Do true crime documentaries like 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' create copycats? A criminologist weighs in

We have been seeing a flurry of true crime documentaries this year from 'Ted Bundy Tapes' to 'Dahmer on Dahmer' and they continue to rule our TV screens - but is it problematic?

                            Do true crime documentaries like 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' create copycats? A criminologist weighs in

The true crime genre is booming on television right now. The top brass in the TV network game are definitely investing in everything gory, chilling and murderous in the form of crime documentaries and the world is really lapping it all up. This year, we saw true crime documentaries about abductions, violent murders to serial killers and everything else in between.

'Abducted in Plain Sight', 'The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann', 'The Innocent Man', 'Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers', 'Dahmer on Dahmer: A Serial Killer Speaks' and 'Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes' tells us a lot about the way this genre has been moving forward. The sheer strength in numbers is staggering - and to some, it has come across as problematic.


Recently, after the success that 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' enjoyed, some critics wondered if the documentary actually meant to tell a crime story or sell a salaciously handsome young man who also happened to brutally kill more than 30 women.

Some accused director Joe Berlinger of portraying someone as terrible as Bundy as a handsome and charismatic law student and downplaying his cruel and dark side. But the fandom that Bundy's documentary created on the internet was real - he was tagged as "sexy" and "hot as hell" by Twitterati to the point that Netflix, the creator of the series, had to step in and remind everyone "that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service — almost all of whom are not convicted, serial murderers." 



So what attracts people to these terrifying crimes and the people behind them? "It makes people feel somehow better or less criminal by watching them. It gives people the opportunity to point the finger at the other person and inactively compare themselves to the perpetrator or victim, often citing what they would have done if in that situation. In addition, crime-orientated themes are so ingrained in our culture that it comes off as a regular TV show, no different than a sitcom," Dr. LaNina N. Cooke, who heads the Criminal Justice Department at Farmingdale State College in New York told MEA World Wide (MEAWW). 

She also explained why this flurry of crime documentaries are scary — it is all in the way the story is told. 

"As we all know, crime and delinquency are big sellers. Collectively, it is one of those topics that works to separate the imaginary line between the 'law-abiding' and the 'non-law abiding'. In some cases, the line is a bit blurry. Violent, dark crimes are on the fringes of society, but the screen time that it occupies makes it mainstream. Because of this, people are not taken aback by violence.

In addition, because we hear so much of it in great detail, it takes on a story-like characteristic. It is like a conveyor belt of stories, where we wait for the next hot topic," she said. "What is particularly bothersome is that it gives a false sense of the way in which crimes happen, often increasing fear and giving a misrepresentation of the rate of occurrence," she said.   

Netflix is also releasing an upcoming movie starring Zac Efron later this year on Bundy. The film was screened at Sundance in January. Many raised questions about the glamorization of Bundy that definitely would take the weight off the depth of his gruesome crimes and Dr. Cook agrees.

"When glamorized, crime becomes just a story.  We are slowly desensitized to the acts themselves and as a result, empathy toward the victim diminishes.  Victims get 'lost' in the sensationalizing of the offender, which is problematic. Crime stories become just that…stories that are a bit gossipy.  We hear the stories, but often the outrage and shock are short-lived and almost fake."

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However, these documentaries do not result in copy cats, she said, busting a popular myth. Why? because the mind of a killer like Bundy isn't wired like an ordinary person's. "There is no mistaking that there are some individuals who mimic crime, but in reality, it is few and far between," she said.

"Most people who commit crimes don’t do it for notoriety. In addition, many of those who commit the most violent crimes did not decide to commit crime as a direct function of these documentaries. There is something to say about people who get ideas from watching TV, but these ideas translate to violent crime in people who are generally on that track anyway."

"People who commit the most torturous, pre-meditated crimes are psychologically different from those who do not.  If the argument is that these shows 'create' crime that would mean that these shows have the ability to drastically change the psychological and sociological makeup of individuals, which does not happen," she said. 

She tells us that the solution to creating impactful yet sensitive documentaries would be to tell them as information instead of entertainment. "In every story there is a perspective. Either it is the 'side' of the victim or the perpetrator.  In order for the 'story' to be told tactfully, it should not be written as entertainment, but as information.  It would help if the teller had a greater goal in mind besides peddling the next big thing."