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State Press Play: What can Netflix's 'Night Stalker' docuseries tell us about how we look at serial killers?

Two professors talk through the ethics and appeal of Netflix's 'Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer'

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"State Press Play." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Listen to this on Apple Podcasts.
Editor's note: Jason Scott is a professor of film and media production, not film and media studies as stated in an earlier version of the podcast transcript and the podcast audio.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

From 2017’s "My Friend Dahmer" to 2019's "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," it's been made clear in recent years that the audience for serial-killer-centric content endures beyond the likes of "Silence of the Lambs" and "American Psycho." 

Classic movies about serial killers aren't the only way to satisfy our curiosity about them anymore, either.

True crime podcasts and documentaries have surged in popularity in recent years, too. 

Netflix, one of the most popular streaming services out there, has not missed out on the chance to keep its subscribers well supplied with true crime content, including movies and documentaries focused on serial killers.

In mid-January, Netflix released "Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer," a documentary series about the crimes committed by Richard Ramirez, whose known killings span from April of 1984 to August of 1985. 

Since its release, "Night Stalker" has sparked a great deal of conversation online — as content about serial killers tends to do.

I sat down with ASU film and media production professor, Jason Scott, and ASU critical cultural studies professor, Michael Walker, to hear what they had to say about the ways "Night Stalker" shows us how we process crimes like the ones Ramirez committed through the media we consume and create. 

MICHAEL WALKER:

I actually lived in the San Francisco Bay area while all of this was going on, and I remember it. 

I remember a lot of media hype about it. I remember people being afraid. These are vague memories, and I was young. I was probably 16, 17, 18 while all this was going on.

JASON SCOTT:

And I was born in 1969. So, I was 15, 16 when this was happening. I lived in the San Fernando Valley, not on the other side of the Valley from where the Night Stalker was, but I remember I had a grandfather who lived right off the freeway. 

One of the things at the time was he gets people right off the freeway, goes through an open window. So, it felt, culturally, very close.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

So, let’s start here: You’ve both seen the "Night Stalker" documentaryWhat were some of your initial thoughts? 

MICHAEL WALKER:

Yeah, I watched it twice actually. 

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

Really?

MICHAEL WALKER:

Yeah I wanted to go back and see if there were things in there that I caught. First time I watched it closely, you know this, that or the other thing, then I went back and watched it again kind of casually, and let it flow over. I did key in on how graphic this one actually was. There were some things that stuck out. For example, they, early on, they had a suspect that had a lot of pornographic magazines and they just showed the magazine. This documentary did tend to use more graphic portrayals of the violence and nudity than I had seen in previous things like that.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

Can you tell me a little bit more about what caught your eye in terms of the documentary being so graphic? 

MICHAEL WALKER:

They’ll show crime scene photos, right? But some of this stuff they’ll blur out. They didn't show the more graphic stuff.  

The one that stood out for me, in particular, was one of his victims. It was an older woman, and they showed the picture, of course. They blurred out her eyes, but they showed the corpse and that – that was pretty shocking.

For the most part they showed pretty raw stuff and, you know, some people may appreciate that. I mean not in terms of like, “Wow, that's great art,” but just in terms of being able to see detail.  

That's one of the reasons that we tune into this stuff. We want to experience and we want to see parts of life that are foreign, exotic, different from what we live in our day to day. Having that kind of detail in the story could be appealing to some viewers, but it can also be off-putting.

I would probably argue that finding that balance between giving enough detail so that people can experience it and get some knowledge along the way, and then moving over into something that's more gratuitous, graphic … I think it was Thomas Wolf that described it as what he called “porno violence.” 

When do we move from informing an audience, giving them details about worlds that they're not familiar with and move into something that's a little bit more voyeuristic and, you know like I said, gratuitous and possibly excessive? 

JASON SCOTT:

I always allow my students to turn their heads.

I say, “I can't give you another movie to watch, you know, but if that scene – if you can't take the scene, turn your head, close your eyes, have somebody nudge you when it's over.” 

And I admit that, I think as soon as I saw that that was going to be the aesthetic – which I appreciate because it's truthful, it's real.

I should be made to understand the horror of what happened, but I, as soon as I saw it, said, “Ok. Trail of blood, I don't need to see the body.” 

And it's odd because sometimes there is some masking across a face. There was some attempt to preserve some dignity for the individuals, but again, erasing their face is an odd way to do that because I could see a picture of them in good health.

This question of, “How do you show the victim's body?” is something that we really struggle with as a culture in general. We are not a culture that has agreed on a way to recognize the dead. 

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

On the note of the voyeurism aspect of this: I’m curious to know whether you have any insight on the “dark self” theory when it comes to us viewing true crime content. The theory basically being that we have this dark, “shadow self” within ourselves, within our psyche and that sees these true crime things and gets to have some sort of catharsis.  

MICHAEL WALKER:

Carl Jung?

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

I think so. 

