Marketing murder: On the surreal 'serial' killers

Every Saturday of this crime buff from Delhi has been dedicated to binging on true-crime teleseries. All her social engagements are worked around the date of a new release.

Published: 27th November 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th November 2022 04:18 PM   |  A+A-

Marketing murder, crime, murder

For representational purposes

Design student Shripali Sinha has been addicted to true crime for many years. Her ‘my list’ of favourites on Netflix reads like a sadist’s Pandora’s box that contains some of the grimmest real-life stories of all time. 

The Girl in the Box, is the claustrophobically terrifying true story of 20-year-old Colleen Stan, kidnapped by a psychopath who kept her locked up alive in a box under his bed, to be pulled out, abused and then forced back into captivity for a whole seven years. 

Men Behind the Sun, is the spine-chilling story of Chinese and Russian prisoners of war being treated as human guinea pigs to test the effects of biological weapons by the Japanese Army’s Unit 731, during World War II. 

House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is about the mass suicide by members of the Chundawat family from Burari, who were found hanging from the ceiling, bound and gagged. Sinha’s absolute favourite is Gangs of Wasseypur, based on gang wars in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. 

Every Saturday of this crime buff from Delhi has been dedicated to bringing on true-crime teleseries. All her social engagements are worked around the date of a new release. Sinha belongs to the growing fandom of true-crime addicts, thirsty for a good mystery.

What’s the draw here? “The tingly excitement to be a part of the unthinkable, the forbidden, the taboos. To taste the adrenaline high of fear, to experience holy horror, up, close and personal,” she chuckles with a delicious shiver.

As the gruesome murder case of Shraddha Walker, whose body was allegedly chopped into 35 pieces by her live-in partner Aftab Amin Poonawalla, unfolds like a surreal nightmare, Sinha is waiting for its on-screen adaptation.  

Psychological underpinnings 

What makes the wildly popular genre of true crime, as dark and disturbing as it may seem, so popular? “Cinema imitates life,” says actor Vivek Oberoi. “Since it’s rooted in reality, it appeals to society’s basic instinct to survive, for safety, security and justice.” The trend shows a mirror to society, that evil and victimhood is a tropes as old as Cain and Abel. Waco or Ashram, gurus and their tricks are media fodder.

Aftab Amin Poonawalla and
Shraddha Walker

My Daughter Joined a Cult directed by Naman Saraiya follows the life of the controversial godman, Swami Nithyananda, told through former devotees, who joined the cult without knowing its sinister side. Courtroom dramas are always compelling.

Behind Closed Doors on Hotstar explores the Aarushi murder case and raises disturbing questions in the viewer’s mind. India’s overworked and underpaid police get their due in the new televironment, shorn of the Dabbang machismo but elevated by fine police work.

Netflix’s Delhi Crime Season 2  is one such dark police story based on the notorious Kachha Baniyan gang that terrorised Delhi, but with a twist in the end. Its first season retold the horrific Nirbhaya gangrape and murder, and eventual justice.

Delhi Crime is the first Indian show to pick the Outstanding Drama Series Award at the Emmys in 2020. Crime Stories: India Detectives on Netflix shows the keen-eyed men and women of the Bengaluru Police solving difficult crimes, from murder to kidnapping and extortion.

Political conspiracies unfailingly mesmerise people; Kennedy’s assassination or, as in this case, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Death on Zee5. How did India's second prime Minister die suddenly on a visit to Tashkent? His son and grandson have some theories.

Indian Predator: Butcher of Delhi is the ghoulish account of serial killer Chandrakant Jha, a migrant worker from Bihar who taunted the cops by placing dismembered body parts around the city and outside, even Tihar Jail with little handwritten notes. 

Filmographies date the beginning of the modern true-crime serial fever to 2004, with The Staircase, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, about the trial of Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

Says Leena Yadav, co-creator, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths about watching true-crime: “There is a vicarious delight in saying, ‘Oh, something so terrible has happened to somebody else. But we are fine.’ On one hand, it’s human instinct to want to shut your eyes when you see violence, but then you simply can’t shut them. You aren’t simply able to pick up the remote and switch the TV off.” 

The relationship between the watcher of true-crime shows and the characters, long dead 
or incarcerated, is horrifyingly symbiotic. The element of schadenfreude, the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune, is unmistakable, according to clinical psychologists like Gurugram-based Rupal Baveja.

