Everyone knows the most ominous part of the horror genre is the notorious title slide “based on true events.” This is largely the reason why “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is a series with unparalleled shocks. The crimes depicted are so cruel they seem beyond human reason, as if there’s no way they could have actually happened. Yet, through a thoughtfully crafted series of first hand accounts and graphic crime scene footage, this series proves just how wicked humans can be.
“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” tells the stories of prolific serial killer Richard Ramirez, nicknamed the “Night Stalker,” throughout the ’80s in Los Angeles. The series highlights how, despite Los Angeles’s economic success and cultural prevalence, the mirage of peace was rattled by an underbelly of crime unseen before. The narrative follows Gil Carrillo, an up-and-coming detective who led the investigation of the series of crimes we now know were the work of the Night Stalker.
Adopting the perspective of detective Carrillo was an interesting and necessary decision for telling this macabre story. The choice lets viewers approach the events clinically, interpreting disparate facts and attempting to form patterns that aren’t immediately apparent. As the number of victims increases and their stories are told, the audience empathizes with the victims and searches for clues to seek justice for them. Carrillo’s storytelling is aided by the accounts of victims who survived, fellow law enforcement agents and reporters who covered the cases. It’s also notable that, while most true crime tales tend to highlight police incompetence, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” paints detective Carrillo and his partner Frank Salerno as highly skilled investigators searching for answers.
Ultimately, the combination of storytelling devices forms a cohesive and nuanced picture of how unprecedented violence can affect a community and, perhaps even harder to watch, how there are phantom traces of humanity within reckless, unthinkable cruelty.
The powerful storytelling is coupled with incredibly disturbing crime scene photos, immersing viewers in the horror of what transpired. This made the series difficult to watch at times and many have criticized the extent of violence depicted.
However, what was most disturbing was not only the bloody nature of the graphic crime scene photos, but how the large majority of them were taken in bedrooms — intimate spaces where people went to sleep, surrounded by all the things that made them individuals. Others died in their kitchens or were dragged from their cars on a routine drive home. These people weren’t in dangerous situations — in fact, they were in positions where we find ourselves most secure. The series was unsettling because it seems unthinkable to have that security ripped away from us for no apparent reason.
There is the question of whether the extent of violence shown is necessary or whether it’s gratuitous. One could argue that the depiction of mauled victims desensitizes viewers and strips victims of their humanity, a fair assessment of what often happens when real people are marginalized as a blip in a series of events. Another question is whether the series is careful about preventing the glorification of the killer, an unfortunate effect of a lot of true crime media.
A noticeably poignant anecdote from detective Frank Salerno was when he described the experience of interviewing a 16-year-old girl who was viciously attacked in her bed. The emotional nature of the event further motivated him to get his hands on her attacker. Moments like this showed honesty and respect for the victims, but these moments were few and far between throughout the series.
The series could have been more touching had it taken more time to find a balance between the investigative process and the toll violence takes on the psyches of victims and the community at large. At the very least, many of the victims were given a platform to speak about their experiences, but whether the series did enough is a matter of personal opinion.
It’s up to the viewers to reconcile the bloodied friends, neighbors, parents and children they see harmed in cold blood with the show’s objective investigation of human behavior. In this sense, the viewers really must act as investigators, quelling their emotional response in order to understand the bigger picture.
This series was by no means an easy watch, but for those with the stomach for it, it paints a compelling picture of an unimaginable story.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at email@example.com.