The Murder Murder Exhibit

A quick survey of recent works of true crime across multiple mediums suggests a growing interest in using audio elements. Examples include Netflix’s docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), Audible’s audiobook Evil Has a Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation (2018) and the podcast Serial produced by Sarah Koenig(2014). These all readily come to mind as examples of true crime narratives that rely heavily on auditory components and also enjoyed some sort of virality after being released. They all use voice recordings of first-hand witnesses to crimes; witnesses and accuses perpetrators alike bear testimony and get to tell their story in their own voice. Media producers are smart to use audio in their productions. Voice recordings create a sense of intimacy and immediacy and place the speaker in the room with the viewer/listener in an unavoidable way.

My inspiration for this project was threefold. First, I was inspired by the first two projects, which looked at some of the previously mentioned true crime shows that privilege audio, such as Evil Has a Name and Conversations with a Killer. Second, I drew inspiration for another project I did this semester that utilized the Makey Makey technology to bring photos to life with the voices of their subject. Third, I was inspired by some of our class readings.

Makey Makey demo

One reading in particular, Dial-a-Ghost on Thomas Edison’s Least Successful Invention: the Spirit Phone (Zarrelli 2016) helped me draw connections between the projects that inspired this one. In that article, the idea of eerie technology that captured the interest many inventors 20thcentury, Edison in particular. He tried to create a spirit phone that would allow people to communicate with the dead. In many ways, his ideas about “chatting with ghosts” have lived on (Zarrelli 2016). In many ways, we’ve become more conditioned to hearing the voices of the dead thanks to modern technology that has us listening to songs long after artists have passed. In a more personal way, we’ve discussed in class how people often save and continue to listen to voicemails that deceased loved ones left then. These examples are less eerie than Edison’s original idea, so I wanted to use technology to make the phenomenon of hearing voices from the dead in a more jarring way. To do this, I turned to society’s most eerie people: murderers.

My Haunted Media Project is a mock museum exhibit about some of the most famous murderers, many of them serial murderers and many of them already dead. It’s an interactive exhibit where the photographs come to life with the voices of their subject. Touch the photo frame (in this museum, touching the exhibits is allowed) and you’ll hear the voice of the murderer himself. Touch all of them in succession, and you can make a creepy chorus of killers.

To do this, I used a Makey Makey. I framed pictures of murderers with conductive tape and hooked them up to various keys on the Makey Makey. Next, I found the eeriest voice recordings I could and used Scratch to link them to Makey Makey commands, thus bringing the photos to life with the voices of their inhabitants.

The Makey Makey allowed me to create a museum exhibit with an “enriched interpretive experience,” as discussed by Ruecker and Roberts-Smith in “Experience Design for the Humanities: Activating Multiple Interpretationsfrom Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities(2017). Nowadays, interactivity is almost expected by museum patrons. People are used to having audio guides that lead them through a museum, usually using headphones. However, these voices that accompany patrons are often ones of objective authority. I subvert this by giving voice to the subjects of the exhibit, criminals who frighten us and we wish to keep at a distance.

This project wouldn’t have been possible without technology, which has the power to enhance audience experience because it operates “in parallel to embodied, material experiences,” communicates “expert interpretations,” and allows “audiences to customize” exhibits (Ruecker and Roberts-Smith 2017). In my project, the technology (the Makey Makey) creates an embodied experience by invoking the murderer’s physical presence though their voice. It offers expert interpretations through first-hand accounts, though those are of course susceptible to bias. The technology also allows the audience to customize their experience by choosing which pictures to touch, and how many times they wish to repeat the message.

Another piece of technology that this project relies on is the recent advancements of audio recordings. Preserving 911 calls and voicemails wasn’t always possible and was motivated in part by a court case 35 years ago that provided the precedent for them being used as evidence (United States v. McMillan). In addition to lawyers, media producers have also recognized and capitalized on the affordances of voice recordings. Podcasts and other recorded voice mediums allow for intimacy with the characters by putting them directly in your ear. As mentioned in Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations by Ewan Kirkland, many hypermediated horror will use audio elements such as telephones, radio, and cassettes. They provide an “economic means of conveying backstory… and confer document reality.” In addition, they use “audiovisual effects of technological breakdown as signifiers of a ghostly, evil, or threatening presence.” In many ways, my project builds on these same tactics. The murderers twisted personalities are quickly portrayed in their voices and they make the photo seem even more realistic by providing a more holistic representation of a person. They’re also a bit scratchy and hard to understand, which feels especially eerie because it contributes to the elusiveness and mysteriousness that murderers often thrive on.