“True-crime feeds the morbid curiosity inherent in humans. This is often subdued to become an escape route for forbidden urges,” she says. Take The Tinder Swindler or Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes, both illustrating the politics of intimate relationships.

“Given that you can watch the grossest, most ludicrous real-life stories from the safety of your home in a controlled environment makes the experiencing all the more riveting,” Baveja points out. There is an evolutionary component to this voyeuristic pursuit.

“A primary human impulse is to protect ourselves and to find answers. By watching such shows, we’re preparing ourselves that should harm befall us, we can get out of danger. This kind of pre-emptive thinking is a psychological barrier against fear, making you feel in control,” she explains.

Women are true-crime TV’s biggest consumers, even as most such shows centre around them. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 70 per cent of serial killers’ victims between 1985 and 2010 were women, and most of the crimes were sexual.

Dr Sharon Packer, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai, calls learning about true crime “a dress rehearsal” for women who realise they could face such situations themselves. Research attributes this to the fact that women, for the most part, tend to be in sympatico with victims. 

A study by American true-crime addict and crime psychology expert Amanda Vicary noted that the number of women interested in the genre increased by 16 per cent in 2019. UK-based English literature student Puneet Rana truly gets it. 

“True-crime offers solutions. It demonstrates practical survival strategies for a real-life tragedy, helping recognise tell-tale signs. It helps contextualise a criminal’s motives, get into their brain and predict their next move,” she says.

There is, however, more to the genre’s popularity than self-preservation. The answer, perhaps, lies in empathy; psychological wisdom says women are hard-wired for emotion.

Author and clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen explains this theory lucidly in her book, The Essential Difference, “Empathising (for women) does not entail just the cold calculation of what someone else thinks and feels. Psychopaths can do that much. Empathising occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion, and it is done to understand another person, to predict their behaviour, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.”

Because of heightened empathy, women tend to get deeply invested in a victim’s turmoil and feel compelled to watch the entire series/movie, even if it’s terrifying. That closure is necessary. Bengaluru-based behavioural psychologist, Aruna Ramachandran’s account is about catharsis.

“I had a patient who was a true blue true-crime junkie. She got great pleasure from bloodbaths, genocide and butchery masquerading as entertainment and lapped up such content with a vengeance. Concerned for her mental well-being, her parents sent her to me. I learned that she was sexually abused by her driver when she was a child and became resentful and revengeful as she grew older. Watching true-crime films, especially where women were the perpetrators, placated her wrath against men. She told me that she found her revenge through these characters,” says Ramachandran. 

Dr Aarti Nagpal Mehta, Founder of Sahara Mental Health Clinic, Hyderabad, attributes the true-crime fixation to the ‘bystander effect the more the number of people present at a scene of a crime or accident, the less they are likely to help the person in trouble. Mehta believes that the person watching a true-crime episode on TV is comforted by the fact that they don’t have to take action or save anybody from danger they simply watch and are entertained.” 

Socio-cultural bedrock

Mass murders and sociopaths taking over pop culture aren’t new—the 19th-century penny dreadfuls were full of macabre crimes when Jack the Ripper prowled the foul backstreets of Whitechapel. What began as low-brow crime content has today reached sophisticated levels of entertainment.

“True crime has entered your living room. With streaming platforms investing in such stories, the craft has become quite cinematic,” says Ayesha Sood, director, of Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi. 

Cinematic yes, with those brooding grainy moments before predawn raids the stealthy midnight tread of a murderer in search of a victim or a shootout on a bridge in the middle of a traffic jam. But a filmmaker like Yadav didn’t want to sensationalise a story as tragic as the Burari Deaths.

On the morning of July 1, 2018, 11 members of the Chundawat family in Delhi committed mass ritual suicide. A popular theory doing the rounds in the media was that they were victims of mass psychosis. When Yadav started filming, she wished to communicate what the story reveals about us as a country, 
culture and society. “I sought answers, wanting to know the whole story of the incident. 

I was also motivated to act by my cynicism towards the media, which covered the tragedy irresponsibly. Three generations dying in their own house like that is a big deal. I didn’t go into it with a set narrative. A filmmaker should never get attached to a narrative,” she says.

