It was pretty much inevitable that I was going to watch ‘Nightstalker’. As someone with more than a passing interest in true crime, the Netflix documentary, focusing on Richard Ramirez, a prolific serial killer in 1980s LA, looked like an interesting way to pass a couple of evenings in lockdown. And I wasn’t the only one, the series stayed in the top 10 most-watched shows for weeks after it first aired. However, despite its popularity, it also garnered a lot of criticism from those who thought that it went “too far with the details” and risked glorifying the notorious serial killer.
These criticisms were far from unfounded, while other series tend to pare back the details to respect the victim’s privacy and prevent their show from becoming unwatchable horrifying, ‘Nightstalker’ went a different route. Including crime scene photos, victim testimonies and graphic descriptions of the murders, the series wandered dangerously close to horror show territory.
But isn’t this what we should expect from true crime shows? In fact, it generally isn’t. Two of Netflix’s most popular original series, ‘Making a Murderer’ and ‘The Staircase’ deal with violent crimes and yet they never rely on gory details to keep their audience. It is the engaging storytelling that made them so fascinating and led to endless debates. They held up as stories on their own without needing ‘Nightstalker’s gore.
The thing we often forget when watching true crime is that these events happened to real people and using the details of their tragic deaths as a form of entertainment can feel very exploitative. But this doesn’t mean all true crime appears this way. People will always be fascinated by the darker things in life, but it is important to find the balance between telling a story and using the horrifying details of a crime purely for shock value.