America's obsession with the true crime genre is no secret. The never–ending re–enactments are everywhere, from documentaries to television shows and podcasts. But as the genre reaches peak saturation, the question emerges: are these traumatic true stories really binge–worthy?
The new season of Netflix’s show Black Mirror explores the real horror of the true–crime industry in the new episode, “Loch Henry.” Black Mirror knows you can’t tear your eyes away from true crime. As character Pia mentions, in a true crime documentary, “The details are so awful, it’s irresistible.” “Loch Henry” follows a young couple who travel to a quiet town in the Scottish countryside to produce such a documentary. In a conversation with a local resident, they discover a disturbing story about the town's past, involving several murders—a story that has turned the place into a ghost town. When they decide to cover the case, the two find themselves trapped by truths closer to home than they can imagine.
The episode criticizes how the real people who lived through true crime stories are often exploited by the industry. “Loch Henry” shows the harsh reality faced by those affected by heinous crimes, especially when their lives are turned into trendy content by streaming services. The episode emphasizes that victims are often ignored, underestimated, and harmed by the people making these shows. In contrast, there are those who profit from this industry: in “Loch Henry,” the documentary production helped transform the small city into a tourist hub due to fascination with true crime.
In the past, Netflix has faced its fair share of criticism when it comes to the genre. When the streaming platform released Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a TV show centered around the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, some viewers pointed out how the producers did not acknowledge the victims and their families. Dahmer quickly became one of Netflix's most popular English–language series within just 28 days. The show garnered significant attention, earning a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, mirroring the success of the fictional documentary "Loch Henry."
A relative of Errol Lindsey, the 11th victim of Dahmer, said on social media that his family was not consulted by the production or Netflix and questioned how many productions about the case are needed to fulfill the role of “raising awareness.” By reducing individuals' murders to mere entertainment, the meaningful essence of their lives is stripped away, transforming their stories into just another piece of narrative media.
Netflix also approached victim Robert Mast's family and friends about participating in the series, I Am a Killer. Those closest to him made a heartfelt plea to the producers, urging them to abandon the project. They expressed their belief that it was inhumane to profit from a documentary that would exploit the emotional distress of a grieving family. However, on January 31, Netflix proceeded to release the show to over 60 million subscribers in the United States, featuring the episode that delved into the details of Mast's murder.
Society is undoubtedly fascinated with villains, but the villains in true–crime documentaries are not fictional. Dahmer was real, and the families of his victims are still dealing with their losses—and having their wounds reopened by watching the series become one of Netflix's biggest hits.
In this new Black Mirror season, there is an entertainment platform named “Streamberry,” which very intentionally shares a look and style that mimics Netflix. As such, by profiting off of content that most of the time is not approved by victim's families and continues to perpetuate the horror of the true crime industry, Streamberry reveals an ugly reflection of the streaming giant. While platforms like Netflix deserve criticism, it's crucial to reflect on our own role in consuming the sordid stories they produce. How accountable are we for fueling the demand for such content?
Another problem is when a criminal goes from being someone who is condemned to a person that an audience can understand, empathize, and even identify with, even if the work itself does not try to attribute a positive protagonism to them. “Loch Henry” sheds light on this troubling trend in Western society where killers and their crimes are glorified.
For example, Zac Efron recently took on the role of infamous serial killer Ted Bundy in the biographical film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which premiered on Netflix. The casting choice of Efron, known for his heartthrob image, resulted in Bundy—a murderer—being portrayed in a way that can glamorize and romanticize him. Similarly, Ross Lynch, another former Disney star, played the role of Jeffrey Dahmer, which further added to the trend of teen idol stars transitioning into serial killer roles and bringing an element of attraction into the role.
By breaking away from its usual narrative structure, Black Mirror provokes us to question the dystopian world we live in today, where the line between sensationalized entertainment and the genuine human suffering behind true crime stories becomes increasingly blurred. "Loch Henry" is a reminder that sometimes the most harrowing dystopia is not an imagined future, but a reflection of the present we must strive to change.
As Black Mirror pokes into the idea of tragedy being exploited for a specifically curated type of entertainment, creators, platforms, and consumers need to thoughtfully engage with the ethical boundaries associated with true crime content.