Do you remember scary stories from your childhood that you haven't been able to shake off? I can think of just one—one that's haunted me for the past 20 years. It's the real-life story of JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty pageant queen who was discovered murdered in her own home on the morning of December 26, 1996. As far as true crime or media spectacles go, JonBenét's is the one I've followed most vigorously, the one that occupies the biggest residency in my mind. Now with the release of Kitty Green's new Netflix documentary Casting JonBenét, I find myself thinking about—and remembering what I thought about—the incident again.
The American public was still grappling with the O.J. Simpson case from two years before, but I can only vaguely remember that one—I was too young to comprehend the politics involved or even have reference points for the celebrity status that made O.J.'s trial such a stranger-than-fiction tale. But the JonBenét Ramsey case I remember so vividly because she was my age—both of us born in 1990—and that fact alone shook me to my core, even though I didn't yet know or understand all that had happened.
On Christmas morning, JonBenét's mother called 911 to report her daughter missing and a ransom note left behind asking for $118,000—it was two and a half pages long, which is unprecedented in length, and written at the scene, which is unprecedented in its lack of premeditation. After the cops arrived, it was JonBenét's father, John Ramsey, who found her body in the basement of her home hours later. She was hit over the head with a blunt object, which fractured her skull, then strangled to death an hour or two later. The police also found evidence of vaginal trauma and DNA left on her underwear. I knew only the very surface level of those facts, yet it truly dawned on me that I wasn't safe from such a horrifying thing happening to me. This could have been me, or any of my friends. And that thought would remain embedded in my mind when just six months later, my family moved to the American suburbs.
I'll never forget JonBenét's face. It was everywhere—or perhaps I was actively seeking it. She was on TV and on magazine covers. I remember looking at her face, in all her blonde-and-blue-eyed glory, and finding it perfect and peculiar, but most of all haunting because it was a child's face that would never age, and also a face concealing its youth beneath six feet of makeup. I remember thinking she was such a beautiful specimen, and I even wished I was her—doll-like and adored—before mentally chastising myself for how fucked up that was.
In 2000, her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, co-wrote a book, The Death of Innocence, a book my parents purchased at Costco and I read in excerpts when I was nine years old. Mostly I flipped through the photos, still disturbed by her perfect little face. That same year, I watched—was it Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, or Getting Away With Murder: The JonBenét Ramsey Mystery? Both TV movies came out that year, chronicling the aftermath of the incident. JonBenét's case remains a fascination for so many of us because we never got closure. Even last year, on the 20th anniversary of her death, two documentary specials aired on CBS and A&E, and her brother, Burke Ramsey, broke a 20-year silence by appearing on Dr. Phil.
So you may find yourself asking, "Another JonBenét movie? Why?" A straightforward documentary about the child beauty queen wouldn't give us any more answers; it would just remind us of the facts that got the wheels turning in our head in the first place. And that's exactly why Green's documentary, Casting JonBenét, eschews conventions. Instead, she casts actors for the roles of the Ramseys and other significant players, like the inspector and the man dressed as Santa Claus who was suspected. In her "casting process"—for a movie that doesn't materialize beyond this documentary (and it's unclear whether those auditioning are aware of this)—Green interviews her prospects, who liberally give their two cents about who the killer may be and what their motivation was.
Many are—or feel they are—personally connected to the Ramseys: They're from the same town of Boulder, Colorado, and several discuss details that make them feel a certain kinship (one woman says her family and theirs bonded because her brother was also murdered). Some empathize with the Ramseys while others blame them; for years, JonBenét's parents were the biggest victims of finger pointing. If it weren't for advanced DNA testing that formally exonerated the Ramseys in 2008, they might still be at the top of the suspect list. Many of Green's subjects don't take that into consideration, some even suggesting ludicrous evidence, like the fact that Patsy Ramsey being on the verge of turning 40 was enough of a stressor for her to garrote her daughter. Or that JonBenét's constant bed-wetting drove her mother to kill her in a fit of rage (but how do you explain the evidence of sexual molestation?). John Ramsey, on the other hand, was thought to be too attentive towards his daughter (DNA evidence has since cleared him). Others supposed Burke accidentally killed his sister and his parents covered it up. Again, his DNA also did not match.
I remember even more vividly hearing that JonBenét Ramsey's killer had come forward in 2006, just a couple months after Patsy Ramsey passed away from ovarian cancer. John Mark Karr, an ex-schoolteacher who also faced child pornography charges, admitted to having committed the crime. I remember thinking, "I can't believe we know now. I can't believe this is over." But after his arrest in Thailand, forensic evidence proved that his confession was a false one. His DNA did not match and the police placed him in Georgia at the time of the murder. Back to square one. Things didn't get any less weird from there (like the corner of the internet that believes JonBenét was never murdered in the first place, but instead grew up to be Katy Perry).
What leaves JonBenét Ramsey's murder open to a film like Green's is that so many elements of the actual crime were compromised, leaving the public to play detective. In 2015, Mark Beckner, the former Boulder Police Chief on the case, participated in a Reddit AMA, accidentally admitting to how they mishandled the case: "Yes, the crime scene was not handled properly and this later affected the investigation. [The Ramseys'] position in the community may have had something to do with decisions made that day, but I think the primary reason was a perfect storm-type scenario. It was the Christmas holiday and we were short staffed, we faced a situation as I said earlier that no one in the country had ever seen before or since, and there was confusion at the scene… As a result, some evidence was compromised."
The JonBenét Ramsey case remains as frustrating as it is fascinating, and while Kitty Green's doc isn't necessarily comprehensive or empirically satisfying, it does illuminate the public's obsession with the case, how we've all interpreted the little we know about it, and the creepy cultural significance it has left behind. As for my own theories? I'm never sure enough to share them.