America’s Creepy Obsession with JonBenét Ramsey’s Murder
The Netflix documentary ‘Casting JonBenét’ examines the 1996 murder of the 6-year-old pageant queen in a new light.
The murder of JonBenét Ramsey is an American obsession; one that has given rise to countless articles, books, memoirs, and documentaries. This growing collection of secondary sources has recently added a meta subgenre: self-reflective meditations on why and how we continue to give life to this cold case. This conversation—what we talk about when we talk about JonBenét Ramsey—is at the heart of Casting JonBenét, a new documentary from director Kitty Green.
Instead of recreating the events surrounding Ramsey’s 1996 murder, or interviewing key players, Green splices together footage of citizens auditioning for an unrealized film-within-a-film, set in JonBenét’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Through this clever device, we meet a host of aspiring JonBenét Ramseys, Patsy Ramseys, and John Ramseys, along with a number of satellite suspects. While the actors fixate on the details of the case and the unknowable facets of their characters—all focused on the past, circling a musty collection of observations and Larry King interviews—Green mines them for personal histories and pathologies. The JonBenét Ramsey case, with its tangle of complex characters and evocative themes, bridges an entire generation of bystanders and gets them talking: about motherhood, pedophilia, love, sex, Santa, and everything in between. Over an expertly paced and constructed 80 minutes, we come to be more fascinated by these strangers than by their shared obsession: the dead little girl who, for whatever reason, has triggered their on-camera confessions.
How can we account for the psychological grip of JonBenét Ramsey, which appears to reach across decades and generations? More than 20 years later, why do grown men and women still sob when recalling the details of her case? These are the questions that Casting JonBenét contends with—an interesting positionality, given that its audience on Netflix will undoubtedly consist of a good deal of true-crime conspiracy theorists and JonBenét obsessives.