“[We have] seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service—almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers,” tweeted Netflix in Jan. 2019, just days after the release of Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile, a crime drama film based on the life of serial killer Ted Bundy.
In the past several years, streaming giants Netflix, Hulu and HBO have released documentaries and dramas based on the lives of real criminals. YouTubers have also taken advantage of the true crime trend by doing mukbangs (eating shows) or applying makeup while retelling gruesome crimes.
True crime retellings have infiltrated mainstream entertainment, glorifying horrific events to the extent it is warping people’s perceptions of gruesome crimes and terrible people.
A mugshot of a murderer juxtaposed against bright colorful thumbnails crowded with fast food seems a part of a dystopian entertainment genre. Yet true crime mukbang YouTubers who scarf down Jollibee while casually discussing dismemberment do exist and they are not part of an imaginary dystopia.
Stephanie Soo, a prominent true crime mukbang YouTuber possessing over 2.7 million subscribers, does exactly that. For several years, Soo has uploaded biweekly—daily at one point—40-minute videos of herself consuming meals ranging from spicy Shin Ramyun or chive boxes to lobster or chicken tikka masala. All the while, Soo alternates between taking bites and recounting the story of a man whose skin sloughed off after his wife of 38 years poured boiling hot sugar water over his sleeping form.
In this setting, horrific stories like these are cast under a light that morphs a gruesome crime into a “how crazy is that?” dinner topic. True crime cases are often ambiguous because humans are complicated, and many parties suffer both emotionally and physically. At times, the ethics of crime coverage content can be heavily criticized. Is it moral or ethical for the public to scrutinize a family’s actions and suffering?
And Soo is not the only trailblazer in widening the niche of YouTube’s true crime content. Bailey Sarian, Kendall Rae and Eleanor Neale have also amassed millions of followers and views from popularizing true crime storytelling. And, of course, Buzzfeed’s most popular series Buzzfeed Unsolved cannot shy away from blame either, its videos often amassing tens of millions of views on YouTube by pulling in audiences through sidebar recommendations.
And while these YouTubers seem to be aware of how sensitive their content is and will provide verbal and visual trigger warnings at times, it makes no difference if they are still relying on the “wow” factor to draw in audiences. The more gruesome, the more intriguing, the larger the audience.
Knowing the reach and impact of true crime content on YouTube, it begs the questions of the platform’s ethics. For one, it is highly likely families of victims involved in the crimes covered may stumble upon these videos. And, rather than being entertained, those families are retraumatized and forced to relive the events of a time they are striving to move past. Instead of the care and privacy they deserve, families and friends of victims of gruesome crimes find that the sudden and unnatural death of their loved one is being monetized simply to feed the schadenfreude of true crime audiences.
Furthermore, why does Youtube push for true crime content to be recommended and give it exposure? It seems that not long ago, the genre of true crime storytelling was still relatively niche.
True crime YouTubers still receive sponsors and ads despite how insensitive their content is. Logan Paul, who was shunned after filming a corpse, is no different from true crime YouTubers. In the end, both are profiting off shock value and death. This sort of entertainment has ruined the public’s views on serious crimes to the point where true crime is viewed as a form of casual entertainment.
Likewise, brands are also blindsighted to the ethical issues associated with true crime videos. While YouTubers strive to upkeep a certain image to bring in money, the brands sponsoring them, profiting off someone’s death is somehow left out of the picture. In recent videos, Stephanie Soo has been sponsored by HelloFresh and Casetify, while Kendall Rae’s videos feature NordVPN and SeatGeek.
Unfortunately, the true crime plague is not relegated to only the YouTube realm, made obvious by this article’s introduction tweet. So how did we end up with this humorous but firm chastisement from Netflix? Well, we live in a society. And society values appearances—even those of a serial killer.
Ted Bundy fans are a curious breed. Since the releases of Netflix’s docuseries and biopic Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile, the serial killer convicted of brutally murdering at least 28 women has gained a cult following on the internet, especially on TikTok. Bizarre TikTok trends ranging from claiming to be Bundy’s relative to roleplaying as victims of his crimes are only a few examples of the inappropriate ways audiences see Bundy. The portrayal of Bundy’s charisma and elusiveness branded him as the internet’s trendiest serial killer, powering these trends and causing TikTok users to forget how Bundy was a diagnosed psychopath who perpetrated one horrendous crime after another against countless women.
In one article from Psychology Today, author and professor of forensic psychology Katherine Ramsland explains, “Some females see the little boy in these killers and want to nurture it. Some believe they can influence a man as cruel and powerful as a serial killer to mend his ways. Some confuse brutality with masculinity.”
And casting Zac Efron as the face of Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile only makes things worse. Films like these tend to romanticize criminals to the point that people, especially women, can convince themselves someone like Bundy can be “saved.” As humans, we try to see ourselves in others and attempt to relate to people we encounter. That is why we say, “I cannot imagine…” But when it is directed at true crime, empathy becomes problematic. True crime has blurred the boundary separating those not deserving of an inkling of sympathy, reflected in how Joe Berlinger’s film touts Bundy’s charisma and attractiveness to viewers.
In another instance of TikTok making true crime their plaything, armchair theorists took one step too far trying to decipher the story of Gabby Petito’s death.
22-year-old Gabby Petito went missing in Aug. 2021 while on a road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Soon after, the immense social media coverage of her disappearance caused hashtags #gabbypetito and #findgabbypetito to attract upwards of 268 million views. And, as you may have guessed, instead of respecting Petito and her family’s privacy by steering clear of the case, TikTok pulled a TikTok by spinning the case into their own investigative crime episode, forgetting the very real human impact of her death.
Grossly enough, amateur detectives took to mapping out timelines or assuming things about Petito and Laundrie’s relationship. One self-proclaimed psychic on TikTok, Kelly Ferro, even falsely stated that her “visions” granted her insight into information about the case. It is disgusting to try to gain popularity by lying and making such claims about a tragic death a family is trying to find closure to.
TikTokers like Ferro are not only a hindrance but extremely disrespectful. Consuming true crime media does not suddenly mean you understand the ins and outs of any murder, and it most certainly does not qualify TikTokers as homicide detectives who can handle the nuances of real-life crimes.
True crime content has completely messed us up as a society. Profiting off of true crime storytelling. Romanticizing serial killers. Turning a live homicide case into a collaborative thriller novel. To many, crimes are past being an aspect of real life and are instead believed to belong to nonstop internet speculation and underbelly subreddit threads. Instead of investing all your energy into true crime, please beware that we are headed down some morbid path of entertainment.
Hopefully, people can be convinced to watch other content as entertainment since there is plenty of content on the internet to consume that is not incredibly disrespectful to victims of gruesome crimes!