Human affairs have long been marked by chaos and violence. The reign of King Richard II (1377–1399) is instructive not because it was unique but because, historically speaking, it wasn’t. The Merciless Parliament (1388), controlled by the Lords Appellant, purged the capital of Richard’s supporters to weaken his power. Thomas Usk was one of the many otherwise decent common folk who were brutally executed. In Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, the medievalist Gary W. Shawver recounts how the scribe exposed the plot of an authoritarian mayoral candidate to seize permanent power in London. For his deeds, in 1387, the king had Usk appointed undersheriff of Middlesex County. His office was short-lived, however, because he was publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered mere months later. Eyewitness accounts provide the ensuing butchering in horrid detail. The severing of his head purportedly took over 30 strokes of a sword. His body was then chopped into pieces, and the severed pieces mounted across London, near Usk’s relatives, to humiliate him.
It’s so clear to us now that it can be easy to blame Usk’s execution, and the tens of thousands like it, entirely on the corrupted moral instincts of rulers. But the mobs who cheered for blood were also at fault. There is a certain kind of spiritual death associated with such a desecration of the human form — and it is not only experienced by the criminal. Thomas Usk was charged with treason, and his head rolled a mere day after his trial began. The Lords Appellant had taken power by force and Usk’s sentence would have been openly political to the people of London. Yet the citizens still appeared in droves to witness the execution. And they didn’t come to instill some value of loyalty to the crown. They came to watch the show, to see the gore. One can only imagine the anguish felt by Usk in his last moments, with hordes of ravenous eyes hungrily observing his pain.
Arbitrary executions and purges are not as common now as they have been throughout much of history. Thankfully, most contemporary societies value human dignity enough to have cut back on open displays of cruelty, ogled at by curious, interested, or delighted onlookers. But we remain far from perfect. From the type of entertainment we consume to the ways we cover catastrophe, we continue to exhibit many of the same tendencies we criticize our “backward” ancestors for.
Witness the genre of “true crime,” which has exploded in recent years. Blogs, books, and movies about the stuff are everywhere. Don’t even get me started on the shows. Channel 4 announced a new platform dedicated to true-crime content, True Crime on 4, just a few weeks ago. Seduced, I’ll be Gone in the Dark, Fear Thy Neighbor, Evil Lives Here, American Murder, I Am a Killer — all of these shows cover intensely traumatic experiences and produced episodes during the entertainment lull caused by the pandemic.
The hundreds of true-crime podcasts are even more revolting. Shows such as My Favorite Murder cover some of the darkest experiences for hours on end. Listeners tune in for hours of casual discussion of school shootings. One host speaks with growing excitement as she describes the crime while the other adds dozens of corporate and obligatory “ew’s” “ugh’s” and “oh my God’s.” The podcast even self-identifies as a “true crime comedy podcast.” Sure, humor can be a useful tool for working through tragedy. But hundreds of episodes covering tragedy nonchalantly only serve to minimize the anguish felt by every victim whose stories they discuss.
Each of these programs takes a real toll on both survivors and the families of victims. Producers and writers have repeatedly covered gruesome stories without receiving any form of consent. Mindy Pendleton begged Netflix to abandon its project to cover the strangulation of her stepson, but, hey, capital calls! It is perfectly legal — writers usually compile their research from publicly available information — but that doesn’t make it any less gross. It is a cheap commodification of crime, and it makes a spectacle of sin. People watch and read in intimate detail about real people at the lowest states of their lives. About the sexual abuses and disfiguring injuries they or their loved ones experienced. It’s utterly humiliating. And the producers, when criticized, hide behind the banner of “raising awareness.” But as we’ve already gone over, this is no excuse. Even if it does raise awareness of what the monsters that roam the earth are capable of, it does not matter. The victims do not deserve to relive their pain or become household names.
Whether they realize it or not, true-crime bingers are showing some of the same impulses as those who attended Usk’s execution. Both justify their viewership by citing knowledge gained, awareness raised. But how much does one really learn from episode No. 41 of whatever the most popular show of the moment might be, aside from more reasons to be paranoid? At what point does the supposed desire for knowledge cross over into morbid enjoyment? People sitting at home during a pandemic should not have to resort to the misery of others to cure their boredom. Victims deserve better.
This does not mean we should avoid discussion of terrible events. Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the infamous Cheshire, Conn., home-invasion murders, has chosen to describe what his family experienced of his own accord. It is acceptable for us not to know every single detail of the evils people experience. Especially if it allows us to respect the wishes of those who were wronged.
Displays of pain have and always will have a curious effect on our psyches. The train wreck we fail to turn away from is mirrored by the crowd mesmerized by the woman on the stake. Sometimes such imagery can be practically useful, as a testament to horrendous, large-scale atrocities we wish not to repeat, such as genocide. More often, however, it caters to a depraved desire for amusement, masquerading behind a phony sense of justice. And no offender rivals true crime, where producers have made a business out of retraumatization. People are not mere tools. Not for entertainment, and not for propaganda.