The Pembrokeshire Murders and The Serpent show our hunger for true crime stories is getting stronger

Micha Frazer-Carroll
·7-min read
<p>Luke Evans as Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’, the latest true-crime series to prove a fast hit with audiences</p> (ITV)

Luke Evans as Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’, the latest true-crime series to prove a fast hit with audiences


It's starting to feel as if television writers will eventually run out of real-life murders to dramatise. This month has already been a big one: BBC One’s eight-part crime drama The Serpent, based on the real-life murders of Seventies hippie-trail serial killer Charles Sobhraj, premiered on New Year’s Day, quickly followed by ITV's three-parter The Pembrokeshire Murders (about two double killings committed in the Eighties), which has been stripped across the schedules this week.

Meanwhile, today sees the launch of Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Netflix’s four-part docuseries on Eighties mass murderer Richard Ramirez. And if that’s not enough real-life tragedy for you, the streaming giant has just announced another documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil House, which will bring the 2013 disappearance of 21-year-old Elisa Lam in LA to the small screen.

The relentless churn of true-crime stories – which either comes in the form of investigative documentaries, or scripted dramas based on real tragedies – has come under recent criticism, with ITV being dubbed the UK’s worst offender. Meanwhile these shows have faced critiques from feminist audiences, who note that many of these stories centre around the murders of women. And yet the dramas keep coming. What is it about the format that is so unwaveringly successful? And just because true crime is an easy win with audiences, does that make depicting it on screen acceptable?

While settling down to follow the aftermath of a brutal murder is not everyone’s idea of a relaxing night in, many true-crime fans describe it as their preferred form of escapism – particularly during the pandemic.

“True-crime shows make me feel scared, but in a kind of safe way, I suppose,” says Alison, a 24-year-old from Manchester. Alison tells me that she has always been drawn to shocking, lurid true stories – and describes her interest in true crime as a natural step up from flicking through That’s Life magazine (which focuses on reader-submitted stories) when she was younger.

“Especially watching the American ones, I can watch it knowing it’s not a real concern – which is a nice break from all of my real-life concerns.”

Pat Cooper (Caroline Berry) and her son Andrew (Oliver Ryan) in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ITV
Pat Cooper (Caroline Berry) and her son Andrew (Oliver Ryan) in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ITV

True-crime stories are similarly a part of de-stressing for journalist Esther Newman, whom I connect with via Twitter in a search for true-crime superfans. “Somehow they help me process my anxiety and worries in a safer way, probably much the same way that people who love horror enjoy being scared.”

Newman says she understands the ethical considerations that come with watching television that is informed by people’s real-life trauma (including the hurt that victims’ families face). Simultaneously, she adds that writers, broadcasters and streaming platforms intentionally play up the addictive qualities offered by true-crime stories. “The way [Netflix] episodes are released all at once really does make it an obsessive, compulsive form of entertainment that we all eagerly guzzle up. I also think it’s interesting how our generation reacts to crime docs, like Making A Murderer, debating it via social media as we watch.”

That’s certainly true of Netflix shows like Don't F*** With Cats and Tiger King, which both landed when people were stuck to their sofas (Christmas, and the beginning of the first lockdown, respectively), and gained their popularity largely on social media.

Strong word-of-mouth appeal isn’t the only factor that makes true-crime stories attractive options for broadcasters and streaming services. Critic Hannah Woodhead of Little White Lies magazine emphasises that true-crime documentaries are particularly cheap to make: “It's a sort of reality television without the need for sets and casting, which makes it often quite easy to produce using archive footage and interviews.”

Tahar Rahim as real-life killer Charles Sobhraj in ‘The Serpent’BBC/Mammoth Screen
Tahar Rahim as real-life killer Charles Sobhraj in ‘The Serpent’BBC/Mammoth Screen

When it comes to scripted shows based on true stories – such as The Pembrokeshire Murders or The Serpent – Woodhead says there are still benefits to using real-life source material. “There’s a lot of information already out there for writers to work from. So as well as potentially reaching new viewers, they have that contingent of people who were already familiar with the story, and will either watch because they’re connected to the case via geography, or even just to see how it matches up to what they already know. It's sort of a win-win for producers in my eyes.”

Notably, the genre is predominantly consumed by women – perhaps most dramatically evidenced by the audience of true-crime podcast Wine and Crime, which is 85 per cent women. This skew feels counterintuitive considering the fact that a substantial chunk of the true-crime genre centres around violence against women. Take Netflix’s recent The Ripper, a docuseries detailing the infamous Yorkshire Ripper murders in 1970s Britain, in which the majority of the victims were sex workers; or Sarah Koenig’s 2014 runaway hit podcast Serial, which followed the disappearance of American high-schooler Hae Min Lee; or, of course, The Vanishing at the Cecil House, about a Canadian woman whose body was found in a Los Angeles hotel cistern.

But true-crime fan and TV writer Ellen E Jones tells me that there are valid reasons why women might be particularly interested in these true stories.

“The theory that makes most sense to me is that it’s a way for women to prepare and protect themselves in a world where male violence is a constant threat,” Jones tells me.

“You want to avoid the same fate of the unfortunate women who went before you by, for instance, knowing the red flags of controlling relationships.”

Jones also stresses that both scripted and non-fiction true-crime tales are nothing new (after all, the genre’s first commercially successful story was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, based on a real murder and published in 1842). Looking at all the murder stories brought to both the page and the screen since then, Jones says that often, these stories serve as historical case studies.

“Nothing tells you more about the strictures of a place and time than the most shocking transgressions against these strictures. If you want to know about the deep psychological and social scars of the Second World War on America, and how it created a generation of transient lives, you could do a lot worse than read about the Black Dahlia case for instance [brought to life in 2019 by the TNT series I Am the Night, as well as the 2006 film The Black Dahlia].”

Perhaps it is possible to both engage in true-crime-inspired shows and remain critical of how they are made. This goes for the portrayal of the accused, the police, and the justice system, as well as the ways that victims’ stories are handled – after all, The Pembrokeshire Murders has been criticised for its reliance on lazy tropes like the overly mythologised serial killer and the hard-working, honest detective.

Kelsey, a facilitator for Cradle, a collective exploring alternatives to policing, tells me: “It is a political choice every time the police are shown on TV, and the institution is rarely conveyed with realism or reflexivity. It’s vital we start talking critically about the ways we see this violent system on screen.”

Jones has a similar focus on remaining critical. “Almost every genre can be done in a mindless exploitative way,” she says, pointing to the fact that a number of podcasts, documentaries and dramas do take ethics into consideration, and implement various measures accordingly.

Doing some digging: Luke Evans (right) and Steve Meo as two investigators in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ITV
Doing some digging: Luke Evans (right) and Steve Meo as two investigators in ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ITV

“A lot of my favourite true-crime podcasts refuse to even name the killers, and they put the victims’ stories first.”

These practices are to be encouraged, and some critics have suggested they will become more commonplace. Jean Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture, described this phenomenon upon the release of the sequel to Making a Murderer – claiming that true-crime stories have broadly become more high quality and more sensitive as mainstream demand has increased.

Although popularity fluctuates, it seems there will always be a market for unsolved mysteries that revolve around death or violence. They hinge on the core principles of conflict and tension that fuel narrative television, and open up valid opportunities for social and historical commentary. Since the current boom in stories isn’t going away any time soon, it is perhaps most important that writers, broadcasters, streaming platforms take scrutiny on the chin – and prioritise sensitivity over sensationalism.

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