A quick reminder, for those who were too young or otherwise occupied to watch the circus unfold last time around: In late December 1996, a 6-year-old child was found, beaten and strangled to death, in the basement of her home. Famously, the killer was never found.
These details, ugly and upsetting as they might be, are not unique: Over one-third of all murder cases (just over 35 percent) never result in an arrest. In 1995 alone, 763 children under the age of nine were murdered.
But those children weren’t JonBenet Ramsey.
She stands alone in the statistics, if only for the pure obsession she’s inspired: Twenty years after her death, Ramsey’s brother Burke is giving a heavily hyped, three-episode-long interview to Dr. Phil, for which he was reportedly paid — the boy, who was 9 years old when his sister died, has never spoken to the press.
Is there anything less surprising — or less welcome, in the Year of Our Lord 2016 — than the resurgence of JonBenet Ramsey Fever?
Two cable miniseries, “The Killing of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered” (A&E) and “JonBenet: An American Murder Mystery” (Investigation Discovery), are premiering nearly simultaneously, in buildup to the main event: the four-part CBS extravaganza “The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey,” which premieres Sunday (Sept. 18), and which is so lavishly produced, it features a full-scale replica of the Ramseys’ home. The teaser trailer features documentarians, armed with cameras, screaming as they chase her brother Burke across his lawn.
JonBenet’s death was an instant media phenomenon. It is responsible for inspiring at least two TV movies, two “Law & Order: SVU” episodes, several TLC series, countless books, and — it could be said — at least one quirky-yet-dramatic vehicle for Steve Carrell and Abigail Breslin.
JonBenet would be 26 years old today. She was an actual human being, with thoughts and feelings; she suffered unimaginable cruelty, and she died in pain. She isn’t merely a hurt child any more; but then, she never was. From the moment we learned her name and saw her face, Ramsey was less a real person than a pop culture figure, a source of entertainment. She was the ultimate Dead Blonde.
It’s not a new, or particularly pointed, observation that the true crime genre tends to revolve around female death and pain — or how often it marginalizes and objectifies those victims. Hae-Min Lee’s parents hated “Serial.” “The People v O.J. Simpson” was frequently brilliant, but also reduced Nicole Brown Simpson to a footnote in the story of her own death.
The fascination with Ramsey’s death is different. As a victim, she has always been more vivid, drawn in bolder and more lurid strokes; our obsession with her has been more prurient, more imaginative, more creepily possessive. JonBenet has always felt closer to fiction than to life. Her story was something we all just knew, whether or not the facts supported our knowing.
For starters: We just knew the parents were responsible — that they were bad, twisted, not normal — and we knew it whether or not her parents were ever arrested. We just knew there was something sexual about her death — never mind that those details of the assault itself were apocryphal. We just knew she was dead because of the beauty pageants. Right?
That was why every headline called her a “beauty queen,” why there were long magazine pieces on “The Strange World of JonBenet” (that is, the child pageant circuit), why it was important to know she’d been buried in a tiara, why every TV news segment on her death included footage of her in a bedazzled costume, singing and dancing on stage.
Without any evidence of a connection, JonBenet’s pageants merged with JonBenet’s death, became the same story, until it was hard to tell what actually shocked us: The fact that a child was dead, or the image of a little girl in makeup and evening gowns, made to look like a grown woman.
But, as much as that little girl in her makeup supposedly disturbed us, we couldn’t seem to stop looking at her. It was, and is, decisively rare for media outlets to print photos of JonBenet out of her pageant gear, to present her to the world as the “normal,” casually dressed little girl pundits insisted she should have been.
Though the appalling part of the photos was supposedly the idea that Ramsey was being “oversexualized,” the very media coverage that decried it had itself a disturbing, heavy-breathing tone and focus on her looks: “Murder of a Little Beauty” was the full-cover headline in People, with a subhed promising readers her murder had been “darkly perverse.”
