True Crime has become a big genre recently. Hundreds of programs advertise gory stories about wives killing husbands and police hunting serial killers, and novels wear their “based on a true story” tagline like a badge of honor, but should real life crimes, especially those of the most severe nature, be turned into entertainment?
I admit I watch a ton of crime shows, both fictional and non fiction. A lot of it is over dramatized trash TV, but there is a kind of morbid entertainment found in them. One of the more interesting programs I have found in recent months is called Written In Blood. In it, crime authors explore the real life murders their stories were based on. In one episode they spoke to author Alex Marwood, who wrote “Wicked Girls.” The crime this book is based on, the murder of James Bulger, is infamous in the UK because not only was a toddler killed, they were killed by other children.
It didn't happen all that long ago either. James' mother is still very much alive, as are many of his family, and the same is true for the murderers themselves. The book is very loosely based on the case rather than retelling it, and in researching for this blog I found another book based on the same case called “Looking for JJ”. Both books have changed the genders of the people involved, and “Looking for JJ” deals more with what happens when one of the murderers is released as an adult, but you can't help but think what the families of all concerned think about these books. Evidently, there cannot have been a loud objection to the novels, because both are not only released but have won awards.
Crime stories may seem to get a free pass from critism, but music doesn't seem to be afforded the same courtesy. Rammstein, an Industrial Metal band from Berlin, Germany, released a song about Josef Fritzel. Fritzel locked his daughter in a purpose built cellar under his home in Austria, fathered several children on her, who he also kept in imprisoned, and managed to keep the whole thing a secret for years. When the daughter and her children were finally discovered, the story was in the paper for months as all the details came to light. Rammestein, never ones to shy away from a controversial topic, wrote a song about the case. Whether it was because the song was a mix of blistering angry choruses juxtaposed with gentle verses or because the song was delivered, like 90% of their work, in German, the song gained the band some bad publicity, with many thinking the song was in praise of Fritzel. The song is creepy, taking the point of view of the father enticing his daughter into the basement of the house and telling her in sweet metaphors what he was going to do. There is no judgment in the lyrics, but when coupled with the roared vocals and screaming guitars it is obvious that the song is just as Till lindeman, the singer of Rammstein, has claimed it is. A damnation of Fritzel.
Despite the fact that the books and songs listed here did not seek out to glamorize the cases they were based on should they have used them as entertainment? Do we have any right to use these stories, even though they are in the public domain, as a basis for our own work?
A story is supposed to make you feel things. It's supposed to encourage empathy with the good characters and hatred for the bad ones, to make us laugh, cry, and feel the warmth brought by cosy happy endings. Maybe that's why fictionalized accounts of real crimes are so popular? It takes the crime out of the newspapers and humanizes everyone involved. The victim and their families become real people in our eyes, not just names we heard on the news.
There is no right or wrong answer here. For my two cents worth, as long as due care is taken to not sensationalize the story or cast anyone in an unfairly bad light then I think it is fine to use a real life crime as the basis for a story. Permission should be sought from the families if you are writing a real crime rather than basing a story on one, as the relatives of the victim may not wish to have the story retold. There are also certain legal loopholes when dramatizing a real crime, and any one seeking to do so should make themselves aware of what those are.
Crimes, especially murders, are interesting. They open up a darker side of humanity that thankfully few people see. And as long as we don't forget the real hurt and anguish at the center of them then perhaps we as writers can keep satisfying readers morbid curiosity about real crime.
K.Lawrence hails from the wilds of north east Scotland and has been writing for longer than she can remember. Her first novel, The Raven And the Nightingale, is currently available through Amazon and Inkubus Publishing. The sequel is in the works. K has also written several short stories which have appeared in Inkubus Publishing Anthologies and one short story that has appeared in the latest A Murder of Storytellers anthology.
When she is not writing, K likes to play guitar, go to concerts, take photographs of everything and anything, and paint. She is also an avid collector of Funko Pops and other geek memerobilia.