The narrative, though, is important in establishing the premise, which is done best through photographs and archival footage from police cameras, jail interviews, court appearances and newspaper clippings. Shows like Making a Murderer, 

The Paradise Lost series, The Central Park Five, The Jinx, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story make engrossing viewing. With cable television networks such as Investigation Discovery, which exclusively feature true-crime documentaries, there is no dearth of hardcore true-crime guilty pleasures. What fuels this obsession?

“The fascination with the outliers of society,” says Telugu actor Adivi Sesh, whose upcoming movie, Hit 2, stitches several real-life crime incidents to create a storyline. “Movies are a reflection of society, of the things happenings around us. 

It impacts us at both a visceral and emotional level,” he says. True crime offers a rare chance to peek into the lives of the ‘unseen’ and to look at their side of the narrative for once, he adds. The smash-hit Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders, retells the story of brothers Joseph and Erik, who murdered their parents.

Called the hottest criminals alive by Gen Z, they live on as heroes on popular social media platforms, especially TikTok with memes extolling their looks. Even when they were in jail, hordes of fans, mostly young girls, would send them letters. Tammi was one of them. After watching their trial, she developed feelings for Erik. After first writing to him several times, she began talking to him on the phone, until finally meeting him in person and getting married in Folsom State Prison.

The year 2020 was when true-crime miniseries spread like wildfire. Covid-19 was on the rampage and people were confined to their homes, voluntarily or by government order. The March 28 episode of CBS’s 48 Hours, ‘Lizzie Borden Took An Axe’, had 3.42 million viewers, a 35 per cent spike from the previous week.

Investigation Discovery was the No. 1 ad-supported cable network for women aged 25 to 54 in a single day for the first quarter of 2020. “People are dying (of coronavirus), so people aren’t in the mood to watch Sound of Music,” Rebecca Reisner, who runs the blog Forensic Files, told Daily Beast. During the lockdown, true-crime fanatics got their fix with the ‘Carole Baskin’ song,  set to the tune of Megan Thee Stallion’s hit single ‘Savage’.

The meme song was about a woman who is suspected to have a hand in her second husband’s disappearance. The 2020 TikTok dance trend ‘cannibal challenge’ was inspired by Kesha’s 2010 song ‘Cannibal’ about the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer aka the Milwaukee Cannibal. Adam Golub, an American academic who studies the connections between true-crime narratives and pop culture, wrote in a recent article, “Pop culture is a place where choices are made —about the stories we tell and the stories we don’t tell, the people and events we remember, and those we forget.” 

The pervasive tendency of society to romanticise murderers and psychopaths such as Dahmer, whose story is portrayed in Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, makes heroes of criminals. According to Delhi-based sociologist Meghna Desai, their power lies in their charm, looks and outspoken manner, which is mistaken for truthfulness and trustworthiness.

In the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a woman says, “He was charming, good-looking, smart... Are you sure you have the right guy?” Charisma and the ability to fake sincerity is a skill psychopaths such as Charles Sobhraj have in abundance.

Their victims don’t see the danger until it is too late. “The Serpent on Netflix, named after Sobhraj’s snake-like abilities to dodge the authorities, became hugely popular because people, especially women, found him a dapper and compelling figure who could not seemingly harm anybody,” says Pranav Pingle, director of the Telugu web series Qubool Hai, which is inspired by real-life incidents of child marriage and trafficking in Hyderabad.

Sobhraj had scores of besotted female visitors in Tihar jail. Unable to resist his appeal, even his lawyer, Sneh Senger, reportedly had an affair with him. Around the same time, he got engaged to two other women. A young Punjabi girl fell in love with him after reading his biography by Richard Neville. Some of these women later became his victims.  

How much is too much?

Sneha Ganapavarapu, a corporate lawyer in Hyderabad, calls the true-crime genre a dangerous commercialisation of crime. A ghastly kidnap-murder of a young boy by a group of youngsters in Ahmedabad was inspired by the popular TV programme Sansani and the Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt-starrer Shootout at Lokhandwala.

“Indiscriminate watching of true-crime content can have real-world repercussions. The glorified, almost idolised, images of gangsters and murderers make them appear right. It makes ‘copycat criminals’ out of ordinary men,” she says.

Take, for instance, the case of a 24-year-old Delhi girl who was stalked and kidnapped in 2016 by a man who wanted to marry her. During the investigation, he admitted he was inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Darr.

