Delving into world of ‘true crime’

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Delving into world of ‘true crime’

Nat Dolan

Nat Dolan

5 minutes to Read
Police cars NY Credit Matteo Modica on Unsplash
The acts of criminals and their eventual discovery by police is often a story that writes itself [Image: Matteo Modica on Unsplash]


Taking a glimpse into real crime events and the motivations behind them, as shown through dramatisations or documentaries, is both a horrifying and compelling experience for the viewer, as Nat Dolan writes

Actors seem keen to portray real-life villains and to scare viewers [Image: Joel Muniz on Unsplash]

Whether or not the actor is believable as the inhumane ‘monster’… can make or break the production

Opening words to a drama can be pivotal in setting the tone for what’s to come.

The following is based on a true story. Certain names have been changed out of respect for those involved. All dialogue is imagined.

Those initial words have earned a reputation as harbingers of terror. They always manage to send a small chill down my spine, or a significantly large chill if I have prior knowledge of the events. These are the words (or a variation of them) that will usually appear in front of a “true crime” drama production.

Stories based on true events are kind of a no-brainer to producers. Much like reality TV, the story essentially writes itself, it’s just a matter of making sure the story is interesting enough to capture the attention of the audience. With reality TV this is done through editing tricks and certain manipulations the viewer is not privy to. When it comes to stories based on true events, they need look no further than people who have done the most horrendous things, and those who suffered through it. And so, we have the genre of true crime.

Now, these “true stories” aren’t always 100 per cent true to life. Writers will often take a few creative liberties in order to mould the events into the most compelling version of the story. Take, for instance, Netflix’s The Serpent, which presents the story of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer who, during the 1970s, was responsible for the deaths of possibly 30 tourists in South Asia.

One of the characters in this series is Sobhraj’s partner, Marie-Andrée Leclerc. She is portrayed as someone who feels trapped by Sobhraj and takes part in the crimes out of fear of what may happen to her. This was not the reality, and the real Leclerc remained loyal to Sobhraj until her death in 1984. The simple reason for this change is that a conflicted character is much easier to sell to an audience, especially as there are many points in the show where the audience is encouraged to sympathise with her situation.

Entertainment value is key
Dramatisations of real crime often tweak some factual elements [Image: David von Diemar on Unsplash]

It’s difficult to argue against those reasons from a storytelling point of view, but it also makes you see the opening words in a different perspective. Most of these shows are made for entertainment.

While they often take care with content due to the sources, at heart the primary focus is to provide a good drama for audiences to sink their teeth into.

When it comes to these dramatic recreations, one of the aspects which is marketed the most is the performance of the actor playing the criminal. Whether or not the actor is believable as the inhumane “monster” the story will often portray the criminal as, can make or break the production. For instance, Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil follows certain events along the timeline of Ted Bundy’s initial arrest to his final days on death row.

The film was regarded as a sort of final stepping stone for Zac Efron to put his High School Musical days behind him, as his performance of the infamous serial killer became one of the film’s selling points. When it comes to these roles, it almost seems like there’s an unspoken competition within the acting community to see who can terrify the audience the most. I’d have to say my vote goes to David Tennant for his performance of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen in Des (see panel).

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Documentary focus popular
True crime stories can provide insight into patterns of behaviour [Image: Maxim Hopman on Unsplash]

It’s not just dramatisations of crimes that sell. Possibly one of the most popular aspects of this genre are the documentaries. Here we come to Netflix’s The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Once a grand location, over the decades, the Cecil Hotel has become one of the many blots on the Los Angeles cityscape. In 2013, a young woman named Elisa Lam went missing. Her last known location was the Cecil Hotel. This documentary details the mystery around her disappearance, with employees from the hotel and members of law enforcement providing interviews on the subject, as well as going into the history of the hotel and the darker side of the “city of angels”.

But what is it exactly about these shows and films that makes them so popular? Why are so many people drawn to stories about the worst side of humanity?

There seem to be a few reasons. Psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD, writing online for the Cleveland Clinic in the US, claims that one of the chief reasons is curiosity. “It’s human nature to be inquisitive. True crime appeals to us because we get a glimpse into the mind of a real person who has committed a heinous act.”

But it goes a bit further than that, with many citing the evolutionary nature of this inquisitiveness. To watch these stories gives us an opportunity to discover how these criminals may behave, what patterns to look out for, and how to protect ourselves against them. As reported online in Science Focus, a 2010 study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that women especially seemed to be interested in true crime that gives insight into the motives of the criminals and shows how potential victims managed to escape.

These reasons make perfect sense and offer a rebuttal if you are ever criticised for having a fascination with true crime. But it’s difficult to ignore one of the biggest drawcards – they often make darn good stories.

So where should you be going to satiate your curiosity? You might have noticed Netflix has been mentioned several times.

Netflix picked up on people’s interest in this genre early on, and almost has a monopoly on it. Simply typing “true crime” into its search bar brings up a myriad of shows and films, ranging from dramatisations of events, to documentaries which thoroughly dissect every aspect of the criminals and their crimes for the audience. But there are other, non-Netflix options (see panel).

Nat Dolan is an Auckland actor and movie enthusiast

More picks in true crime viewing

TVNZ OnDemand

Black Hands

The Bain family murders is one of the most famous crimes in New Zealand history. This five-part drama series follows select moments from the lives of the dysfunctional family in the months leading up to 20 June 1994, and also the immediate aftermath of the murders.


In London, on 9 February 1983, human remains were found in the apartment of Dennis Nilsen. He confessed to “15 or 16” murders over a period of five years. Despite the confession and the bodies, what followed was a lengthy and gruelling process as the authorities attempted to secure a conviction. David Tennant’s performance as the cold, collected and intelligent monster will make you shiver.


Class Action Park

While it’s not the story of a serial killer, this documentary is in some ways equally shocking. Action Park was a water park located in Vernon, New Jersey, US. The content is aptly summed up in a quote by one of the film’s subjects, “Nobody should ever be the second person to die in a wave pool.”

I’ll be Gone in the Dark

This documentary series details the crimes of the “Golden State Killer”, a serial rapist and murderer, along with the attempts by true crime author, Michelle McNamara, to find justice for the victims.



This drama, set in the late 1970s, follows the early years of criminal profiling, as FBI agent Holden Ford (based on real-life agent John Douglas) begins interviewing incarcerated serial killers in the hopes of finding patterns in behaviour that could help track down more killers like them. As the series continues, we see Ford begin to put profiling methods to use, with mixed results.

Don’t F*ck with Cats

In 2010, a man uploaded to the internet a graphic video of him killing cats. This three-part documentary series details the work of a group of internet sleuths determined to track him down.


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