Newsweek described Ramsey in terms that would be more comfortably applied to an adult, attractive woman: Her “swirls of blond hair,” her “great Southern look,” her expression that could be “perky, coy or sweet” (depending, the writer hastens to add, on her costume). That piece ended saying that “[we] can only stare at her beautiful face, and wonder what she might have become.” Well. We sure could stare, it seems.
Elsewhere, the fascination took a more darkly prurient tone. Magazine profiles were filled with insinuations that Ramsey’s parents had been sexually attracted to their daughter: “She was fused with JonBenet,” DA Alex Hunter said of the girl’s mother, Patsy. “It was more than mere love.”
Works that centered on (or imaginatively expanded) the sexual violence of the case were a reliable draw. At least one book has been published claiming the Ramseys were involved in a child pornography ring — after all, looking like that, what else could you expect? To this day, you can find people — purported adults — on Reddit, attempting to “solve” Ramsey’s death by debating what kind of panties she had on when she died. Their speculations are, to say the least, highly detailed.
If JonBenet’s parents exploited her, or hyper-sexualized her, they were far from the only ones to do so. Exploitation and hyper-sexualization were what JonBenet Fever was all about: Allowing the American public and media to engage in some of the most memorably grotesque excesses of the past twenty years, under cover of talking about how sick and wrong it all was: In effect, slut-shaming a dead kindergartner, and then somehow concluding her parents were the messed up ones.
JonBenet is not unique in this either. The reason her story took off — the reason we all just knew the beats and twists, whether or not the facts bore us out — is that she slotted into an archetype, a story we’ve told many times. We love our Dead Blondes; the pretty, good, beautiful example of white femininity who is violently destroyed. We love them more when there’s an undercurrent of sexual wrongness, a sense that forsaking their purity is what killed them.
There are real-life examples: Think of how papers covered Marilyn Monroe’s suicide by publicizing the fact that she’d died naked, and how, half a century after her death, conspiracy theorists still insist she was murdered. But the Dead Blondes also belong, more often than not, to fiction, where they are almost invariably very young: Lilly Kane on “Veronica Mars,” or Alison DiLaurentis on “Pretty Little Liars” — idealized, popular high-schoolers with troubled sex lives (including, in Kane’s case, an affair with her boyfriend’s father) and dark secrets.
Just five years before Ramsey’s death, America was watching “Twin Peaks,” in which the pure, beautiful prom queen Laura Palmer — pictured at the end of every episode with her swirl of blonde hair, in her gown, wearing her tiara — was slowly revealed to have lived a double life of sex work and brutal violence, which culminated in being raped and killed by (gasp!) her own father.
The Ramsey coverage often felt like bad “Twin Peaks” fanfiction: A cruel and intentionally nauseating parody of what was already a fairly disturbing myth about youth and sex and violence and death. But it felt like that because it was that: This story is how we exorcise the madonna/whore splits in our culture, our simultaneous fetishization of youth and purity, and the firm belief that female sexuality is diseased and destructive.
With JonBenet, we got to tell our story of the Dead Blonde — purity corrupted, purity destroyed — in the most garish, cartoonish, violent way possible. It hardly mattered that we had to scrawl that myth over the life and death of a small child, or over the grief of her loved ones, to make it work.
Ramsey was, undeniably, objectified in her life. But we’re the ones who objectified her death: Turning her agony into entertainment and her dead six-year-old body into a moral at the end of the tale. And now, 20 years later, she’s back:
More TV miniseries, more interview specials, more headlines about the “beauty queen,” with more clips and more photos of this tiny girl in makeup, so that we can gawk and wonder, and whisper about more and more and more unspeakable scenarios, all while claiming we would never exploit a child.
There’s not much to do about it. As always, the fever will burn until it breaks. We can only hope it doesn’t take so long, this time around. That if we can’t save her life, and can’t give her peace in death, we can at least agree to — finally, finally — just stop staring at her.
Sady Doyle is the author of “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why,” due out from Melville House in September 2016. She’s written for Rookie, In These Times, and all over the Internet, and was the founder of Tiger Beatdown. She lives in Brooklyn. All art by Stacey Abidi, staceyabidi.com