Unresolved – Narrative Strategies in an Unsolved True Crime: Depictions of the JonBenét Ramsey killing

Chaplin, Elayne and Chaplin, Melissa (2023). Unresolved – Narrative Strategies in an Unsolved True Crime: Depictions of the JonBenét Ramsey killing. In: Larke-Walsh, George S. ed. True Crime in American Media. Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 83–97.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003225638-6


The often-disturbing details depicted in true crime accounts are generally balanced by the reassurance of knowing that the guilty were apprehended, justice was served, and the forces of law and order prevailed (however circuitous their investigations). Such reassurance is absent from unsolved true crimes, though these form a recurrent strand within the genre. In such accounts, there is tension between the historic failure to solve the actual case, and the dominant convention in crime genres of providing strong narrative closure. With this tension in mind, this chapter considers two texts depicting one of the most famous unsolved crimes of the late twentieth century, the murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, in Boulder, Colorado, in 1996. The two key texts are: The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey (CBS, d. Eddie Schmidt, first aired September 2016) and the metanarrative documentary, Casting JonBenét (2017, d. Kitty Green). Both depictions of this true crime exist within – and explicitly acknowledge – a wider public discourse about the killing of JonBenét Ramsey. However, these texts adopt very different strategies in depicting the crime. The Schmidt documentary utilizes a prosecutorial approach, which propels the narrative toward a definite closure. While persuasive, such media prosecutions lack the rigor and critical examination that a courtroom would require and do not necessarily establish a consensus. In contrast, Green's film refuses to privilege any sole theory of the case, focusing instead on the ways in which this unsolved true crime (and arguably, all unsolved true crimes) give rise to a multiplicity of narratives and theories that (until such time that the crime is solved) continue to coexist.

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