I watch a lot of true crime...
...Enough that, over the last month or so I’ve been falling asleep to the sounds of Dateline episodes playing through my laptop speakers almost every night. It sounds strange and a little counterintuitive to be lulled to sleep by the worst acts humanity commits against each other, but the crimes are not the draw for me. For me, true crime consumption is a two-fold interest. Like most, I find the psychology behind what drives someone to want to do such things fascinating—before I went to college, I toyed with the idea of maybe becoming a forensic psychologist—but I also enjoy the sense of completeness that comes with knowing both that a case has been solved and that justice has rightly been served. As a woman, I also find it somewhat comforting to be able to consume true crime material and learn potential ways I can protect myself. There is, however, another side to true crime consumption. A much more unusual, darker, stranger side.
I’m talking, of course, about the social drive to glamorize serial killers and their heinous acts almost to the point where they seem to be considered completely outside the realm of ordinary humanity. Not that they are gods—they are statistically in most cases just…men—but that people elevate their acts beyond the scope of acknowledging that they are just that—some guy. A few years ago, in 2019, there was an onslaught of back-to-back Ted Bundy content that spanned both documentary and fictionalized film realms. Zac Efron played Bundy and social media was abuzz with the clashing sides of fawning over Bundy and (rightly) condemning him and most of the things coming out about him that positioned him as a good looking, upstanding guy who unfortunately moonlighted as a serial murderer. Chad Michael Murray played Bundy in yet another fictionalized film from last year. Jeffrey Dahmer is an internet cannibal meme. When I last looked some years ago after his death, Manson still had a “Family” Facebook group. The people who fall into the “fandom” of serial killers do not have to agree with the things the perpetrators did, but they tend to place them on a rather uncomfortable pedestal that forgets who the real center should be: the victims and survivors.
Watching this unusual phenomenon over the last few years in particular has led me to actively seek out true crime and true-crime-adapting material to get an idea of how they’re framing things as time goes on. Sometimes, the focus is exactly where it should be: on centering the victims and condemning the crimes rather than glamorizing them in any way. Sometimes…the temptation for sensationalism appears too strong to resist. Writer-director Conor Boru’s When the Screaming Starts, which played at this year’s Panic Fest Film Festival, manages to dance the line of being a bit of both while ultimately landing on the side of not just skewering serial killer idolization but critiquing the reasons behind why people might be driven to kill. It’s s a surprisingly effective dark comedy mix somewhere between What We Do in the Shadows and Creep, with the signature dry wit of most British comedy.
Norman (Jared Rogers) is a semi-successful documentary filmmaker looking for the next big project to put his name on the map. When he comes across Aidan (Ed Hartland), a self-described “aspiring serial killer”, and his Wednesday Addams-esque death photographer girlfriend Claire (Kaitlin Reynell), Norm decides to revolutionize the lucrative and dark market of true crime documentary by being the first to follow a serial killer as the crimes occur. It’s not long before they all realize that Aidan is little more than bumbling along, and if he wants to make his dreams come true he’ll need help. So, he and Claire begin an interview process to “start their own Family” with Norm there to watch the whole thing.
The first half of When the Screaming Starts feels a little like it toes the line toward idealization over criticism; in more than one instance Manson is brought up almost as someone to aspire to. Then, a tonal bait-and-switch happens and what feels like the truth of the film’s purpose is revealed as Aidan and his Family begin to butt heads and the power dynamics of the group begin to shift. As Aidan struggles to be thought of as the mastermind of the operation, the reality of his egocentric pursuit is brought to light. And so, too, is Norman’s.
Beyond its dismantling of the usual fanatical narrative, Screaming also presents an interesting tension between motivations. Aidan wants to be known. The women of his Family, Amy (a scene-stealing Octavia Gilmore), twins Viktoria (Vår Haugholt) and Veronika (Ronja Haugholt), are after something else entirely. In Julia’s case, revenge. In the twins, the sheer love of the acts. This is not about ego for any of them. Where Aidan longs for spectacle, Julia steers toward lying low so they might continue without notice. These conflicting ideals clash in the film’s climax, revealing a deeper truth at the heart of the differences even in real life. There are—as demonstrated in one delightful game of serial killer Guess Who? –far fewer women serial killers than men. And even a cursory watch of true crime will show that in most cases it was not so much a matter of damaged or risked ego for the women as for the men. The truth of it is, the womanly urge to feel nervous over rejecting a man is rooted in reality that is painted in blood.
While it can feel a little bumpy getting there, When the Screaming Starts manages to pull a fast one on audiences who approach it from the trailer offering alone. What at first seems like your run of the mill serial killer (aspiring) film turns into a surprisingly dark and nuanced look at who and why people kill and pulls the mask off of humanity’s biggest bogeyman Scooby-Doo style to reveal the truth: we’re all just looking for attention in whatever way we can get it. What matters is who you give that attention to.
By Katelyn Nelson