In this article, we present you with an in-depth study of our fascination for True Crime Documentaries and the psychology behind our love for the genre.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari puts forth the concept and inception of the Cognitive Revolution. The era, 70,000 years from today, marked an evolutionary, thereafter, revolutionary change in the systems of the world. The invention of language, imagination, and fiction acclimatized the species to communicate with each other about each other and communicate with each other about the Other. Hunting heroics, doldrum dialogue, and kitchen chatter; mundane altercations, phantasmic enticements, and cognizant soliloquies; from vicariousness to veracity, plausible fantasies, and imaginative realities. The Homo Sapiens sparked a dissonant muffle that imploded the hierarchical chain of command. The sparks that turned into cacophonous flames and the echoes of which have transfigured into limitless conflagrations.
Nature and Function of Media
In the embryonic stages of radio and the possibility of incorporating advertisements, Former USA President Herbert Hoover said – “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter.”
The faltering nascent steps of advertisements and radio had soon transformed into a household alliance and a booming industry. Tim Wu, the Taiwanese American scholar, jotted the trajectorial parallels between radio and the internet; similarly, the film and television industry resorted to the same evolutionary orbit as the radio industry- from utilitarian endeavors to swarming duplicitous veneers.
The initial babblings of the film and television industry witnessed the formation and experimentation of style and narrational language whilst the medium was in its developmental stages. In the following years, identifying and evaluating the potential scope of gaining profit and intangibles like influence- personal, cultural, and universal – constantly remolded the medium that eventually characterized an industry. This institutionalization, exertion of control, and injection of capital in the following years helped evolve the medium into what it is in the present era. The reception of this dynamic and crackling revolution by its recipients over the decades has been a cardinal and propulsive force in changing cultures, perceptions, norms, politics, and moral spectrums on a global scale. Never in the world’s known history has there been as tendentious a medium with as high a ceiling of such nature?
Substance and Style
The 1935 German film Triumph of the Will, written and directed by Leni Riefenstahl and executively produced by Adolf Hitler, serves as one of the quintessential examples of evaluating the parametric potential circumscribing the definitive meaning and distinctive role of the medium of film. It’s a 2-hour crafted piece of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg rally in 1934, apprising the spectators of its sprawling beauty and magisterial soundscape. A comprehensive draft of not manipulative realities but manufacturing truths and cinematically narrativizing them into not just realities but realities with a certain air of destiny or “kismet.” Things aren’t just the way they are but are fatalistically supposed to be the way they are.
Substance of any sort, with the tools of cinema i.e., camera, sound, and editing, is realized through the incorporated style – a distinctive appearance in the concomitant progression, alluding to the ideas, experiences, and implications that it alludes to, in the revealing cloak of consequentiality, as perennial automation of truth, thereby manufacturing realities. What defines as the substance is determined by the stylistic choices and portrayal, and what is characterized as style is identified through the nature of the portrayal of its substance. Hence, style and substance are not interdependent phenomena that constantly influence each other in form and meaning but an inseparable conglomerate whose definitions would, in any other form, fall apart. Hence, style is substance, and substance is style.
The Cognitive Revolution equipped Homo Sapiens with tools that helped us enhance our experience of life- visceral recollection of memories, fantastical perceptions of reality, and eclectic sense of imagination. Thereafter there has been a constant renewal of the meaning of life, that it is not identified on the parameters of survival needs, but rather desires and dreams. The Cognitive Revolution brought about both- our thirst for these newfound realities and sensory abilities dug deep to quench such thirst. Through stories of all kinds, we associate with the meaning of our lives and the reason for our existence. And stories, in their vivacious imaginativeness and irrepressible form, have never been as alive and seemingly as real as ever before through the medium of film.
“TV doesn’t give us what we desire; it tells us what to desire.”
– Slavoj Žižek
When radio became popular at the beginning of the 20th century, people were shocked by the idea that advertisements would be echoing in their households. In 2017, Buzz Sumo’s analysis of “headlines” noticed the most clicked-on articles were the ones with sensational headlines, phrases such as “tears of joy” and “can’t stop laughing” were vehemently ubiquitous. Although the choice and tonality of phrases have changed, the nature and intent remain rooted. The rigorous commodification of spectatorial attention with the bombardment of information, on the lines of the style and substance concept discussed before, paves and molds the environment into what it is, internalizing itself into various unidentifiable forms.
