize certain patterns when dealing with the human body in the narrative. The storytelling techniques of these shows and networks vary widely but common characteristics exist. One can find myriad exceptions to the following characteristics; they are meant to be broad parameters culled from my personal experience, not hard and fast rules.
No Body Rule
I’ve never worked on a show that displayed an image of a dead human body. Most cable networks have strict legal prohibitions on the display of the dead bodies of murder victims. Industry decency standards still keep the deceased bodies of real humans off the air.
It is an odd phenomenon that the audience generally doesn't notice: the story almost always starts with investigators “hovering” over the body of the victim, and yet, the body is never actually seen.
The physical clues- left by another person- are at issue, not the accumulation of a lifetime of experience. Never explored is the fact that the human body was once someone’s best friend, a first lover, a trusted co-worker, a regular customer, an avid reader or any of the millions of tiny and huge interactions that make up the content of a person’s life.
Some episodes do feature family members of the victim, speaking about the death of their loved one. However, interviews with family members often serve to raise the stakes of the investigation, rather than contextualizing the victim; careful watching reveals they’re often speaking about the procedural course of the investigation and their concerns for justice. Rarely is much time given to biographical or memorial sentiments.
If the victim is physically invisible and without significant biographical information, how does a storyteller create a compelling story that the audience invests in? If there is no character to care about, what then does the audience latch on to?
For the filmmaker, the greatest storytelling need is audience participation; the audience has to be emotionally drawn into the story, needs to hang on the outcome, in order for the show to work. The audience has to want the answers investigators are seeking, want to see justice served for a person they know little about. It is a tricky equation that requires no small amount of storytelling skill to solve successfully.
The most effective tool at a producer’s disposal to accomplish audience investment is the selection of the victims featured in the show. The “casting” of the victims tends to fall in familiar, almost stereotypical categories. The perfect case for any of the shows I’ve researched would be a middle-to-upper class white woman caught in a love triangle, murder-for-hire scheme. She would have a nice home, a stable community life and be murdered by or murder a loved one. Her neighbors would have no idea that there was a scandalous relationship or trouble in the marriage.
Again, not all victims in these shows hew to the white, middle class female demographic. While there is a preferred victim “profile” for a true-crime producer, many homicide cases fit the narrative need for drama, suspense and surprise. I’ve worked on shows in which the victim was an African American businessman, a Hispanic construction worker, or an elderly man living by himself in rural Georgia.
But it is almost guaranteed what the victim will not be: any combination of poor and minority, drug-addicted, criminal, or involved in a high-risk lifestyle.
Retroactive, true crime shows rarely, if ever, feature a low-income, minority victim, even if the story of their homicide investigation is every bit as salacious, dramatic and difficult as that of a suburban white woman. The victim’s drug use is rarely mentioned even though substance abuse is present in many cases. (The exception to this would be the case of a serial killer, with victims involved in drugs and prostitution.)
These shows favor victims, generally speaking, that reflect the demographic make-up of their audience. Therein lie the answers to making the audience buy into the narrative. The audience for the true crime genre tends to be female, white, middle-to-upper class and tends to live in the suburbs, according to cableu.tv, a cable television demographic research company.
The audience personally identifies with the victim; they are similar in social, economic and racial background. Closely identifying with the victim allows the audience to make certain, instant assumptions about the victim’s life, negating the need for biographical exposition in the show.
It is easy for the audience to put themselves in the victim’s shoes. The victim is someone who looks like they look, lives where they live and has the same type of family as they do. The audience sees themselves, their children or their parents as the victims or perpetrators. The blank slate of the actual victim’s life gives the audience the unconscious opportunity to be the central character of the show.
The filmmaker accomplishes this transference of identity through very subtle visual cues: the shot of tree-lined street could be your neighborhood; the victim’s split level ranch looks exactly like your house; you may be in a similar situation as the victim: troubled marriage, rebellious daughter, financial problems.
Placing the audience in the victim’s place- “a quiet, innocent, suburban victim”- allows the storyteller to leave out the details of the victim’s lives.
Is there a social danger in this storytelling technique? Does the representative use of the human body in factual, true-crime narratives reflect a cavalier, selfish attitude towards crime and violence?
There is some evidence that it is. We want our blood, drama and mystery of murder and mayhem but we don’t want the human misery, suffering and tragedy accompanying homicide in “real-life”. By dehumanizing the victim and their bodies we, as a society, sanitize the loss and horror of homicidal violence and as a result we, become more accepting of violence and crime.
Imagine the reaction if the first scene of a true crime show was a priest and a grief counselor racing towards the victim’s home to console the victim’s family. The family is seated at a couch, crying and hugging and grieving the life of their loved one openly. If that were the show we were watching and making, our attitudes towards violence and crime would be a lot different.
While emotionally powerful and evocative, it would be much more difficult to consistently draw an audience.