COVER

SMALL-SCREEN MONSTERS

REVELLING IN PRIME-TIME TERROR

VICTOR DWYER March 30 1992
COVER

SMALL-SCREEN MONSTERS

REVELLING IN PRIME-TIME TERROR

VICTOR DWYER March 30 1992

SMALL-SCREEN MONSTERS

COVER

REVELLING IN PRIME-TIME TERROR

The story had all the ingredients of a surefire TV audience-grabber: a reallife psychopath on a rampage of kidnapping, torture and murder. And when CBC producer Bernard Zukerman approached officials at the public network in early 1990 with a proposal to chronicle the crimes of Clifford Olson, they agreed. James Burt, creative head of movies and mini-series at the network, gave Zukerman the go-ahead to commission a script and, nine months later, he delivered a first draft by Toronto writer John Hunter. But after reviewing Hunter’s work, Burt, along with CBC vice-president of arts and entertainment Ivan Fecan, told Zukerman that the network was no longer interested. Explaining that decision in a recent interview with Maclean’s, Burt said: “It was a fine script. But it was just too strong a story, too inherently fascinating.” He added: “Sometimes, you just have to draw the line between what many viewers might well tune in to and what

is beyond the boundaries of prime time.”

Burt’s comments illustrate the difficult questions confronting the Canadian television industry as it comes to terms with its own success in dramatizing some of the most gruesome crimes in modem history. Among the most popular entertainment specials in recent years have been two Zukerman films produced for the CBC. Love and Hate, about the brutal murder of JoAnn Thatcher and the trial of her ex-husband, former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Colin Thatcher, set the pace when it appeared in December, 1989. Attracting more viewers than any other drama on Canadian TV that season, the mini-series became the first all-Canadian dramatic production to be sold to a U.S. network. It ranked first in the ratings the week it appeared on NBC in June, 1990.

Then, last fall, Zukerman delivered Conspiracy of Silence, the story of the vicious 1971 slaying of native Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Man. Scheduled to appear later this year

on CBS in the United States, the two-part special, which aired in December, ranked second in the ratings among entertainment specials on Canadian TV this season. Indeed, it slid out of first place only when CTV aired another macabre, fact-based tale, To Catch a Killer, in January. Produced by Toronto’s Richard Lowry, it stars Brian Dennehy as American serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who tortured and killed 33 young men before burying their bodies in the basement of his suburban Chicago home. The show is scheduled to air on syndicated television in the United States this spring.

As network officials work to balance the drive for large audience numbers with producing responsible television, experts on violence, as well as TV producers and writers, are asking why such shows are so successful—and tabu-

lating the price of that success. Some question whether there can be anything redeeming about rehashing lurid stories, whether such shows glorify criminals and psychopaths while belittling the plight of victims—and whether such programs might encourage some viewers to act out their own dark impulses. Said Elliott Leyton, a professor of anthropology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., and the author of Hunting Humans—The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer: “There are a lot of questions to be answered, and it’s getting urgent that we answer them.”

Awful: One thing that distinguishes the majority of such TV movies from their counterparts on the big screen is their basis in real events. Television producers have long depended on attracting viewers with notorious true stories in order to compensate for their inability to offer the big-name actors and directors common in big-screen thrillers. With the built-in recognition, they say, comes an added level of fear. Said Zukerman: “People can watch a film like Silence of the Lambs and say, ‘That’s an awful story, but it could never happen.’ A real part of the horror of something like Conspiracy of Silence is that it really did happen.” Even if viewers do not remember the actual event, simply knowing that a movie is based on fact can provide an inducement to tune in. “It’s like driving by the scene of an accident,” said Lowry. “You don’t want to see it, and you’re afraid if you do you won’t like it. But you can’t «of look. It happened, so you tell yourself you had better take a peek.”

Leyton contends that all societies have a tradition of telling stories about characters who transgress every social norm. “It can be a very healthy thing,” he said. “It is the way that older generations pass on to the newer ones what constitutes goodness and what is genu-

inely evil.” Hunter, whose writing credits include the 1980 Canadian classic The Grey Fox, about an aging train robber, said that the appearance of multiple murders in recent decades has “given our society its own unique form of werewolves and vampires. They are our new monsters, in human form.” Added Hunter: “The idea that there are people out there who would kill us for their own perverse reasons adds a whole new dimension to our fears.”