I meant for my project to highlight the morbid fascination that our society has with true crime. Murders are horrific, gruesome, despicable acts – yet we are avid consumers of narratives about them. True crime novels, TV/movies, and podcasts have expansive audiences. There is even a category on Netflix specifically for “Binge-Worthy True Crime.” The idea that we would want to binge on the horror is ironic because serial killers are also binging on creating the crime that interests us.

Screenshot from Netflix

There are reasons that motivate us to consume this type of media, though. The first is the adrenaline rush. Horror, especially true crime, makes us feel as if we’re in a near-death situation and gives us the same rush of adrenaline as other thrills, such as roller coasters. We see it as an encounter with something life-threatening, and our body acts appropriately. Audio elements, because of the intimacy they provoke, only serve to heighten this.

A study by Vicary and Fraley explored different motivations of a true crime audience, particularly women, in their study Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers? (2010). One motivation of the audience that they found was a desire to learn survival and defense tactics. There is an evolutionary advantage to understanding a killer’s motives and how to protect yourself, and true crime often provides this, even if just by detailing how a crime was committed. Another motivation was a psychological interest in understanding the mind of a killer because they are usually suffering from an uncommon mental illness such as psychopathy. Interestingly, women, despite being the less violent sex, were more drawn to the genre. They suggested that this may be because women are more likely to fear being victims of a violent crime and therefore foresee a bigger advantage to consuming true crime. In addition, often the victims in true crime are women, creating empathy and personal investment in female audiences.

The museum exhibit, then, creates voyeurism of murders and horror that capitalizes on society’s interest in the macabre. It points out the morbid fascination by making it a focal point of a museum exhibit. Furthermore, it’s an interactive, performative exhibit that uses audio and the amicably-named technology Makey Makey to do so. The inherent playfulness in the technology’s name was also an obvious inspiration for my exhibit’s ironic and paradoxical exhibit’s name.

The visual presentation of my project was very deliberate. Obviously, a real museum exhibit would be much more extensive and could include many more serial killers and larger pictures. I was limited by certain materials (the amount of programmable keys on a Makey Makey, the size corkboard I had). I wanted to recreate a detective’s evidence board that connects photos of potential pieces of evidence with strings, creating a physical mind map of the investigation. Though the exhibit doesn’t focus on one particular case or investigation, I think that this remediation is in line with other forms of True Crime that try to replicate police operations. Often, interviews with characters mimic the style of when a suspect is questioned with a single spotlight and other tactics meant to encourage a moral judgment. Though the board is much more technologically advanced than the evidence boards I am remediating, I think that they show the extents that we’re willing to go to in order to understand a killer. I also think that creating a physical object that relies on technology rather than a wholly digital project underlines the inextricable ways that our lives are intertwined with the digital. Just like how our possessions must be reconciled with after we die, the digital legacies we leave behind can be just as complicated for loved ones to deal with.

In conclusion, I was inspired by the rising popularity of true crime coupled with the rise of voice recording in the media. I capitalized on the technological affordances of the Makey Makey and voice recordings to make an interactive museum exhibit that creates an enriched interpretive experience by embodying the subjects of the pictures that make up the exhibit. The subjects voices create immediacy and intimacy as some of society’s most abhorrent figures attempt to tell their own story.

Works Cited

Kirkland, E. “Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations.” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, 2008, pp. 115–126., doi:10.1177/1555412008325483.

Reucker, Stan, and Jennifer Roberts-Smith. “Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 259–270.

Vicary, Amanda M., and R. Chris Fraley. “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 81–86., doi:10.1177/1948550609355486.

Zarrelli, Natalie. “Dial-a-Ghost on Thomas Edison’s Least Successful Invention: the Spirit Phone.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 20 Oct. 2016, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/dial-a-ghost-on-thomas-edisons-least-successful-invention-the-spirit-phone.

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