Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson’s review of the Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile dubbed the film “morally wrongheaded.” But in its summation of the Bundy as a man who seemed like such a nice guy, the film might unwittingly give us a playbook for the way dangerous men profit from a certain amount of good looks, charm, and privilege.
This up-close exploration of predatory behavior, whether it involves violence, fraud, or merely a web of lies, seems to be having a broader cultural moment. From two much-discussed Fyre Festival post mortems, to the recent revelation that bestselling author Dan Mallory almost certainly fabricated his way to incredible professional success, to March’s HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, which focuses on two victims of Michael Jackson’s alleged child abuse, we’re being confronted with our cultural tendency to equate charm and prettiness (and in some cases, fame) with goodness and truthfulness.
It’s “easier to convince others of what you don’t possess when you do have the image they trust,” Esquire’s Morgan Jerkins noted recently, when writing about the similarities between Bundy and Mallory. People who deal in lies in order to gain and maintain power over others are acutely aware of this, and they knowingly exploit a societal tendency to innately trust pretty, charming, and powerful people. “The charm offensive is a tactic that reinforces power,” Jerkins wrote, observing that it’s usually mainly white men who enjoy these special levels of privilege, “and many of us are taking the bait.”
There is one group that’s spent decades grappling frequently with society’s love for a charming sociopath: the true crime community. From the original true crime boom of the ’80s through the current renaissance it’s enjoying today, documentarians, journalists, podcasters, and fans have questioned how to respectfully narrate stories without exploiting victims and survivors by glorifying what happened to them.
But many true crime enthusiasts are now developing ways to prevent predators from swaying the narratives in their favor, via podcasts and other content. It’s probably no coincidence that many of these creators are women — true crime is one of the very few podcasting genres that seems to have an almost equal gender balance.
Netflix’s Ted Bundy docuseries Conversations with a Killer is among the most recent examples of titillating drama that teeters on the edge of exploitation. The show was directed, not incidentally, by Joe Berlinger, who also directed Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. As I noted in my review of the series, Berlinger could have learned a few things from the many podcasters who have made a point of deconstructing and critiquing our strange tendency to glorify and mythologize men like Bundy.
And the rest of us should do the same. The recent plethora of stories about dangerous men give us an opportunity to practice resisting this kind of cultural fascination and glorification of predatory figures when we discuss them — ways that go beyond “don’t assume a prince is charming, just because he’s a prince.”
Here are five things true crime podcasts can teach us about how to change the narrative.
1) Focus on the victims and their stories
You might think this would be an obvious storytelling trick, but as the recent Bundy docuseries and biopic remind us, it’s not as self-evident as you might think to focus on the victims, not the perpetrators, in the narrative of a crime. Delivering on the promise of its title, Conversations with a Killer lets Bundy talk, and talk, and talk, even though he says nothing that’s new. He instead focuses on himself and the media circus around him. The series indulges him, shying away from his crimes and hanging on Bundy’s every word instead.
Bundy managed to escape police custody twice over the course of his dozens of crimes (he’s suspected of killing more than 30 people, but his confirmed murders stand at 20 women, ages 12 to 26), two arrests, two subsequent escapes, and ultimate conviction. The documentary’s talking heads, most of whom were involved in Bundy’s case as investigators and reporters, seem almost eager to assert Bundy as extraordinary, perhaps to justify the media attention he received and his ability to manipulate authorities. Even Bundy’s trial judge compliments him — while sentencing him to death — by telling Bundy he would have loved to have seen Bundy practice law in his courtroom.
Public and critical reaction to Conversations With a Killer included a mix of frustration and anger over its portrayal of Bundy — whom some viewers glamorized so much, Netflix issued a tweet reprimanding them for discussing his “sex appeal.”
Among the many people who took issue with the show were the co-hosts of the podcast RedHanded. As friends and self-described “true crime podcasting soulmates,” RedHanded co-hosts Hannah and Suruthi have turned their show into one of the smartest podcasts in the genre. One of the things that makes RedHanded such a compelling listen is the hosts’ diligent deconstruction of the many different narratives and cultural assumptions that we tend to build around predators.
“I wonder how many people would be talking about how hot and charming Bundy was had the documentary discussed the fact that he brutally raped these women, he killed them, dismembered them, put makeup on their decapitated heads, and hid their bodies in the woods so that he could practice necrophilia with their decomposing corpses?” Suruthi told Vox.
