A combination of morbid fascination and awkwardness make it possible to take on the role—you just hope the actual killer doesn't find you.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Kinzie Noordman is likely to spend the rest of her adult life in prison. You probably don't recognize her name, but she's been the subject of more than one TV show, including one shown in the UK last summer. In 2003 when she was a 19-year-old, first-year college student, Kinzie and her friend Damien Guerrero drove their former schoolmate and sort-of frenemy Kelly Bullwinkle to a secluded citrus grove outside a California city, shot the 18-year-old in the head twice and buried her body in a shallow grave.
Then Kinzie and Damien—who'd previously cheated on his girlfriend with Kelly, apparently sparking jealousy in Kinzie—went to see a film. Once Upon a Time in Mexico, if you were curious.
Kelly's death was both unexpected and salacious, making it ideal dramatization fodder. It didn't take long for the story, all goth teen stereotypes and a secondary school love triangle, to get picked up by Discovery's Lifetime Movie Network channel for a true crime episode that was broadcast in 2014. I Killed My BFF: Under a Deadly Spell generally plays out in the way you'd imagine, given its title. It's got all the markers of the type of true crime TV that came before podcast Serial made murder feel high-brow: soft-focus reenactments spliced between interviews with the real investigators and friends connected to the case and intense reaction shots complete with wild gesticulation and what looks like mimed shouting.
"You're genuinely yelling when you do that, but they just cut the sound," says actress Shannon Mann, who played Kinzie in that episode of I Killed My BFF. "You're improvising a certain amount and they might get you to say certain lines. You're also not allowed to swear," and she giggles, "which is hard when you're in character, because that's totally what a group of teenagers would've done."
Shannon, a smiley blonde, has wound up portraying dark-haired teen murderers like Kinzie—"the guidelines were 'butch, high school goth lesbian'"—twice in her career so far. She isn't really sure why either. I've called her up to get a sense of what it's like to play a killer, knowing that the character you're trying to embody is a real person. "The fact that some of these people are still alive and incarcerated made me want to give them their space," she says of the process behind preparing for the role. "And I don't really want them to find me either." Now she laughs.
True crime entertainment spruced itself right up last year. Before we were in the pub over Christmas, scrambling to one-up our friends' Making a Murderer theories, crime-based non-fiction entertainment hadn't crossed over into "classy" territory. Channels like Crime Investigation or Investigation Discovery were still reliably on Sky, pumping out series with names like I Dated A Psycho, Killer in the Family, and Forbidden: Love Gone Wrong. None of that was becoming the subject of Guardian or New York Times long reads, though, and few of the blood-spattered cases shown on a never-ending feed of death-as-entertainment would end up the subject of Making a Murderer's Redditor-led investigations or Change.org conviction pardon petitions.
But the low-brow stuff still has an audience. Shannon herself, for starters. "Oh yeah, I love it," she says, speaking from New York over Skype. "I remember watching it a few years ago and finding the way they did things sort of tacky, but it's gotten better. They've figured out the genre, and how to seamlessly put the parts of the story together." Isn't it morbid, though? To find ourselves so caught up in these dark stories, for 30 minutes to an hour, before basically forgetting about the actual people involved in them? She pauses. "It's like seeing a car accident on the side of the road. You want to slow down, mostly because you don't want anyone not to be hurt, but you're also kind of happy you're not in it the wreck. There's also... I guess there's also something about seeing the dark side of humanity that we know is there but want to recognize before it hurts us."
Catherine Willis, a London-based casting director, agrees. Watching true crime, "we like to confront our fears and think, 'how would I deal with that? How would I cope with that?' And I often get to the end of one of these stories and think, 'Well, I'd be sitting under a table, weeping'," she says, with a chuckle. Willis cast 10 episodes of Investigation Discovery's Obsessed: Dark Desires and says she's been in casting for about 15 years. She's moved between film, theater and TV but understands the addictive nature of true crime that doesn't aim for the lofty heights of HBO's The Jinx and the like. It's filled with performances that to me smack of overacting, but that Catherine consider necessarily extreme. "What I'm actually looking for is someone who commits the emotion and who, in the moment when you look at their face, makes you fear for them."
Watching Hiding in Plain Sight, a Dark Desires episode listed as one Catherine worked on, I can't be so sure that always works. One scene features a fake-pregnant actress sitting on the floor, pointing a shotgun at her open bedroom door, half-expecting her stalker to walk in. She then falls asleep with the gun in her hand, before waking with a wide-eyed start and aiming her weapon at her ringing mobile phone, with which the stalker's been harassing her. There's none of the slow, "low-key" drama that Catherine says has become the norm elsewhere on TV, on The Fall or Nordic noir successes like The Bridge. But hysteria and all, I still watch the entire Dark Desires episode. And I've definitely watched other late-night true crime, slumped on the sofa with family.
The slightly overblown storylines hit the same emotional places as more recent, slickly produced programs, often leaving me feeling jumpy after watching more than two episodes in one sitting. According to criminology professor Scott Bonn, that's a natural reaction. "The public is drawn to true crime," he wrote in a piece for Time earlier this year, "because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us —fear. As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allow us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real."
Sometimes that giddy shot of adrenaline makes us react in ways that feel totally inappropriate. Actress Maggie Borlando played Amy Locust, Bullwinkle's close friend and the last person to see her alive, and keeps laughing during our conversation. She's never met the real Amy, but like Shannon and Catherine, giggles when talking about watching back footage of the real people from the case recounting their stories. "It's definitely strange. With I Killed My BFF, say, I laugh with you about it now because, somehow, it's darkly funny. But really, that must be terrible for Amy to recount now."
Surely it is. True crime TV that moves this far away from documentary, and feels almost like pantomime, is great for keeping insomniacs entertained but swings death like a blunt instrument. Now that The People Vs. OJ Simpson's started on BBC 2, we may see that dissonance play out with a bigger audience as a grisly 1990s death connects to current reality TV celebrities. Khloe Kardashian, whose father fought OJ's case, has already started fact-checking the series, while OJ's in prison for another crime altogether. "The scariest part of this is that there are real people out there," as Mann says. "It's extremely dark."
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