Fictionalized accounts of true crime should be viewed critically rather than as entertainment

With the anticipated release of Hulu’s newest original series “The Act” less than a week away, it’s time society reevaluates its relationship with true crime stories. Following the life of convicted murderer Gypsy Blanchard through dramatic reenactment, “The Act” is expected to fall in line with other popular true crime media by exaggerating and glorifying the gruesome reality.

American society is undoubtedly guilty of fixating on, and sometimes fetishizing, the darkest parts of humanity that are present in murder and other true crime cases. Rather than indulging in greatly fictionalized accounts of real violent crimes as a source of entertainment, interested consumers should turn to strictly fact-based, journalistic reporting of the events.

Too often within the true crime genre, creators and writers attempt to take real-life events and alter them to fit traditional story-telling models, thereby exploiting the actual people involved. 

Take one of Netflix’s most recent true crime documentaries, Abducted in Plain Sight, for example. If they watch the film separated from real life, viewers will almost certainly be left reeling and marveling at how Jan Broberg was kidnapped twice by the same man, attempting to make sense of the other peculiar events of the case; yet this is real life. 

“It unpacks too many bizarre events in a short time frame to allow for much additional analysis. And the Broberg family, confessional to a fault, are primed more for honesty than for self-inspection,” The Atlantic reported. “The result is a documentary that exposes them for public scrutiny without pausing to really interrogate their actions.”

Following the documentary’s release, memes immediately began circulating the internet, poking fun at the family and the crime itself. Even Netflix itself joined in with the verified Netflix UK & Ireland account tweeting, “weird how every time I try to write a tweet about Abducted in Plain Sight it just comes out as ‘WTF???’”

Perhaps the cautiously comedic structure of the documentary itself was not merely an attempt to alter the truth for entertainment and marketing purposes, but rather an effort to keep the actual grisliness of the crime separate from viewers. After all, what Broberg suffered through was particularly horrific and upsetting. 

Nevertheless, filmmakers do not have the authority to alter true stories in this way. While it makes sense that they modify and dramatize reality in order to entertain audiences and, ultimately, to sell their product, these filmmakers tamper with real lives. 

“It’s not entertainment,” Australian true crime podcast founder Dan Box told The Guardian. “Short of war reporting, it’s probably the most emotional kind of reporting you can do in terms of the damage you can do to the people you’re reporting on.”

Box is correct in how serious the subject matter of the genre is, but it seems more like wishful thinking to believe it’s not entertainment. In fact, that is solely what the general American public uses true crime for, even if it may be morally messy.

 In reference to some of the questionable content of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” The Guardian wrote, “It looks less like a criminal justice campaign, and more like the standard, weird hostility of modern fandom culture.” 

Clearly, these fictionalized accounts of true crimes are successful in attracting viewers. Nearly every week, Twitter explodes with talk of another true crime documentary. “The Act” is already attracting attention, but just wait until the newest Ted Bundy film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is released. 

It is up to viewers and consumers of true crime to remain critical of what they’re watching. We can no longer allow filmmakers to twist the truth and exploit victims and their families for the sake of our entertainment. If we really need a dose of the worst part of humanity, there’s always the nightly news.