Last month, I left a party in Oakland, California, with some friends to go and get a burrito. As we were queuing for our food, a fight broke out in the restaurant between some customers and a security guard. The guard dropped their handgun, which clattered onto the floor. And my first thought at this moment wasn’t to get somewhere far away from the gun. It was “Take a video.”
In my defense, it was 2 a.m., and I had been drinking a lot, and my second thought—to treat this situation as potentially dangerous and get the hell away—followed swiftly after. I didn’t get my phone out, the handgun was kicked under a fridge away from the fray by someone with more sense than I had, and the fight was defused. I got my burrito. But I sat there eating it, thinking, Why was that the instinct? To get a memento of something that could have turned very nasty? What is the matter with me that making some kind of content out of this incident occurred to me at all?
There’s something going really wrong with how we process events happening in real time. While I was in California being an idiot, proof of this on a much larger and more troubling scale was happening back home, in the U.K. On Jan. 27, a woman went missing from a village in Lancashire, in northern England. Nicola Bulley, a 45-year-old mortgage adviser, dropped her daughters off at school in the morning and then took their dog, a brown springer spaniel called Willow, for a walk along the River Wyre. She logged on to a call on a work service from her phone at 9:01 a.m. The meeting ended at 9:30, but Nicola remained logged into the service. Five minutes later, her phone and the dog were found at a bench. Nicola was gone.
It took police three weeks to recover her body, about a mile downstream of this bench, in the river. In the intervening time, Nicola’s disappearance had been making headline news and attracting a lot of attention. But it was the nature of this attention that was novel, and sinister. “Nicola Bulley theories” began to trend on Google, and TikToks started to appear, treating the missing-person case as a piece of true-crime entertainment. People went digging into Bulley’s life, pulling out details and speculating on possible causes of her death. The police had to issue a dispersal order because of the number of people coming to Lancashire to have their photo taken on the bench where her phone was discovered. In the days before her body was recovered, people were even posting TikToks called “Nicola Bulley found” in order to go viral. A psychic became involved, and later claimed that it was down to his efforts that the police were able to locate her.
Internet sleuthing has been gathering in pace and intensity for a little while now. But this is the case in the U.K. that has reached escape velocity from TikTok and broken through into mainstream media. Bulley’s family made specific reference to the social media theorizing in a public statement, and TikTok has also had to comment in an official capacity, saying, “We have mobilised resources to monitor the evolving conversation about this case.” Just this week, a man was arrested for footage he apparently took of the scene after Bulley’s body was dragged from the river.
It’s hardly surprising that people seem to have some difficulty distinguishing between ongoing criminal investigations and entertainment or opportunities to create content. News outlets often slip up in their reporting on incidents like these, and have done for many years, sometimes innocently because they’re under time pressure to get stories out, and sometimes for more nefarious reasons like generating maximal interest in their coverage. But I was thinking about all this again this week watching Netflix’s latest true-crime docuseries, Murdaugh Murders. The show charts the now-notorious murders in South Carolina.* At the end of the series, Alex Murdaugh is in prison for the murders of his wife and son. When the series first went out a couple of weeks ago, his trial was still ongoing. The final line we hear is spoken by Alex, on the phone to a friend from his jail cell: “Did Netflix put something out about all this?”
For as long as we’ve had television, there’s been an uncomfortable bleed between real-life tragedies and TV events, but this final line struck me. The knowingness of it, the admission that the television program was being made in concurrence with the ongoing trial. We are reaching a sort of true-crime singularity, where no sooner does something terrible happen than people are racing to make it consumable by the masses for profit or notoriety. Of course we are interested in crime, the worst things that human beings can do to one another. I watch true-crime TV shows and enjoy them, often against my better judgment. This is something else.
Correction, March 13, 2023: This article originally misstated that Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh were killed in North Carolina. It was South Carolina.