Fascinated by true crime: series that dignify events

We analyse the success of non-fiction crime: why do we like to watch murders while we eat?

3 min
The police investigating the bridge where Isabel Carrasco was murdered in 2014, the focus of 'Muerte en León'

Turning a monstrous crime into a work of art. This action carefully defines In Cold Blood (1965), by Truman Capote, considered the starting pistol of one of the great journalistic and literary revolutions of the 20th century: the non-fiction novel. The New American journalism (authors such as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Harper Lee) brought a shine to a phenomenon that has reached the present day at its best thanks to the fascination with true crime.

This narrative sub-genre, which investigates and reconstructs real crimes, is experiencing unprecedented growth due to the proliferation of television content platforms. The success of the format is demonstrated by the many hours of non-fiction crime on Netflix and HBO, but above all by the fact that a show that recounts real crimes -Crims by Carles Porta, on Tv3 TV station- can lead public television ratings with an iron fist. One of the foundational bases of this successful programme is the question "Why do we kill?", and from this derives another equally disturbing question: "Why do we like to watch it?"

"The mixture of reality and crime has a hypnotic effect", says Joan M. Oleaque, journalist and writer of one of the pioneering state true crime films, Des de la tenebra: un descens al cas Alcàsser (Empúries 2002), roughly translated as "From the darkness: a journey down into the Alcàsser case". These documentaries, which today populate the TV grid, are popular because the murder and true violence offer high doses of drama that trap the viewer and combine reality and fictional elements. In this sense, non-fiction crime on television draws from the same sources as thrillers do, and skilfully uses some of the mechanisms of the detective novel: suspense, mystery, and violence.

Rigour and quality

Screenwriter Enric Bach highlights the fascination "for evil" as one of the keys to the popularity of the genre: "And if it's real and not fictional, the component is unbeatable". Co-creator of one of the first Spanish titles, Muerte en León (HBO) ("Death in León"), Bach stresses the importance of works such as The Jinx, by Andrew Jarecki, and The Staircase, by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, in the modern conception of this type of work: "They saw before anyone else the narrative possibilities that true crime has, and successfully exploited the option of serializing it". Although non-fiction crime has always been made, it has had to be modernised to adapt it to new formats and change its approach, going deeper into the journalistic vision and at the same time fleeing from the hegemonic speculation and sensationalism of the nineties. "These events were seen as the cheap section of the newspaper, a symbol of bad journalism. It is when quality and rigorous products began to be produced that the genre was taken into consideration", recalls Oleaque.

Miguel Ricart, one of the killers of the Alcàsser girls, leaving the prison of Herrera de la Mancha, Ciudad Real.
'Mindhunter'. Why are we fascinated by psychopaths?

The excellence which some documentaries have attained, such as Making a murderer, The Ted Bundy Tapes and The ripper, and series based on real murders -American crime story and Mindhunter by David Fincher - is part of the success, but not the only one: in this golden age of true crime they tell us about human nature, about ourselves and our fears. They allow us to get closer to the human side of the protagonists and, most importantly, they have the ability to go much further into the social sphere: "What's interesting is that they explain more than the crimes per se: they allow us to enter into a reality that we don't know and shed light on it", says Enric Bach.

Working with reality is "difficult if you want to do it well and rigorously. You need passion, hours and skill", says Carles Porta, of Crims, and also a certain sensitivity that avoids sensationalism. In this sense, there is a red line to be met in order to make a good product: that the victim and the relatives suffer the least possible during the process and with the final result. "The environment of the person who has suffered has to be treated with a profound delicacy. You have to carefully assess whether or not it is important for them to appear", says Oleaque. In Muerte en León, an approach to the relatives of Isabel Carrasco, the president of the Provincial Council of León who was murdered in 2014, was vital. "It was a special case, because the protagonist was both the victim and the bad guy in the story. We needed to find voices that spoke well of her in order to have a much more complete and honest vision", explains Enric Blach, who recognises that the work of a journalist "teaches you what you can show and what you can't". "We didn't show photos of the autopsy, it was very degrading and didn't add anything. It goes with the ethics of the profession", he adds.