by James McGirk
I do not follow contemporary cinema, but with the Oscars looming, I felt obliged to weigh in on the moving image as I experience it. Since I do not own a television and lack the sophistication and desire to sift through darknets and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks hunting for shows to download, I have resorted to Youtube’s never-ending supply of serial killer documentaries. Most are grainy and since the channels tend to abruptly disappear, are more than likely illegally uploaded. With any other genre this would be unbearable, but the crappiness of the viewing experience adds grit to these shows, which are usually collages of old photos and interviews, and the experience of watching a psychopathic killer delivered to justice becomes all the more deliciously unsettling.
After watching hundreds of these shows from all over the English-speaking world, I have begun to autopsy the peculiar relationship between the police, the bereaved, the media, and the public. There are remarkable differences between an Australian, an American, an English or even the rare Canadian depiction of society’s most heinous crime.
A serial killer is a murderer who has killed at least three people, with a refractory period, that is a length of time, between killings. There tends to also be a psychological motive, though many plunder their victims’ possessions, deep down serial killers kill because they want to or have to. The really famous ones often have a prurient interest in killing, and some of the most frenzied do horrific damage to their victims' bodies. These cases are full of sex, violence and vivid characters, and almost always have a thrilling conclusion in the form of a detective solving an increasingly violent series of murders. In other words, serial killers are the perfect fodder for television shows, or at least they would be if it weren’t for the fact that they must always balance on the narrow ledge between good taste, respect for the killers’ victims and the salacious detail their viewers crave; the latter element varies dramatically from country to country.
Most of the shows posted are American, which makes sense given the size of the American entertainment industry and for the fact that the serial killer was first categorized here in the United States. There is an enormous variety, bounded on one side by the lavishly funded and deeply investigated network shows like 48 Hours | Mystery that often follow new leads and on the other by highly speculative fare that appears late at night on little-known cable networks. Yet for all their variety there are things unique to American depictions of serial killers and their crimes. American shows are highly technical, obsessed not only with forensics and technological police-work but also jargon and procedure in general. There are shows that attempt to categorize killers, for example Most Evil is a series based on the Depravity Scale developed by NYU Medical Center’s Michael Welner, which attempts to rank killers, others attempt to look at crimes through a particular agency (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) or even a distinct type of investigator – such as following a bloodspatter expert like Dr. Henry Lee or a crime scene photographer. You could say that these shows are excited by the intricacies of work and demonstrate considerable respect for the police and victims, at the risk of losing some of their objectivity. This is not the case in other Anglophone countries.
One of the first major differences between Australian and American shows seems to be way they choose to re-enactment crimes. Australian programs are far bloodier and more lascivious than their American equivalents (at least in the Australian programs I have seen, which to be completely fair, were mostly Foxtel's Crime Investigation Australia). No American documentary crime show would dare depict blood pulsing from a gunshot wound or focus on the enormous heaving bosom of a woman running for her life and about to be killed, or show a man removing his shirt and hunching over a rape victim. While you might see something like this in a drama, in a show about real people and events, there is no way an American show would go so far.
Both British and an Australian crime shows are also far more skeptical of government agencies and police conduct than the average American one. The rare American show about police corruption or incompetence will usually focus on that and highlight it, and when there has been obvious accident or oversight in an investigation, more often than not an American show will be excuse the police. This is not the case for Australian or British police documentaries. The British in particular want to criticize their police forces and nearly every show describes at least one glaring issue with an investigation, and many probe the controversy surrounding a serial murder as much as the police bravery and ingenuity in catching the fiend who committed the crimes.
The American media is relatively restrained in comparison to its British and Australian cousins, not just on television, historically the British press in particular has been far more opinionated and hostile than their cousins in the Western hemisphere. Some of this is the result of differing libel laws – it’s much easier to sue for defamation in the United States and Americans in general tend to be more litigious than Britons – and there are major differences in the judicial systems. American courts hand out far tougher sentences than their British and Australian equivalents, and although serial killers usually get a life sentence no matter where they are caught, there is still a sliver of a chance of getting out, which means there is a bit more at stake in depicting a crime. There also seems to be a significant difference in the amount a defense attorney can disclose about a victim’s past, which means there may well be a lot more lewd detail floating around the Australian media. (Though for the record this author is basing his opinion entirely on television; though, to be fair, the Australian government launched a fourth inquest into the notorious baby-snatching dingo case.)
Astute readers will note that I have forgotten a country, Canada, but from my investigations there seem to have been only two notable Canadian serial killers, the Barbie Killers (who were a depraved married couple who slaughtered young women) and a former fighter pilot who turned into a predatory monster. There do seem to be a few cultural idiosyncrasies with respect to the actual crimes being committed. Australians seem more likely to kill in pairs, but like Americans, take advantage of their vast wilderness to dispose of bodies. Britons enjoy dissolving people in acid or concealing them in old farm houses and since they can’t often get hold of firearms, are more prone to stabbing and smashing than their Western cousins. Though it is easy to watch a couple hundred crime shows and make glib, cynical remarks about them, I must admit that at night, after the computer goes to sleep and I am listening to the street outside I do feel far more uneasy than I did before I began binging on this horrible stuff.