MICHAEL WALKER:

I’m not familiar with that, but I really like Sigmund Freud quite a bit. I think that there’s something to be said for that.

Freud talked a lot about what he called the death drive, Thanatos, right? And it's this urge to violence that human beings have, and that urge to violence doesn't necessarily go anywhere.

We just learned to repress it. We learned to kind of shove down that unacceptable desire to commit acts of violence, down into what Freud would call our unconscious, but it still wants to come out. So, there's an argument to be made that these things offer a release for that.

We get to experience that without doing it. We can therefore kind of displace our desires for violence out onto something that's safe. 

I think violent video games, in a lot of ways, are like this.  You have a bad day at work and you can't punch your boss, but, you know, you can go home and get on Call of Duty and let some of that out.

I think there's something to be said for that, you know, that we can view this stuff and it allows us to experience it at some level without participating in it.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

With the way that media can communicate or send a message, specifically to young women, do you see any kind of interaction, or potential interaction in the way that Ramirez was and is portrayed by the media with the way that women were so attracted to Ramirez and still are, even today?

As I’m sure you know from watching the documentary, women sent him love letters, explicit photos -- and one even married him while he was in prison. 

JASON SCOTT:

After he's arrested, he becomes this celebrity in the way that notoriety creates some celebrity, and I believe that's probably a different story as to why people who do notorious things become celebrities or don’t.  That was before anybody could go viral. 

But if you're in L.A. or New York – Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, right? If you're a big city killer, you had a little bit more media exposure and a little bit more of the opportunity to sort of find a spotlight.

MICHAEL WALKER:

In the case of the Night Stalker you're talking about really horrific, sensational crimes over a period of months that got intense media coverage. I remember the media hype around it.

And that's going to attract people. People are going to be curious; they're going to be stimulated, turned on by it. They're going to find some excitement in it. There's a lot of reasons why people end up being attracted to that. We get a lot of play on crimes like that – Ted Bundy, very similar.

I think Richard Ramirez is an attractive person in general. He's not physically unattractive. He had this real flair for the dramatic, right? So yeah, all of this can end up being attractive to certain people for a lot of reasons.

JASON SCOTT:

Being fascinated with serial killers or beyond being fascinated with true crime, but in forming a personal attachment and emotional attachment to a very destructive person, that's for the psychologists to figure out. 

But I did think it was curious that the film acknowledged that and then kind of let him be that a little bit. I was expecting a little bit more in the last couple of episodes to say, “Ok, now that we've caught him, we can answer this question as to why.”

MICHAEL WALKER:

If media exposure to violence caused violence then, I mean, our society – American society – would just kind of collapse. Because we’re exposed to so much violence in the media, if it spurred people to do these crimes, then it would be bedlam. 

But you know, the vast majority of us were raised on violent media in some way, shape or form. Our cartoons, with the slapstick violence of cartoons, video games, movies, things along those lines. Most of us don't – the vast majority of us don't grow up to be serial killers or engage in real, heavy-duty violence in real life.

It'd be irresponsible to say that it never happens, but I think that that concern with media causing violence – I think that direct concern, I think that's overstated.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

Circling back to our discussion about victim representation: What do you think of the way victims were portrayed in "Night Stalker"?  

MICHAEL WALKER:

From what I’ve seen, it's pretty, it's all pretty standard, right? You have the victims tell their stories and they discuss their experience and what happened to them and what the impact is on them.

The one difference that I think I saw here is the graphic use of crime scene images and things along those lines. That was the real thing to me that kind of struck me as different. 

If you're telling crime stories, too, victims are really important. There's a hierarchy of victims – victims who are young children, for instance – the innocent, naive – the elderly, women in general tend to be more sympathetic victims.

And race is a factor in that as well. White victims tend to be considered more sympathetic victims than victims of color and they'll get more airtime. That’s also – in terms of Americans' romance with the gangster – that tends to be mostly with the white outlaw, the white gangster.

JASON SCOTT:

In the case of the "Night Stalker" documentary, you have so many victims of so many different kinds of crimes that inevitably some of them are going to be more invisible than others.

I think that program does a pretty good job of allowing some of the survivors, as well as some of the relatives of the survivors, to come forth. I found it a little bit interesting who got to speak. It tended to be the whiter, suburban victims rather than the victims of color.  Although I don't think it was completely that way, but it seemed to point that way.

But I'm also looking at well, there's a lot of victims who I can imagine did not speak English and don't have anybody to speak for them. This is not a movie that necessarily speaks for them. It tells their story, but it doesn't tell us about how they got to where they are or really what was lost except their life.

Maybe it can't do that. Maybe that's just too much for that film to do, and we need other people to go and say, “Ok, who are those people? And what are their stories?”

MICHAEL WALKER:

I think that when the victim can actually speak for themselves, it’s a lot more powerful. There was a young woman who Ramirez had abducted as a child – and I thought this was really important, what they did here – she was on toward the end of the series.