The ideal condition of experiencing film is in total darkness and silence, exempt from exterior images or sound – minimal scope of distraction from the supposedly, principally desired immersive experience. The image and sound conflation around the scaffolded narrative subliminally channels and inflates the experience in such ideal conditions crackling the realm of immediate reality and dissolving the screen, beguiling the viewer into a trance or dream-like state, such that the viewer, not by choice, instead by the immanent function of the film, derives voyeuristic pleasure while experiencing the interactivity of the characters in the narrative. What is of salient significance is that it is not just voyeuristic pleasure but also the pleasure from pure spectatorship- only experiencing and not being a part of or accountable to the consequences in the narrative.
Immanent nature of crime portrayal and spectatorial relationship
The visual representation of violence on screen is always never about the act or event. The evolution of incorporated cinematic tools in narrative storytelling and human cognitive intelligence have concomitantly developed a unique relationship. This characteristic of cinematic language having scientific properties wherein causality is compartmentalized and forecasted is vehemently utilized and exploited in what is compounded as “True Crime Documentaries.”
Narcos is a 2015 crime drama based on the life and times of the kingpin drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel. The substructure is the content of portrayal, a series of exceptional turn of events, a story tangential to the circumstances of the ordinary. However, as discussed previously, the substance alone has no definitive meaning. It is abstract and indiscernible. Enter the style of portrayal – a voiceover that succinctly drives the narrative and knits the viewer to it; what is also of importance- it is from a perspective that morally aligns with the spectator. Hence the plot points that mold the normality spectrum (from normal to deviant) are familiar.
By layering its characters, arranging a sequential past, and giving them intelligible identities – familial and socio-economical, it de-alienates the characters, making them identifiable and comprehensible. Utility of dialogue, choice of words, the cadence of delivery, calculated pauses during the action, aggrandized soundtrack compositions, and a consistent flow of frames and cuts. The camera bows down when the main character hypnotizes the frame with the earth and sky in the background, the light admires power, and the shadows instill incertitude. However, these aren’t bolted shafts in a monogamous relationship with each other. Sometimes, the shadows are framed authoritatively or in an unprecedented narrative sequence, distinctively transposing the meaning and adding thematic layers.
Their form and utility are frequently changing as they react to alternative elements while the narrative progresses. Intermittently sprinkling documented evidence amplifies and explodes the magnitude of this purported reality. The spectator experientially is not perplexed by differentiating reality and fiction; the reality preliminarily and hypostatically has already been imposed. The perplexity is rather of the magnitude of reality. The question is not, “Is it real?” but “How real is it,” and the magnitude of “how real” is indeterminable and, as mentioned earlier, internalizes itself in unidentifiable forms.
To illustrate, Consider Netflix’s “House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths” DocuSeries
The 2021 Netflix show House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is one of countless exemplary works of such nature. A family of 11 hangs themselves in the gridlocked, hooted Delhi neighborhood. As mentioned previously, the act or event only seeps through the interstitial spaces of the narrative. An overcast setup with soft lights and grim shadows, the interplay of unpropitious piano compositions, and portentously sliced cuts through the intimidating tone of the narrative and the imagery. The dogs are barking, the birds are looming, unfamiliar people are captured in their contrivance, familiar people in their misery; it is not just that something unpleasant has occurred, but that there was an air surrounding the unpleasant, to experience, to find meaning in.
“True Crime documentaries” further distort the screen in its constant interference with perceived reality- CCTV footage, News footage, the reiteration of the characters’ images throughout the run time in different contexts and different pauses, interviews of the associated pupils, including professionals involved, stitched onto the narrative. These elements are characters that constitute the cinematic language of the work, and the complex phenomenon of each element culminates into a maneuvered reality. The letters in their textual form are tantalizingly voiced out, and the events imagined are put to life on screen in the form of ominous frames and terrifying chiaroscuro.
