The per­verse com­fort of true crime sto­ries

Sunday Herald - - WEEK IN PERSPECTIVE - Val Burns Val Burns is a psy­chother­a­pist, liv­ing and work­ing in Glas­gow email: val­brns@ya­

IMAG­INE this: an 80-year-old dowa­ger duchess is found dead in un­ex­plained cir­cum­stances in the same house where, 40 years ear­lier, her chil­dren’s nanny was al­legedly blud­geoned to death by the duchess’s mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared, aris­to­cratic hus­band. To add grist to this murder-mys­tery mill, the raff­ish old Eto­nian hus­band is as­sumed to have mur­dered the nanny in a case of mis­taken iden­tity, be­liev­ing her to be his wife (in the grim, dim light of their base­ment, the two women were re­mark­ably sim­i­lar in stature and ap­pear­ance). His grisly plan, so the story goes, was to do away with his wife to help pay off huge gam­bling debts in an at­tempt to re­store the fam­ily for­tune he’d squan­dered in Lon­don casi­nos. Hav­ing re­alised – to his hor­ror – that he’s killed the wrong woman, he pro­ceeds to at­tempt to mur- der the “right” woman (his duchess wife) with the same deadly piece of lead pip­ing used on the nanny only min­utes be­fore. The plucky duchess man­ages to es­cape and runs to a lo­cal pub for help. For­tu­nately, she lives to tell the tale but the mur­der­ous hus­band makes haste his es­cape and is never seen again. Sounds like an out­line plot for a clas­sic crime drama. This is not fic­tion, nor is it proven fact, but it is what is gen­er­ally be­lieved to be the true-crime nar­ra­tive of the murder in 1974 of the Lu­can fam­ily nanny San­dra Rivett by Lord “Lucky” Lu­can, and his at­tempted dis­patch of his wife, Veron­ica. Lu­can’s dis­ap­pear­ance has been an en­dur­ing source of spec­u­la­tion, films, doc­u­men­taries and lit­er­a­ture (not to men­tion jokes) since he van­ished hours af­ter the murder of Rivett. With the news of Lady Veron­ica Lu­can’s death last week (as yet un­ex­plained, but not thought to be sus­pi­cious) there’s been a pre­dictable rekin­dling of the­o­ries and wild imag­in­ings about Lu­can’s sub­se­quent fate. Four decades on, the mys­tery

re­mains un­solved but the in­trigue sur­round­ing the story is as po­tent as ever.

Our ap­petite for true-life crime sto­ries is grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially. Over the last few years, the pulling power of doc­u­men­taries – such as Mak­ing A Mur­derer (Net­flix), BBC’s Sto­ryville se­ries Death On The Stair­case and the uni­ver­sally ac­claimed podcast Se­rial – is it­self some­thing of a mys­tery that raises some un­com­fort­able ques­tions. Why, for ex­am­ple, are we so ob­sessed with real-life crimes and with murder in par­tic­u­lar? And why is it that the more grue­some and bizarre the murder, the more gripped we are by the story?

Just as mur­der­ers and the rea­sons they kill are com­plex and multifaceted, so are our mo­ti­va­tions for want­ing to de­vour ev­ery in­tri­cate de­tail of their crimes, no mat­ter how mun­dane or de­praved.

Real-life crime TV is a pop­u­lar and com­pul­sive genre, with whole chan­nels ded­i­cated to 24-hour de­noue­ment of the dark side of hu­man na­ture.

In­ter­est­ingly, women are much more likely to be­come fre­quent view­ers than men. This may stem from the “fore­warned is fore­armed” men­tal­ity of some fe­male view­ers who be­lieve they could pre­vent a ran­dom at­tack by be­ing fa­mil­iar with the psy­chol­ogy and modus operandi of se­rial killers and rapists, thus en­abling them to out­smart their hy­po­thet­i­cal slayer. But that can­not be the only rea­son why the dis­sec­tion of these real-life atroc­i­ties make such com­pelling view­ing.

One the­ory is that we get hooked in by the in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity of murder and se­rial killings – of­ten en­acted on to­tal strangers not pre­vi­ously known by the at­tacker. The killer’s ca­pac­ity to trans­gress so­cial and moral norms can as­sign a quasi-enig­matic qual­ity to their per­sona: they look like us, they act like us but, es­sen­tially, they are alien to us (this is par­tic­u­larly the case with se­rial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jef­frey Dah­mer, and Fred and Rose West).

Schaden­freude is an­other mo­ti­vat­ing in­gre­di­ent that al­lows us to in­gest the gori­est of de­tails: it’s the se­cret shame we ex­pe­ri­ence when we feel glad that some­one else is the vic­tim while we lie safely tucked up in bed.

Darker than this, though, is per­haps the un­con­scious though per­verse pride we may take in not com­mit­ting murder our­selves. Per­haps at its sim­plest, true-crime TV is a form of guilty pleasure: we know we shouldn’t, but we do it any­way.

The ghoul­ish na­ture of the con­tent can be a bit like binge-eat­ing a party pack of crisps and a gi­ant bar of choco­late, leav­ing us feel­ing dis­gusted with our­selves as we sur­vey the empty wrap­pers ly­ing on the floor be­side our bed.

Lots of calo­ries and carb spikes, but no real nour­ish­ment to be had.

Pho­to­graph: Getty

Lord and Lady Lu­can be­fore he dis­ap­peared af­ter the killing of his fam­ily’s nanny

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.