She's still relatively young. She was like, “Yeah, you know, this horrible thing happened, but it doesn't define my existence.”  Having her on and having her say that about her survival and her recovery, I thought that was really, really pretty powerful for them to do. 

JASON SCOTT:

If it's the family that dies in the "Amityville Horror," or a family that gets murdered by an angry parent and there's three or four deaths at a time, those we can contain, or a single death we can contain, and we can personify that person. 

For example, a documentary I worked on a couple of years ago called "A Murder in Mansfield," that was by a great documentary filmmaker named Barbara Kopple.

It's a true story of a murder that happened late ‘80s. And the movie is about this older son still trying to confront the father, who's in prison, about this murder. You can get the humanity of the whole family and then sort of the tragedy, the emotional tragedy of what happened. But if that had been a movie about a serial killer, or a man who had killed three different wives, those victims would be less important than what ties them together – their individual differences become less important.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

In terms of the fascination with serial killers that can somewhat come out of the way we portray them, why don’t we see them as monsters more universally, and why is there that fascination? Why do they tend to have a kind of mystique about them? 

MICHAEL WALKER:

First of all, I think we do portray them as monsters. And I think that's a little problematic, to be honest with you. One of the things we like to do, whether it's with serial killers or whether it's with mass shooters or criminals in general, is we like to put distance between them and us. 

When somebody like Richard Ramirez or Ted Bundy or anybody who commits a horrific crime, we label them as monstrous. We label them as insane. We label them as beyond the pale. And in many ways, they are. 

I'm not going to say that what Richard Ramirez did wasn't monstrous. It certainly was monstrous. At the same time, these are also people that our society produces. They’re us. Putting that distance, it also precludes and maybe closes down some conversations about how we get here. These individuals don't form in a bubble.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

So, then, us over-portraying them as these monsters and as being on a whole other level of terrible away from us – do you think that could be part of what fuels the fascination here? 

MICHAEL WALKER:

Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely. Think about what these individuals do. They break the rules in big ways. 

JASON SCOTT:

The process of turning history into a story is something that everybody negotiates in their own way. Some people believe that in order to be effective, it has to be more truthful. Even if that truth is complicated, messy or difficult.

Whereas some people will say no, to get the full effect, you need to either simplify or reduce or turn something into a story where maybe the story wasn't there. Now, this isn't unique to the filmmaking process. This is how a lot of our legal and justice system works as well. 

If you're a police investigator or a detective, they're always talking about: “What's the story that I can tell a D.A. or a jury that will make sense in a way that doesn't lead them down the path of having to look at the 93 clues that went nowhere?” 

As much as the story is contained, we are still put in those very, very difficult spaces of negotiating that space between life and death, between sanity and insanity. And it really happened, so we don't have the out of, “Oh, it's just a story.” 

It's a real choice that somebody made to say hi to that stranger, or to leave their door unlocked; people who ran away, the people who fought, the guy who had the bullet shot through his neck and he was still chasing Ramirez out of that home.  

These stories put us in that difficult space and it's almost like going on a roller coaster.

We know we're probably safe, but it's just because of one strap or one screw that we're not flying off into the universe, and being scared that way is probably a way to help remind most of us all why certain things are important and why we value life a certain way.

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

So then, overall, what can we take away from this documentary and the conversation about the way we portray serial killers and people like them in our media in the first place?

MICHAEL WALKER:

This is all intertextual.  We have the "Night Stalker" documentary, but we also have "Dexter" and we have "Silence of the Lambs." And then we have both the Bundy tapes and I think it was “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Awful,” which is a fictionalized version of Bundy.  You can go back to "Psycho" in the 1960s. 

So, we have the intertextual media ecology where you have these fictionalized accounts. You have these news stories, then you have people telling stories. 

"Silence of the Lambs" was a novel. It's based on the Thomas Harris novel, which found some inspiration from some serial killers, but we, collectively, that field of intertextual media wraps us up.

It's a wraparound, some of it’s from fact-based media. We get some of our knowledge from fiction, but a lot of it's really distorted. 

For instance, crime has been going down in the United States for decades, but if you look at polling data, we collectively think that crime is actually getting worse.

Well, where does that idea come from? That's media representations, and that has consequences.

I watch a documentary to be informed, but also to be entertained, and true crime does that. It informs, but it also entertains. So, at some level we are getting our entertainment from the spectacle of other people's suffering.

And that raises, I think, some real thorny ethical issues for us. Because on the other hand, do we want to not know this information?  But it is a question that I think is worth asking: What are the ethics behind that?

KIRSTEN DORMAN: 

Thanks again to both professor Jason Scott and professor Michael Walker for taking the time to sit down with me and lend their insight to this podcast.

For The State Press, I'm Kirsten Dorman.


Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Reach the reporter at kcdorman@asu.edu or follow @dorman_kirsten on Twitter. 

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