To illustrate, Consider Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” DocuSeries
The 2018 single-season show Wild Wild Country is one that is further clouded in obscurity because the nature and cogency of the subject itself have been ambiguous. A journey into the brief span of a commune called Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, USA, revolving around a Philosopher and Mystic named Rajneesh, also known as Osho. It provides a wholly documented piece of the unfolding of events in the 1980s during the community’s existence with snippets of interviews, insight, and dialogue from associated people at the time of making this documentary series.
The first frame- A dark, desolate, and hazy snow-covered alley with a diffused lamppost hanging at the turn as thunder strikes the image before it blacks out. The ominous and thunderous wallops transition into ominous acoustic notes, synchronized with a few natives retrospectively narrating the forthcoming storm (the existence of Rajneeshpuram) hovering in the air of Oregon. As a form of expression, cinema functions as more than a narrational tool. The indispensable nature of style guides the narrative and the spectatorial experience by virtue of its imposing nature.
Also, Read: 15 Must-Watch Psychological Crime Thrillers
Every aspect is amalgamated and devised into a cinematic language that imposes itself upon the viewer the purported reality it is attempting to sell. And what it tries to sell is not the experience but the desire to experience or the voyeuristic pursuit of such experience.
Every single element within the works pertain to and aim at achieving the style that gives meaning to the substance and vice versa. The hostility and incidentally cast looming shades in and around the narrative are reflected upon the spectator. The sensationalism overbearing the spectator and their voyeuristic pursuits propounds and promulgates the idea that the piece of work is not perceived reality but reality itself, a comprehensive and deep dive into the private and undisclosed spaces of reality.
Relationship between Art and Violence
“I don’t believe if someone sees a film by Tarantino, they will go and kill someone. That is stupid. But every time violence is so funny, and it’s nothing, it’s usual, there’s a danger because the humor makes it consumable. Cinema, in general, speaks of things that have nothing to do with our lives – and that makes me sick because it’s such a fantastic medium. You can really communicate with people. It’s used to make people stupid, and that’s what makes me angry.”
In contemporary film and media culture, content is often anchored in extraordinary narratives of bewilderment. The subsisting stylistic elements further distance the viewer from the prosaic universal humdrum of day-to-day lives, thereby paradoxically bringing the content closer, to the fulfillment of our cognitive desires, for never has a medium brought exceptional circumstances to such accessibility and imposed upon the viewer, such magnitude of experience that dissipates fiction and reality.
This notion of purported reality or verisimilitude that filmmakers aim at while exploring content (substance) is perforated, proliferated, and enameled through filmic devices(style), funneling the spectatorship and imprisoning the spectator in a sustained hedonistic state of consumable shock. The ubiquitous oneness of content of such nature grooms the viewer’s experience and expectations. It drastically regulates the perception of the form and meaning of anything and everything, to the level of not just sculpting moral spectrums and nonempirical ideologies but subconsciously guiding day-to-day lifestyles and interpersonal relationships of all kinds.
“I don’t sit down and say to myself that I must now, at all costs, tell a story in a different way from mainstream cinema. Rather, the story I want to tell deals with themes or problems where it would be a lie to claim one had the answers. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any answers to the big problems facing humanity. Had there been, they would have been solved by now. Mainstream cinema lives off a pious lie that they can be solved. And that’s alright if you see the film as a commodity and as a consumer product because people pay to go home reassured. I don’t think the task of art is to reassure people or to offer answers to these questions, but rather to pose them in such a way that people feel encouraged to engage with them.”
– Michael Haneke
As widely viewed works that provide visceral and memorable experiences, garner scrupulous discussions, and hold the privilege of being significant unitary sources of catharsis, contemplation, and profundity that have an elementary and constitutional influence, it ennobles the makers of such works with responsibility. This responsibility demands from its makers a rigorous retrospection and investigation of their style and from the scope of substance– examination and alignment of moral spectrums. Thence, the output of the style-and-substance oneness is a model of conscientiousness, earnest expressiveness, and social responsibility, and not of platitudinal structures, hostility, and ulteriority.
“I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theatre. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap […] Some films have made me doze off in the theatre, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”