There’s no doubt about it. People are fascinated by their predators. Whether it be monsters from mythology or the real-life terrors of serial murderers, people seem to have a strange curiosity about what, or who wants to kill us. For this reason, the true-crime genre remains very popular amongst the American public, and Netflix has produced several notable titles. With such works as The Bundy Tapes, these shows have offered intriguing glimpses into the lives of some of the worst humanity has to offer. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary series, tells the tale of a violent crime spree that gripped the city of Los Angeles in fear during the mid-1980s.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer was an unusual case, with a killer who not only targeted different ethnic and racial groups, but who also repeatedly changed his MO. By the time he was captured, the perpetrator had murdered fourteen people, and raped numerous women and children. On the surface, this series may not seem too dissimilar from The Bundy Tapes and other true-crime series, but there is one key difference. While other series put a heavy focus on the perpetrators, Night Stalker: The Hunt for A Serial Killer deviates from the formula with an almost exclusive focus on the victims, their families, and the investigators that brought the killer to justice. The result is a more informative, powerful, and heartbreaking series.
The Celebrity of Cruelty
What leads people to become serial killers? Is it nature, nurture, or some combination thereof? The debate continues as to what makes certain people go bad and that continuing debate fuels the public fascination with serial murderers. Such fascination is often taken to an unhealthy extreme. This is often reflected in documentaries like Conversations with a Killer: The Bundy Tapes. While an extraordinary series overall, The Bundy Tapes focuses almost exclusively on the life and times of Ted Bundy, one of America’s worst serial killers. The show focuses on the man’s chilling charisma and expert ability to manipulate.
The Bundy Tapes spends so much time humanizing the killer through extensive audio interviews to the point that the audience does feel a greater connection to him than those he hurt. These aspects are fascinating, but the heavy focus on them comes at the expense of the horror and pain Bundy inflicted on his victims. One can’t understand the horrific nature of a crime when a victim is just described in a single blurb for instance, as the victims in The Ted Bundy Tapes often are. As a result, the perpetrator is often put in the spotlight to be scrutinized, and in some cases, idolized.
Serial killers are still revered in an odd and unsettling part of American popular culture, with the likes of Ted Bundy and many others almost considered sex symbols or folk heroes. There was a disturbing reaction to The Bundy Tapes, where naïve viewers unfamiliar with the brutality of the case were commenting on how Bundy was ‘cute,’ or ‘charming.’ This was not unlike the reaction Bundy got when he went to trial, where murder groupies flooded the courtroom to get a look at America’s most dashing serial killer and rapist. Bundy infamously proposed to marry one of his groupies in court. A lot of this has to do with media exposure, and the Night Stalker case is no exception. During the trial following the murders, many people flocked from around the country to lend their support to the perpetrator, who they considered to be a hero or sex symbol.
This is one of the reasons Night Stalker is so powerful as it does none of these things. Any audio interviews with the killer are used sparingly, and the sordid details of his childhood, while mentioned, aren’t dwelled on. Instead, Night Stalker scrutinizes the often overlooked players in the serial killer drama. This show focuses on the police who caught the killer, the impact it had on their lives, along with the victims, the pain they suffered, and the loss felt by their loved ones.
Hunters of Evil
If there are heroes in Night Stalker, then those heroes are Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the two homicide investigators who spend the series hunting the madman. The series goes into great detail into the personal lives of both men. Salerno, a veteran of the force, was instrumental in closing the Hillside Strangler case. Gil Carrillo is given even more details, with the series telling the story of his troubled youth running with street gangs, his time in Vietnam, and eventually his becoming an officer to climb to the rank of homicide detective.
Gil is given the bulk of attention in the series, with the officer recounting the ridicule he experienced when he first suggested the multiple cases around the city were in fact linked, and also his relationship with his father, whose approval Gil desperately wanted. The friendship shared by Gil and Frank is at the heart of this miniseries, which pays special attention to their abilities to gather clues and evidence, and also the detrimental impact this case had on their personal lives.
Gil suffers especially through the case. In one particular instance, he describes waking up in the middle of the night convinced the killer had entered his home, only to find out that the noises that awoke him were the sounds of a neighbor being assaulted by the very man he was hunting. Following several close shaves, Gil eventually sends his wife and children out of the city, fearful that they might otherwise become the Night Stalker’s next victims. Seeing the debilitating impact this case has on both Gil and Frank makes us feel for them. They’re the ones we’re with, they’re the ones we get to know, and through it all, they’re the ones we root for.
A Trail of Heartbreak
Gil and Frank aren’t the only ones this show pays so much attention to. The show takes a surprisingly and refreshingly personal look at the Night Stalker’s victims and their families. Through these interviews, we learn so much about the lives that were lost, the crimes that were committed, and the impact left on those left behind. Perhaps the most heartbreaking of these is Anastasia Hronas, who was abducted from her own bedroom at the tender age of six and repeatedly raped for several hours.”Over and over. I remember saying ‘stop. This hurts. Don’t’ or like ‘why are you doing this?'”
The show plays her testimony over photographs of her as a child, forcing us to visualize the unspeakable. That this story is shown early in the first episode removes any sympathy we might otherwise have for the perpetrator, because whenever we see him, we can’t unsee what he’s done. Anastasia, in spite of her horrific ordeal, remains brave, striking up a friendship with Gil whom she says reminds her of her teddy bear, and even expresses a desire to testify in court. Gil argues against it to spare her further trauma.
Of the murders committed, the ones given the most attention are that of Max and Lela Kneiding and 60-year-old Joyce Nelson. We are given full and lively portrayals of all the victims. Joyce Nelson was lovingly called ‘Spunky’ by her granddaughter Colleen. Lela Kneiding was an avid fan of the Dodgers, and Max Kneiding loved nothing more than showering his children with chocolates.
The brutality of their murders is described in all their despicable details. Joyce Nelson fought off a sexual assault, and had her head stomped in for her trouble. Max and Kela Kneiding were both shot and hacked to death in bed. The show spends a lot of time with their families, and really forces us to see the aftermath of the murders, and how some are still having a difficult time processing how their loved ones were taken. Here, the victims aren’t just names. We are made to see them as people, and we too feel a sense of loss.
Even in the final episode, the perpetrator is given relatively little attention, with the show instead focusing on the case, testimony, and most unsettling of all, the murder groupie subculture that worships people like the Night Stalker. The murder groupie subculture was also dealt with in The Bundy Tapes, but it’s so much more effective here because we’ve spent so much time with the victims and their families. Having spent three episodes hearing about the series of gruesome rapes, child molestations and murders of the elderly, to see this reverence fills us with an even greater sense of disgust.
We’re forced to see how the groupie culture impacts the victims’ families, with one woman describing the experience of sitting next to one of the Night Stalker’s fans while he was on trial for her grandmother’s murder. The episode offers a scathing condemnation of the groupie subculture, with one interviewee describing them as ‘the dumbest bitches ever.’ The message here is clear. Night Stalker deserves none of this, so the show doesn’t give it to him.
Moving the Spotlight
Far too often do these series focus on the killers while only glazing over the victims. Night Stalker is a breath of fresh air because it’s nothing like The Bundy Tapes, which was all about Bundy himself. Night Stalker is about what this killer did. This series shines the spotlight on two cops working tirelessly to protect their community, on fourteen victims who were taken from their loved ones, and how the people left behind struggle to process and accept their loss. As for the Night Stalker, the spotlight isn’t on him. He is left in the shadows where he and all others like him belong.
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