America’s Creepy Obsession with JonBenét Ramsey’s Murder

The new Netflix documentary ‘Casting JonBenét’ examines the 1996 murder of the 6-year-old pageant queen in a new light.

Michael Latham/Netflix

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.

“We were more interested in the cultural obsession, the mythology and legacy of Ramsey,” director Kitty Green told Elle, “than in the case itself.” Green walks a fine line between examining Ramsey’s allure and exploiting it. For a film that’s ostensibly about the 6-year-old beauty-pageant queen, images of the aspiring JonBenéts are few and far between. There are only three major JonBenét-centric scenes. Tellingly, the first one is the very first shot: a veritable pageant of Ramsey look-alikes, laughing and smiling in their stars-and-stripes. It makes sense to open the documentary on a bevy of JonBenéts; it’s surreal and spooky, and it reflects our own motives back at us. After all, it’s the image of a little white girl—her preciousness, her purity, her teased blonde hair and open smile—that transformed the JonBenét Ramsey case into a national phenomenon. As we know, but so consistently fail to redress, we are a nation consumed by the pains inflicted on our JonBenéts: the girls who, by virtue of their race, class, and age, are deemed worthy of our fascination and our mourning.

If JonBenét was a perfect victim, then her parents were perfect suspects. We don’t know, beyond a doubt, who committed the murder and/or covered it up, and this uncertainty breeds infinite theories and accusations. Patsy, the former beauty queen, and John, the successful businessman, are endlessly accessible archetypes. In Casting JonBenét, they are described as both victims and psychopaths—sometimes by the same people, sometimes in the same breath. Almost every actor seems to agree that the Ramsey parents behaved strangely—which, naturally, leads to an exhaustive explanation of how they themselves would have reacted. After all, we newspaper-readers and podcast-consumers can’t resist casting ourselves in the tragedies of others. We can’t help ourselves from explaining how we might have done things differently, whether that means wearing a different set of pearls during television appearances or being a different kind of mother. But these aspiring actors don’t just condemn and judge Patsy and John. Some of the Johns say that, at the time, they envied or admired him as an archetype of the successful American dad. Some of the Patsys relate to her assumed maternal aggravation, or express rage at the sexism that played a huge role in her public image.

Weaving the actors’ stories in with the Ramseys’ injects a vital dose of humanity into old reports and dusty headlines. At the same time, Casting JonBenét delves deep into the limits of empathy; how we, as tragedy-consumers, can be quick to blame and even quicker to entertain the most salacious rumors. How we can take the loss of a human life and twist it according to our own obsessions and neuroses (in other words, how we make it all about us). On the other hand, who’s to say that the myriad pains that Green excavates from her subjects—their lost children, dead friends, thwarted dreams, and childhood traumas—deserve to be documented any less than JonBenét’s? Ramsey’s murder is captivating in part because anything could have happened; the sickest scenario you could possibly come up with. But the everyday tragedies of strangers, Casting JonBenét conjectures, can be more interesting, more strange, and more heartbreaking than we ever could have imagined.

If you follow this documentary to the darkest possible conclusion, it’s the notion that a part of us craves these tragic roles. There’s something to be said for being involved in a trauma so well-documented, so larger than life, that nobody can deny it. Your average aspiring actor, mother, and father do not regularly have their pain acknowledged. Their stories may go unremarked upon, but that doesn’t make them unremarkable. Throughout Casting JonBenét, we watch as the actors become elevated by the momentousness of their roles. They speak as though the whole world really is watching, and are offered the catharsis of being seen as they reenact their real and imagined losses. It’s a steady and affecting emotional striptease, and the actors appear grateful for the opportunity to self-expose. Interestingly enough, while Casting JonBenét gives these adults the chance to plumb their depths and tell their own stories, the voices of other young girls—the aspiring JonBenét’s—are noticeably absent from the documentary. The character of JonBenét, shown briefly in her pageant makeup or performing for the camera, is forever resigned to being both the star and the silent victim of her own spectacle.