“[Conversations With a Killer], in my opinion, is what’s wrong with the world of true crime — because it makes the killer the central focus of the entire narrative,” she said. “It feels preoccupied with the idea that somehow this man’s genius and potential was all squandered by his unstoppable drive to brutally murder women. It screams of the never-ending mantra of ‘boys will be boys.’”
“One of the biggest problems with the glorification of killers is that their victims are forgotten,” her co-host Hannah added. “We will always include as much detail about who they were as we can find; it’s important [that] they aren’t just a body count figure.”
Only one of Bundy’s victims — the one who managed to escape — gets more than a few moments of screen time in Conversations With a Killer. The documentary fails to humanize or memorialize Bundy’s 30-plus female victims, maintaining instead its intense, almost dazzled focus on the killer himself.
RedHanded hosted a conversation with Conversations with a Killer and Extremely Evil’s director, Berlinger, following their premieres. Berlinger acknowledged the concern over glorifying Bundy, but said he wanted viewers to “feel the journey” of falling for a charming sociopath. “That’s the power of these psychotic people,” he said, “is that you like them.”
“The last thing we’re doing is glamorizing Bundy,” he said. “What we’re doing is presenting a very realistic portrayal of how he perceived people ... I am trying to provide — and I think we do, quite well — a realistic portrait of how you become seduced, how the media became seduced, how the legal system became seduced, how a victim is lured to their death by someone who is charming.”
Berlinger added that he considers his work to be “responsible true crime storytelling,” adding “but that’s for others to judge.” (Vox has reached out to Berlinger for comment.)
Other types of crimes can also teach us about shifting perspective away from the criminals.
A good, if much lower-stakes, case study in how to pass the bar of responsible storytelling involves January’s dueling documentaries about the notorious Fyre Festival, a high-profile disaster that swindled rich influencers — who then documented it every step of the way. Hulu’s take, Fyre Fraud, plays out somewhat like a petty “gotcha” moment, while Netflix’s Fyre takes the perspective of a genuine tragedy.
The key difference is that Fyre Fraud centers on a feature-length interview with the festival’s head organizer, Billy McFarland, who is now serving time in federal prison for the scam. As Wilkinson notes in her review, ”The value of an interview with an alleged compulsive liar is up for debate.” The Hulu doc also seems to show a level of scorn for the many social media influencers and privileged millennials who fell for McFarland’s promise of an exclusive, Instagram-worthy getaway — in essence treating the victims of the scam as though they had it coming.
Netflix’s Fyre, in contrast, shows more sympathy toward the hundreds of employees, volunteers, and vacationers who fell for the scam — and crucially focuses on their voices and experiences. “People talk about how they were suckered in, why they trusted [McFarland], why he seemed like he could be a visionary,” Wilkinson writes. “You can see, briefly, why McFarland was appealing. You might even start to empathize[.] That makes the letdown less comical and more disturbingly personal.”
In other words, it’s not only more ethically responsible to let crime victims narrate their own version of events — it’s also often more meaningful for the audience. Listeners become better able to empathize with victims, while also gaining self-awareness about their own relationship to the myth of the killer. And for some of the victims — like the survivors at the center of heavier exposé documentaries Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly — finally being heard can be a revelatory, empowering experience.
Of course, it’s not always possible to hear from the victims of a crime, especially when their voices are buried underneath those of perpetrators due to a director’s starry-eyed gaze. But there are plenty of other ways for journalists, documentarians, and storytellers to push back against a glorified narrative of a predator — and they’re equally important to creating a balanced, fully realized counternarrative.
2) Challenge the perpetrator’s self-narrative
One of the most fundamental ways to keep a narrative from bolstering a predator’s glorified self-impression is to directly push back against it. Again, this may seem simple, but the mere act of not letting the perpetrator have the last word about themselves can be powerful and impactful.
This can involve directly challenging how predators view themselves. Episode 39 of RedHanded covers the heartbreaking 2015 murder of UK teenager Becky Watts. Watts was violently killed by her own stepbrother, Nathan Matthews, and his girlfriend. She’d grown up with him and trusted him completely; her first word as a baby was “Nathan.”
While recounting the details of the case, the hosts point out that Matthews’s version of events had originally minimized his responsibility for the crime — he’d claimed the killing was an accident, an abduction prank gone wrong; later evidence, however, proved that the murder was extensively premeditated. In his original confession, Matthews claimed that during the crime, in which he had violently attacked Watts in her home, he’d worn a mask over his face. It was his mask slipping and revealing his identity, so he claimed, that caused him to panic and kill his stepsister.
