From the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
She slowly edges through her darkened house, wide-eyed and terrified of making the slightest sound. She hears a window smash, and gasps, her eyes darting around looking for something to defend herself with. Her heart racing, she reaches out for – but it’s too late. Her attacker strikes…
This could come from any one of many near-identical schlockumentaries lurking around your telly. ‘Based on witness testimony’, they package up peoples’ traumatic experiences with slick reconstructions, ominous narration, and talking heads. A dozen or so programmes rigidly follow this formula, as if they’ve been churned out on a production line.
Imported from across the Atlantic, these shows have ended up on those also-ran channels which clutter up the ether. The Really channel boasts the most, including Paranormal Witness, I Fell For A Psychopath, Stalked: Someone’s Watching, My Ghost Story, Brainwashed, I Survived Evil and When Ghosts Attack, while truTV screens Fear Thy Neighbor and A Stranger In My House. A Haunting can be viewed over on Pick, and CBS Reality brings us I Survived and Ice Cold Killers.
Whether the threat comes from a misfit neighbour (I Survived Evil, Fear Thy Neighbor), abusive partner (I Fell For A Psychopath), deluded cult leader (Brainwashed) or demonic spirit (Paranormal Witness, When Ghosts Attack etc.), each show’s format is the same. Victims, family members, friends and police appear as talking heads. Their stories of being stalked, harassed or terrorised are then retold as reconstructions, filmed with trendy washed-out colours in under-lit rooms. The scenario tends to begin with a nice all-American family moving in to their perfect home. Cardboard boxes are carried in past the white-painted picket fence, while the voiceover says something like ‘It was paradise. For a while…’. The dream home inevitably turns into a nightmare when the neighbour / partner / cult leader / spirit becomes troubling, then threatening, then murderous. The reconstructions make your eyeballs queasy with their shaky, blurry, slo-mo camerawork at jaunty angles. The scenes are rapidly, flashily edited, with every emotion underlined by musical stings and crashes. Cliffhangers are timed to ad breaks, and the schlockiest sequences are repeated umpteen times as flash-forwards and recaps in a desperate attempt to keep us watching.
The most extreme of these shows is I Survived Evil, one episode of which featured a harrowing rape of a woman in front of her children. The family now has the drawn-out, grisly reconstruction as an added reminder of their ordeal. Series like Cold Justice: Sex Crimes and Missing Persons Unit (both truTV) detail how these crimes are investigated by the police, and therefore can at least claim some educational value. The schlockumentaries tend to only focus on the crime itself. There’s not even much emphasis on showing strength in the face of adversity, which might have been used to balance out the traumatic events with something more positive. Instead, the focus is on victims suffering, and women suffering in particular. These programmes seem to be made just to titillate with lurid misogynistic violence. They’re the descendants of the nastiest ’50s pulp novels and ’60s exploitation films.
It’s debatable whether these kinds of depictions of violence desensitise us to brutality, provide some sort of cathartic release, or both. The makers of these shows probably don’t care as long as they attract enough viewers for the channels’ adverts. Whatever other effects these shows may have, the best reaction to watching them is revulsion at how they repackage suffering as entertainment.