List of must-see films for the True Crime section of my taxonomy of horror sub-genres.

Zodiac (2007) Dir. David Fincher

Zodiac follows the true crime horror formula to the letter, establishing a timeline of events surrounding Northern California’s Zodiac killer. The film utilizes date location tags to maintain chronological continuity, reproductions of artifacts from the Zodiac case, and close titles explaining progress on the actual case at the time of the film’s completion. These techniques, which are coded as unbiased, and the film’s seemingly factual account of the events and people involved, gives the initial impression that Zodiac is a truthful and complete account of reality, that it simply conveys what happened and nothing else. This is where true crime horror tends to deviate from other sub-genres. It moves towards documentary in attempting to convince its audience that a singular account of an event is the truth of what happened. Moreover, as Zodiac demonstrates, true crime horror often relies on strong performances, hyper-realistic, high definition cinematography, and a lack of obvious emotional cues (like those provided by a score) to divest itself from the assumption that it is promoting a theme or agenda. In this way, Zodiac’s insistence that those close to the case necessarily either, A.) simply burned out, or B.) destroyed their own lives, goes uncontested by the audience, and the characterization of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a negligent father and Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a neurotic, obsessive alcoholic become facts, rather than dramatized portrayals.

Monster (2003) Dir. Patty Jenkins

In addition to being the only feature-length fiction film (as opposed to documentary) profiling Aileen Wuornos, Monster is also a foundational film in terms of both queer horror’s history and understanding how queer horror and mainstream media intersect. Monster presents a complicated case in approaching queer[1] representation in horror, and media in general. One argument for the film holds that the simple fact of a film focused on two women in a relationship (however dysfunctional) is a step in the right direction. The counterargument is that by only representing queer women as unintelligent psychopaths, killers, and narcissists, Monster is simply perpetuating negative, pathologized stereotypes about queer women. The third argument, falling somewhere in between these two, builds from B. Ruby Rich’s writing on New Queer Cinema[2] , specifically as it is applied to queer killers in film. In short, it’s possible to read Monster as rejecting the narrow, limited scope of representing humanity in marginal groups that is so familiar to mainstream cinema. Monster focuses on damaged, unlikable queer characters. This focus helps to put forth the argument that, regardless of whether a person is considered “good,” they are still a person. This distinction is often missing from mainstream rhetoric on marginality and oppression, making Monster a particularly important film to consider. Even within this reading, Monster is still problematic precisely because it is a mainstream cooptation of a fringe movement’s ideological and rhetorical construction. Put simply, Monster still makes numerous attempts to redeem, or at least explain, Wuornos’ actions. The film makes her more sympathetic. It doesn’t allow the audience to contemplate the fact that she is a bad person, but, good or bad, she is still a person.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) Dir. Peter Jackson

Where many true crime horror films lean towards documentary approaches to aesthetics and narrative design, Heavenly Creatures embraces a liberal use of magical realism. The film uses passages from Pauline Rieper’s diaries as narration, connecting the film to a long epistolary tradition both in women’s writing and in narratives meant to more convincingly portray female characters. In addition to voice-over narration drawn from existing documentation, the film is framed by intertitles explaining Pauline and Juliet Hulme’s relationship both before and after the young women murdered Pauline’s mother. Heavenly Creatures is notable for its approach to mental illness, sexuality, and criminality, in that it definitively links the three while refraining from making any clear judgement about Pauline and Juliet’s character. That is to say, it is clear throughout the film that the girls are abnormally close, that they are psychologically damaged (albeit in different ways), and that these two facts contributed to their eventual decision to murder Honora Parker, but it is unclear as to whether either Pauline or Juliet is at fault within the context of the narrative.

Cropsey (2009) Dir. Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio

Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio’s 2010 documentary Cropsey ends on the narration, “The power of the urban legend is that it doesn’t claim to be the truth, but rather it says the truth is a range of possibilities, and it’s the audience who must decide. So pick one.” This concept is just as easily applied to documentary as it is to urban legends, especially in the case of true crime documentary. Cropsey, additionally, incorporates interviews and perspectives that reflect community responses rather than evidence and context. The film is framed by New York urban legends about Cropsey, a catch-all name for psychotic killers and predators. These legends are used to scare children away from particularly dangerous or secluded areas. Cropsey specifically looks at how these urban legends are constructed around both the Willowbrook State School (an institution that housed children with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses between 1947 and 1987), and the disappearances of five children in Staten Island, New York between 1972 and 1987. While the majority of the film is comprised of interviews with community members vilifying Andre Rand (who was eventually convicted of kidnapping both Jennifer Schweiger and Holly Ann Hughes) and linking him to satanism, Cropsey also utilizes a considerable amount of footage from Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé on the Willowbrook State School. This footage is used primarily for its ability to shock and unsettle the audience, rather than for any information or persuasive power it might add to the documentary. In this way, Cropsey follows in the long tradition of documentaries, like The Titicut Follies (1967) and the more recent Zelal (2010), that traffic explicitly in showcasing the pain and suffering of disabled and mentally ill people in subpar (typically state-run) institutions.

S&Man (2006) Dir. J. T. Petty

This film could just as easily fit into the horror mockumentary category as the true crime category. The film exists in a space between actual documentary, including footage and interviews that are ostensibly factual (one of which is with Carol Clover herself), but it also weaves in a fictional narrative without drawing a clear delineation between what is fictional and what isn’t. S&Man is about the underground BDSM/gore/porn community and the intersections of sex and violence in both mainstream and “specialty” media.


[1] Note that Wuornos did not directly identified as part of the LGBTQ community and that since sexual identity is not predetermined by actions, her relationship with Tyria Moore (in real life)/Selby Wall (Christina Ricci, in the film) does not automatically identify her as a lesbian. This said, the film is operates as an LGBTQ film within the larger media landscape, so in order to address these conflicting pieces of information I’m referring to her as queer (rather than lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc.) because we don’t know how she identifies, and in doing so I’m referring more to how her character has been read via popular culture than to how she identified in real life.
[2] Rich, B. Ruby. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Durham: Duke UP, 2013. Print.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures © 2007

Author: Geneveive Newman