Reel cruelty: Voyeurism and extra-juridical punishment in true-crime documentaries

Ethan Stoneman, Joseph Packer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


This paper takes as its point of departure the newly resurgent controversy about whether the possible civic or pedagogical functions of true-crime documentaries outweigh the harm they are occasionally known to inflict. Although supporters of true-crime documentaries tend to downplay their potential to create or exacerbate trauma, their arguments, like those of the subgenre’s critics, presuppose that trauma functions as an unwanted byproduct. This paper maintains that while this assumption buttresses belief in a shared moral universe of what qualifies as the just administration of law or authority it also conceals the dual possibility: (1) that the design of certain true-crime documentaries constitute an exercise of extra-juridical punitive power; and (2) that viewers are capable of deriving pleasure from such an exercise. To that end, the paper examines three recent, critically acclaimed true-crime documentaries—The Thin Blue Line, Tickled, and The Act of Killing—identifying in each a specific form of technologically enabled retribution: interrogation, surveillance, and torture, respectively. It argues that insofar as the films succeed as entertainments and elicit pleasure from audiences, they engender and maintain subjective adherence to extra-juridical practices of retributive justice, at both a cognitive and affective level.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-419
Number of pages19
JournalCrime, Media, Culture
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Affective economy
  • documentary film
  • penal spectatorship
  • retributive justice
  • the act of killing
  • the thin blue line
  • tickled


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