What drives the amatuer detective? What is it that so moves a true crime aficionado to no longer content with simply passively receiving the facts of an unsolved case, and to insert themselves into the narrative? Do they truly believe they have the ability to provide a tidy ending, and bring an unidentified criminal to justice? Well, yeah, I guess they must. This sincere belief that you have uncovered something which innumerable professional members of law enforcement missed may come from a personal desire to see justice done; perhaps even to productively channel personal trauma, a past experience that cannot be changed, by “fixing” another. It’s also undeniably rooted in the ego.
There’s a narcissism underlining the efforts of those who, say, frequent web forums such as Websleuths, where innumerable armchair gumshoes pool their resources, share theories, and pore over evidence. As I write this, 22-year-old blogger Gabby Petito has been confirmed dead for almost a month, her remains having been discovered on September 19, 2021. Brian Laundrie, her fiancee, has been missing for two weeks, having returned alone from a cross-country van trip without her. These are the bare facts of the case that get reported in national newspapers. If you want the straight dope, you apparently need to go to social media, Websleuths, and Reddit, where amatuer detectives in their thousands are trying to close the case from the comfort of their smartphones.
This tendency is effectively satirised in Murder Death Koreatown, an anonymously-produced found footage “horror” which premiered at the Unnamed Footage Festival in 2019. The film is a queasy, thrilling viewing experience. It follows one man’s increasingly unhinged investigation into a brutal murder which happened metres from his front door: one which may be part of a complex supernatural conspiracy, or may simply have been the trigger for our protagonist’s mental breakdown. Or both!
The queasiness comes from the fact that its starting point was an actual, real-life murder which occurred close to the filmmaker’s home in Los Angeles. This is then folded into a fictional narrative wherein the filmmaker/camerman/narrator/protagonist becomes convinced there’s something more going on with the case than simple mariticide. Our (white, male, unemployed) star has a lot of time on his hands, and begins to spin an elaborate conspiracy regarding Korean graffiti he sees around the neighbourhood, the street pastors he reads as malevolent presences, and a homeless war vet who speaks to him in gnomic, circular dialogue about demons and possession.
Isaac West, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and author of The Serial Effect: True Crime and Contemporary American Culture, identifies several reasons people are drawn to the likes of the Petito case:
“It allows us to do two things: to think about motives and then to be part of the solution. So if there’s a mystery to solve and to think about how and why this particular act of violence occurred. That allows people to engage in both of these questions. In most cases, one of the things people want out of the narrative is a sense of closure. And so in many cases, the reason why people participate is in the hopes that they’ll be able to bring justice to a particular victim or see that justice was rendered to the perpetrator.”
I would argue that this may have been true for a previous generation of amatuer detective, but it discounts the solipsistic element of internet usage which facilitates the current wave. The true crime boom heralded by the internet’s prurient interest in humanity’s darkest and least appealing aspects has been concurrent with a rise in such amatuer detective work. Time was that people would have theories regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper, or insist that OJ either did or didn’t do it based on their analysis of books, newspaper clippings and the like; high-profile cases into which a civilian couldn’t effectively insert themselves into. Now there is very little in our lives which isn’t a matter of public record: mass surveillance, accumulation of data and our willingness to share so much of ourselves in public means that there is a surfeit of easily-accessible information about most people below a certain age. Those self-same platforms where we disclose private information are the ones acting as public forums to share baseless speculation about ongoing criminal investigations, as is currently the case with Petito’s murder, and was the case with the 4chan-distributed Murder Death Koreatown.
That we have hundreds, if not thousands, of social media users who have been radicalised by My Favourite Murder, Serial and its less-slickly-produced ilk into believing they’re the next Robert Graysmith is simply an extension of the brain worms these platforms, and the infrastructure which supports them, inculcate in everyone. You are smart and special and need to share every little thought you have. That Facebook, Twitter et al encourage us to see the world through this inane, myopic lens so they can sell your data to advertisers and marketing groups is troubling in its own way — a horse which has long since bolted, with little chance of returning it to the stable. That this version of it can potentially pervert the course of justice (let alone cause further distress and shame for friends and family of the victim and alleged perpetrator) in an ongoing case is considerably disturbing in and of itself.
