When is it art, and when is it true crime?
In the late 1940s, in a suburb of Washington, DC, a 13-year-old boy began to hear strange noises in his family home that no one else seemed to hear.
He heard dripping through the walls and scratching under the floors. He claimed that his mattress would move in the middle of the night without being touched. In February of 1949, after months of fruitless visits to doctors and psychiatrists, the boy’s family met with a priest named E. Albert Hughes, who was granted permission by the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism on the teenager.
After an attempted ritual where the boy cut Father Hughes with a mattress spring, two more priests were brought in to help. The men of God witnessed more strange happenings- the boy would snarl and scream, and cuts began appearing on his skin, sometimes spelling out cryptic instructions. After months of rituals that involved the boy being strapped to a bed and chanted over, the demons inhabiting the boy were banished during a stint at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, on the 20th March 1949. The boy was never troubled by demons again, and went on to live a quiet life as a husband and father. Today, if he is still alive, the victim of this demonic infestation would be in his 80s.
The story of the St. Louis exorcism was reported on at the time by The Washington Post, but it did not gain any national attention. This was the age long before the currents of morbid virality that today would probably have propelled this family into the international spotlight. But it did reach a student named William Peter Blatty, who heard the story while studying at Georgetown University. Two decades later, Blatty would publish a fictionalised account of a similar exorcism in his fifth novel. He would later go on to win an Academy Award in 1971 for the screenplay adaptation of his work.
The Exorcist is, obviously, a significant film- it's the quintessential horror movie, an emotional drama, revolutionary and brilliant and terrifying. But it would be incorrect to say that The Exorcist is a true crime story. It is based on the horrific injury and mental illness suffered by a real person and their community, but it is not true crime. Perhaps that is because so much of its plot is supernatural in nature. We would not called The Amityville Horror or The Conjuring true crime films for the same reason, as they are about paranormal or demonic events, even though there are people alive today whose lives were torn apart by the events depicted in them.
But what about a film like Psycho? Hitchcock's 1960 horror masterpiece is based on the murders and desecrations perpetrated by Ed Gein in the late 1950s. In fact, Gein's actions also inspired the filmmakers behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. But again, the label of 'true crime' doesn't seem to fit.
I have outed myself before as a consumer of true crime content. For me, and for many others, horror and true crime do feel distinct from each other. As I consider my next move as a writer, the allure of true stories of community grief continues to pull me in. Unfortunately, a few years ago I found out the hard way that true crime is a form that many audiences find completely unpalatable. No play or performance has ever pleased 100% of an audience, and it should not be expected to. True crime, however, seems to suffer from one particular assessment in the minds of some audiences- that it is morally wrong. True crime is exploitative and disruptive to society. True crime mocks victims in its gratuitous, morbid revelling. After the debut of a play I wrote based (in very small part) on a true story, I was told by a tutor at my university that it was never okay to make art based on real crimes.
So, if true crime is morally wrong and to be avoided by artists at all cost, then we should be able to define it.
Wikipedia, bastion of truth that it is, defines true crime as "...a nonfiction literary, podcast, and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people associated with and affected by criminal events". That covers the usual material that we sort into this category, like Netflix documentaries or well-researched podcasts, but it leaves a lot of popular media unclassified. There are a few series on various streaming services at the moment that are fictionalised examinations of real crimes and victims. Looking at the reviews for a series like The Girl from Plainville, such as this one in The Guardian by Adrian Horton, it is clear that other media is being folded into the true crime form despite never claiming to be non-fiction-
The Girl from Plainville, as a recent true crime series, continually raises the question for its justification – what does this add to a story we already know? Can entertainment illuminate without exploiting? – and doesn’t seem to know the answer.
I would argue that classifying a drama miniseries like this as formally similar to Serial or The Teacher's Pet is at best confusing, and at worst renders the label 'true crime' useless. There is a basis of truth to The Girl from Plainville, but a far more distracting work of drama is constructed on top of this. Drama and documentary have different formal goals, yet only one of them tends to escape any claims of immorality.
So what alchemy does a writer need to perform to transmute true crime into art? Why is drama sometimes the critical armour that protects artists from the stigma of true crime? Why do some artists get to avoid the journalistic standards that might otherwise be expected of true crime, while others don't? It may be a matter of knowledge- perhaps Hitchcock would have received criticism for his treatment of Gein's victims today in a world where every murder is only a Google away. However, based on the treatment of more modern classic dramas like Zodiac in 2007, I doubt this.
True crime as an artistic form should be more, well, formalised. Usually I find formal squabbles to be unhelpful, but if true crime is immoral to so many audiences then it is imperative that we understand exactly what it is. We know that the exploitation of circus animals is wrong, but the foundational knowledge required to make that assessment includes knowing exactly what a circus is. We can't possibly remove all traces of true crime from art without removing many, many revolutionary works. This goes beyond horror films- plays like The Laramie Project, Hamilton, Equus, The Crucible , and even Julius Caesar are all based on true stories of crime in one way or another. Are they all wrong too? Or is there a secret nuance to this that has become lost in emotional arguments of morality?
I love true crime because it tells the stories that actually matter. Made up stories of loss and death will never be more important than the real thing. Every play I write has its basis in truth, and I know I want to write plays based in the truth of crime. But I know that, as long as I let anyone know that my inspiration was a true story, my work risks being labelled 'true crime'. Even if I changed every name, every location, every violent act to ensure that I am not mimetically representing someone's real trauma on stage, my work might be deemed immoral.
I don't know how to produce the art I want to make until the boundaries of this form are better mapped. Until then, the asking of questions will have to suffice.
Psycho still © Paramount Pictures
The Girl From Plainville still © NBCUniversal Global Distribution
The Exorcist still © Warner Bros. Pictures