The way the hosts dismiss Matthews’ version of events, even before revealing the actual evidence at their disposal, is memorable. “Firstly, I’m going to guess that your mask didn’t need to slip before she realized it was you,” Suruthi says, targeting Matthews. “You were her first word,” she adds scornfully. “She knows who you are.”
With this, Suruthi wrenches the narrative away from Matthews and gives it back to his step-sister, swiftly contrasting Becky’s lifelong experience of a loving brother she trusted with the horror of her final moments. It’s an unforgettable way of undermining the predator, and it involves nothing more complicated than drawing the audience’s attention back to the victim’s experience, and the facts of the case.
Sometimes it’s worth doing a little more legwork to give meaning and voice to the experiences of a victim — as well as to the community that’s impacted by the perpetrator in its midst.
3) Recognize that violence leaves a mark on whole communities
A recent arrival to the true crime podcast scene, Outlines UK focuses on unsolved murders and disappearances. What distinguishes Outlines from most other true crime podcasts is that host Jess Carter and her assistant Gemma frequently travel to the locations of the crimes, taking care to give detailed, atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and the surrounding environs, often doing on-site interviews with the locals. In one episode, they interview the aging siblings of a young girl whose disappearance once shocked the nation; in another, Carter has a chance encounter at a local library with a policeman who served on the force decades earlier, at the time of the very case she’s researching.
The listener gets a visceral sense of the crime’s lasting effects — lasting not just for months, but sometimes for decades. The podcast’s Instagram account is a collection of eerie, somber photographs of the landscapes and townscapes where the episodes are set. These places have become liminal spaces, where the present and the past overlap in a kind of temporal limbo.
When I asked Carter why she went to such lengths to visit the locations of the crimes, she told me it was partly for her own edification, and partly to honor the victims.
“For the most part I look at crimes which occur deep in the English countryside, and it helps to get a feel for the villages where victims lived and the rhythm of life in these small communities,” she said. “It’s important to gain a knowledge of the geography of an area, and in cases where a body has been taken some distance from their home, it aids me in understanding why they might have been left where they were.”
But she also told me that emphasizing lingering atmospheric effects of the crime is just as intentional.
“I often find that the places I visit become the framework around which the narrative is based,” she said, “and it almost feels as if the landscapes and communities themselves hold the answers.” It’s important, Carter said, to communicate this idea to the listeners — because ultimately, the emphasis on the places and scenic details of the crimes may help in delivering justice.
“If th[e audience has] a sense of how the crimes and the locations interweave, then I believe that they are more likely to remember the victims,” she said. “And if they are remembered, then there is still a chance that one day their cases can be solved.”
Storytellers can invoke the community impacted by a crime in myriad ways. The popular podcast Casefile is adept at highlighting community responses to tragedy. For example, in its look at the still-unsolved disappearance of Lisa Marie Young, Casefile showcased the moving “Lisa’s Song,” written by musician Allison Crowe after Young’s disappearance. Crowe, who was a close friend of Young’s, was still in high school when Young vanished in 2002.
4) Focus on the investigation and the people doing the hard work of bringing justice
You might think that focusing on the investigation is the domain of countless procedurals and forensic shows, but these stories can often get lost, especially online, where the emphasis is often on the unknown or unsolved. And when the story is on an investigation, especially involving a small town or other understaffed or under-resourced areas, it’s usually because something has gone horribly wrong, and the public believes justice was corrupted or unserved.
One podcast that attempts to rectify the trope of the bumbling small-town police force is Small Town Dicks. Each week, hosts Yeardley Smith (a.k.a. the voice of Lisa Simpson) and Zibby Allen interview detectives about memorable local cases they’ve solved. What’s unique about this show is that, because the police forces themselves often lack the resources of larger towns, such as a full forensics unit or rapid DNA testing, the cases instead rely on sheer legwork, opportunity, and luck.
For instance, on one recent episode, an investigator made a huge breakthrough on a case by spotting evidence lying on the ground halfway between the murder victim’s house and the suspect’s house. Framing a story this way makes it about much more than the violence of the crime itself.