As a depiction of the sort of mindset which fuels the likes of the r/GabbyPetito subreddit and TikTok user Haley Toumaian, Murder Death Koreatown is unparalleled. There is an obvious “othering” in the protagonist’s interaction with Korean culture, people, and language which centres his experiences as the norm and everything else as vaguely sinister. The film simultaneously builds an effective sense of dread and invites you to laugh at the increasingly unhinged, histrionic reactions this fella is having to a middle-aged Korean gentleman handing out leaflets of Bible quotes on street corners.1 As the film takes a white man’s reaction to a Korean man’s murder as a starting point, with all the implications of fetishisation and eurocenterism that infers, so has the Petito case been singled out amongst all other recent missing persons cases in the US because, as Ryan Broderick writes, “she was a pretty 22-year-old white woman.” People are interested in these narratives mostly when they reflect something about themselves, whether it’s a superficial similarity or fear of the other.
In his assessment of another terrific recent found footage horror, Host, Nicholas Russell writes that the film taps into uniquely 21st century, web 3.0 fears:
“Is it possible to fully understand someone from the personal information they put into the Internet? And when you come upon something you’re inclined to disbelieve, how do you parse reality from fakery? More and more found footage movies incorporate such questions. A character might admit to tampering with footage or omitting key information. But there’s a lingering feeling that there’s more to such logical explanations. The breadcrumbs left behind, in the form of the Tweets, Facebook updates, emailed receipts, CCTV footage, blog posts, and GPS coordinates, cohere into a kind of crude sculpture of our desires, thoughts, and feelings. And they may reveal something truly horrifying: that what we’ve always feared may be real.”
Murder Death Koreatown sees the protagonist taking what appears to be a random, horrible (and I should stress once more, real) death, and tries to impose a logical narrative structure onto it. He works in a similar mode to an alt-right conspiracy peddler2, and as online armchair detectives are acting in a recognisable fashion to all active internet users, online conspiracy theorists operate in basically the same way that fandoms do. Broderick notes that he doesn’t “want to call this mini-internet based around Gabby Petito a ‘fandom,’ but [doesn’t] really have another term for it.” The amatuer Gabby Petito investigators gather in Discord servers, DM threads, and the subreddit to dissect press conferences and argue about pieces of evidence which have been disclosed to the public. They are building their own narratives, and they are singularly unqualified to do so. Watching people effectively build “headcanons” regarding actual events instead of fictional characters is undeniably disturbing. Morally, I’m not sure Murder Death Koreatown is on higher ground than the #GabbyPetito movement. If what they are doing is creating headcanons, the film is essentially real person fic, or RPF, a subgenre of fanfic that centres on (usually romantic or sexual) scenarios involving real people, from bonafide celebrities to semi-professional Twitch streamers: it takes the experiences of real people and interpolates them into fiction, persumably without their consent, for an individual’s pleasure.
Presumably these quandries were in some way dealt with by the anonymous filmmaker, since he decided to release the finished product. It’s tricky, then, to disentangle the narcissim of the character with that of the person who conceived of and “plays” him. The character is jobless and idle, and this project allows him to conceive of himself as someone important. Gabby Petito is a flashpoint around which a similar community has been formed. Broderick suggests that, “due to network effect, [people] tend to find something larger to sustain themselves with and, more often than not, it’s misinformation and conspiracy theories that act as the glue to hold their communities together.” As the facts of the case in Murder Death Koreatown dry up, the filmmaker, unable to let go of this thing which has given him purpose for the first time in who knows how long, begins to believe in something larger and more sinister underpinning it. That’s a need that he has. The efforts to uncover the “truth” of what happened, nominally in aid of the people involved, takes a backseat.
The same is true of these communities of individuals. At a certain point, trying to see justice done falls by the wayside. The goal instead becomes asserting oneself, and that’s done in the method of self-actualising social media has inured us to: by producing content, and by placing ourselves at the centre of said content. Even if the online movement does help bring Petito’s killer to justice, and there’s little evidence they’ve helped so far, can that be divorced from the ickiness of hundreds of thousands of strangers treating someone’s murder like a large-scale game of clout-chasing, content-producing Cludeo?
1. Much of the narration calls to mind Limmy’s spell as a “vlogger,” mocking the affected concern and high-pitched histrionics of a certain type of YouTuber.↩
2. Broderick also speculates that if the case isn’t solved, “that Petito’s story begins to link to other stories of missing women and we end up with something akin to QAnon. I’ve already seen examples of users trying to link Laundrie to other disappeared women, so there’s clearly a contingent of people that want to keep this going.”↩