Then there is Ashwini Kashyap from Uttar Pradesh, an avid TikTok-er, who was heavily influenced by a dialogue from Shahid Kapoor’s film Kabir Singh, “Jo mera nahi ho sakta, usse kisi aur ke hone ka mauka nahi doonga.” He murdered Nitika Sharma, a Dubai-based flight attendant he was obsessed with; she was going to marry someone else. 

While some people see true-crime miniseries exemplifying the glorification of crime, actor Suniel Shetty feels they decipher the many layers of the human experience. “True-crime shows that society is not black and white. There are grey areas that exist and no matter how hard-hitting they are, they make for resonating accounts of human emotions,” he says.

Sood protests, “For centuries, people have been affected by popular culture or media. Someone who wants to commit a crime will commit a crime. The onscreen depiction has little to do with influencing crime in real life.” 

Life imitating art is the camera’s new love. From white-colour true-crime shows such as Inventing Anna to fan-favourites like The Assassination of Gianni Versace, people can’t seem to have enough. 

Hear it from true-crime lover Sneha Goel, “Yes, true crime is frightening to watch. Yes, I have sleepless nights. Yes, I think a lot more about what-ifs and have a hard time trusting people, but true crime is my biggest love. It is non-binary and non-judgemental. It’s not plagued by the narrow understanding of what’s just or unjust, good or bad, right or wrong, but looks at the human condition in all its complexity. After all, we make serial killers, psychopaths, stalkers and murderers and maybe that’s why we love watching them too,” she says. 

Being a model citizen is about self-control. Murder lies in the remote control.

Crimes in India inspired by shows and films

The 2022 Shraddha Walker murder by her live-in partner Aftab Amin Poonawalla is said to be inspired 
by Dexter, an American TV series about a psychopath

The Ghaziabad Police recently unravelled a four-year-old crime in which a woman, along with her lover, killed her husband and buried him under a cement pit under a house, much like in the film, Dhrishyam 

In 2018, a boy from Meerut was inspired by actor Vivek Oberoi’s character in Shootout at Lokhandwala when he kidnapped his classmate to demand ransom, finally murdering the victim

The 2016 kidnapping of Snapdeal employee Dipti Sarna was inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Darr. The man behind it confessed to following Sarna for 14 months before kidnapping her.

In December 2010, Rajesh Gulati from Dehradun murdered his wife Anupama and dismembered her body into 70 pieces. Police investigation revealed that he was inspired by the Oscar-winning, The Silence of the Lambs.

Top 10 true crime series

Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes: A retelling of the horrific accounts of Bundy’s serial crimes, arrest and execution

Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: It throws light on the most notorious serial killer of 
all times, who murdered 17 teen boys and young men

Unabomber - In His Own Words: Anchored by a rare interview, this docuseries details Ted Kaczynski’s path from a young intellectual to one of the most-feared people in the US history

Raman Raghav 2.0: The story of serial killer Raman Raghav, also called Jack the Ripper of India, who went on a killing spree in the mid-60s

Delhi Crime: The first season was an account of the 2012 Delhi gangrape case; and the second was on the Kachha Baniyan gang of the 1990s, which carried out several robberies, assaults and murders in North India

Mindhunter: Inspired by the true story of how the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit began studying psychopaths and serial killers in the late 1970s

Men Behind the Sun: The story of Chinese and Russian prisoners of war being subjected to human experiments to test biological weapons by the Japanese Army’s Unit 731, during World War II

House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths: A series based on the mass suicide of the Chundawat family from Burari, Delhi, who were found hanging from the ceiling, bound and gagged

Zodiac: On one of the US’s most infamous unsolved crimes by a serial murderer, who terrorised the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s

Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi: Recounts the probe into Chandrakant Jha, one of the most gruesome serial killers in the country’s history 

“There is a vicarious delight in saying, ‘Oh, something so terrible has happened to somebody else. But we are fine.’ On one hand, it’s human instinct to shut your eyes when you see violence, but then you simply can’t.”

Leena Yadav, co-creator, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths

“True crime shows that society is not black and white. There are grey areas that exist and no matter how hard-hitting they are, they make for resonating accounts of human emotions.”

Suniel Shetty, actor

A true crime wave is sweeping television. Viewers are binging on OTT docuseries such as See No Evil, Mindhunter, OJ: Made in America, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths and The Tinder Swindler featuring real serial killers, multiple homicides, kidnappings and mysterious disappearances. 

With inputs from Kartik Bhardwaj, Shilajit Mitra, Mallik Thatipalli and Shama Bhagat


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