Turning the focus onto the criminal investigators can also make a familiar case feel completely new. I was well aware of the deeply disturbing story of Elaine O’Hara, who was tragically groomed into a toxic and ultimately fatal BDSM relationship with a man who fantasized about killing women. Retellings tend to focus on the many deeply alarming aspects of this case, ranging from O’Hara’s years of struggling with mental health issues to a predator whose clear warning signs were never reported to authorities until it was too late.
But Casefile covered O’Hara’s story not by starting with the well-known details of O’Hara’s mental health struggles, but with the police and citizens who contributed to the investigation into her death.
What this shift in focus did was highlight many unfamiliar details of the case, including multiple nigh-miraculous discoveries, coincidences of timing, and improbably recovered evidence that all had to align in order for O’Hara’s perpetrator to be caught. What’s already a well-known case feels brand new through this lens, and O’Hara’s story becomes more than just a tragic case of extreme emotional abuse, violence, and mental health issues. It evolves into a rare, remarkable story of a community coming together to deliver justice.
5) Recognize that violence has roots
It’s sometimes difficult to examine the roots of violence and deeper questions of nature versus nurture without buying into a criminal’s narrative of themselves. How often have you heard a serial killer claim to have received a serious head injury as a child? It’s not always easy to unpack what the criminal says about themselves from reported elements of the case.
But there are ways to do this — and when they work, they’re often very effective. For example, the recent Carstairs series by the True Crime Enthusiast podcast examines three different crimes linked through people and events at the Scottish state psychiatric hospital. Highlighting each crime concurrently reinforces that the threads of violence can almost bleed through from one time and perpetrator into the next.
The Boston Globe podcast Gladiator, about the life, crimes, and death of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez, and the recent podcast Thunder Bay, about a series of indigenous deaths in a small Canadian town, are also excellent examples of podcasts which look extensively at the many social, domestic, and personal factors that go into the evolution of a crime.
By looking at these many different elements, we can get a much broader picture of what may drive someone to behave in a predatory or violent way than just listening to their own perspective. And in fact, examining a criminal in their cultural context can be a much better way of getting a full picture of their crime, rather than taking their story of themselves at face value.
Yet for all that genre game-changers like The Thin Blue Line and Serial have done in staging eye-opening explorations of the justice system, the advent of other hits like Making a Murderer and The Staircase, along with a continuing deluge of true crime podcasts of all sorts, have continued to elevate what fans expect from the genre.
Podcasts like The Vanished are notable for drawing attention to the cases of missing minorities, while podcasts with an international focus, such as Nothing Rhymes With Murder, take a look at the various cultural and ethnic factors involved in crime around the world. Other podcasts, like the fantastic (and horrifying) Dr. Death, methodically examine all of the systemic failures that a predator can exploit, as well as the dangerous built-in social assumptions that empower him, which can ultimately impact and endanger entire populations.
In fact, many of the most notable recent true crime series dig deep into the systemic abuses and failings of the criminal justice system writ large, in order to both enlighten audiences and draw new attention to cases where justice fell through the cracks — not just reiterating the drama of the crime itself.
For example, the second season of the award-winning podcast In the Dark is about the long fight for justice for an imprisoned Mississippi inmate named Curtis Flowers — the only man in US history to stand trial six times for the same crime, a shocking 1996 quadruple homicide.
The focus is on Flowers’s case in particular, yet the dogged reporting and microcosmic look at the details of his case reveal the entrenched racism of justice in the deep South. It’s a gripping, important piece of journalism that methodically dismantles the structural blind spots and prejudices of America’s criminal justice system, never losing sight of the fact that, while Flowers sits on death row for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit, the racialized blinders in the case continue to leave the murders unsolved.
Flowers’s case isn’t about dismantling the narrative around a predatory male; rather, it requires deconstructing an entire predatory system built on racialized violence. As we grow more aware of the ways society conditions itself to give dangerous men a pass, we can, perhaps, shift ourselves toward learning how justice systems, on a larger scale, can bend, break, and sometimes fail those they need to help most.
The more we learn to push back against the established narratives surrounding charming men, the more we learn how to resist falling for them
The true crime genre is sometimes maligned for its excesses, and with good reason. But the best of it can offer us crucial and valuable insights into understanding not only the way predators exploit our weaknesses as individuals, but also as a society.
And when we learn to resist and critique the glorified narratives surrounding these predators on an individual level, we might just be growing closer to strengthening our cultural weakness against dangerous men — and ultimately creating a stronger system-wide form of justice for those they target.