Brutal: Since the success of Love and Hate, Zukerman has received dozens of story proposals from writers who were eager to retell truecrime stories in mini-series form. But the producer says that he has turned down all of them because they lacked a social message that was worth telling. “Love and Hate was ultimately a story about the abuse of power, and Conspiracy of Silence was a tale of racism,” he said.

“It’s not enough just to have a brutal murder and a brutal murderer.”

Some observers argue that even movies that deliver socially redeeming messages ultimately glorify the deranged individuals on which they focus. Said Carole Cameron, president of the Toronto chapter of Victims of Violence, a national organization that lobbies for the rights of crime victims and their survivors: “It is always the criminal that these movies focus on—what makes them tick, what they’re all about—never the person abused or killed: they’re just losers who no one really wants to think about.” Cameron, whose son Mark Massie, 20, was robbed and murdered by a man on parole in Florida in 1982, maintains that such a focus “makes sick people into heroes.”

It is a concern that Hunter, for one, takes to heart. In 1974, a convict on a day pass kidnapped the writer’s parents, Earl and Viola Hunter, from their home in Oregon. Five weeks later, they were found shot to death in a willow grove in Washington state. “These shows obviously stir up painful memories,” said Hunter. “But that is not a reason not to do them.” In the case of his Olson script, Hunter acknowledged that although it reflected his own fascination with “the bottomless well of evil capability” in the killer’s mind, it also contained lessons about how the justice system is often powerless to stop such criminals. As well, the script explained why the RCMP felt justified in paying Olson $100,000 for evidence leading to the location of his victims’ bodies.

Many people in the entertainment industry defend their right to take whatever tack delivers satisfying drama. Said Lon Hall, vice-president of business affairs at Toronto’s Atlantis

Films Ltd., which is in the early stages of producing a mini-series about the 1984 sex slaying of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Queensville, Ont., north of Toronto: “If you’re going to tell the victim’s story, there’s really not much to tell, whereas the background of the kidnapper—his mind, his childhood, what made him commit the crime—that’s dramatic.”

Disturbed: Many experts on violence express concern that true-crime shows may inspire some viewers to commit similar acts. Although Leyton noted that there have been no conclusive studies to that effect, he said that TV’s demented heroes might influence people who have what he calls “a fuzzy sense of identity, people uncertain about what is appropriate behavior, about how to respond to trauma.” Such individuals, said the author, “might be inclined to look to television

for instructions on how to proceed.” According to Judith Van Evra, a professor of psychology at St. Jerome’s College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the very fact that a movie has been made about a disturbed individual could encourage certain viewers to follow suit. Said Van Evra: “Someone desperately needy for attention might see committing a similar crime as a surefire way to get on TV.”

Others say that such shows could produce just the opposite effect. “We live in a society

that both glorifies violence and tells us that we must bottle it up,” said Ezzat Fattah, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “Seeing depictions of characters who let their violent side loose may lead to a catharsis, an outlet for the aggression that people are taught to lock up inside.”

For their part, those in the business of achieving ever higher ratings say that the remote possibility of copycat criminals will not keep them from producing high-quality, fact-based TV. “If you worried about that,” said the CBC’s Burt, “you would keep yourself from ever making anything interesting.” Indeed, despite Burt’s decision not to proceed with the Olson i project, his department is in| volved in a mini-series, set to air next season, based on sto§ ries of the physical, sexual 1 and emotional abuse of young “ boys at Newfoundland’s

Mount Cashel orphanage during the 1970s. And he says that Halifax’s Salter Street Films is preparing a script for the CBC about Jane Stafford, the battered wife from Bangs Falls, N.S., who was acquitted of murdering her husband, and who committed suicide last month. In the near future, at least, it seems likely that real-life monsters will continue to stalk prime time.

VICTOR DWYER