‘Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story’ and the Fallacy of ‘True’ Crime
The new Hulu doc on Steven and Cary Stayner asks big questions about the faulty nature of storytelling, and why we crave it anywayEntertainmentTV
At first blush, it may seem that director Jessica Dimmock is spinning her wheels on well-worn terrain with Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story. Don’t let initial impressions fool you, though—this is an uncommonly deep riff on true crime that transcends so many of the genre’s trappings. The three-part Hulu series is, broadly speaking, yet another retelling of brothers Steven and Cary Stayner’s adjacent tragedies. In 1972, Steven was famously kidnapped at age 7, only to escape his captor, Kenneth Parnell, in 1980 to much fanfare. In archival footage shown in the doc, Today host Deborah Norville tells Steven that if his story were fiction, it probably wouldn’t be believable. Years later in 1989, the night before the Emmy Awards, for which the TV movie based on Stayner’s ordeal, I Know My First Name Is Steven, was nominated in four categories, the former captive was killed in a freak motorcycle accident. Then and there, any notion of a happy ending for a man who rescued himself (as well as another young boy that Parnell had kidnapped) was put to bed. In truth, that notion had already been destroyed by Stayner’s lingering trauma and his resistance to treatment (his father was also outspoken about not believing in therapy). And then, in 1999, Steven’s older brother Cary killed four people in what became known as the Yosemite Killer case. He was eventually sentenced to death, and remains on death row today (there hasn’t been an execution in California since 2006).
At the start of Captive Audience, Dimmock shares her dilemma: She’s telling a story that has been told so many times before. Steven Stayner was an icon in the Stranger Danger-obsessed ‘80s—the two-part TV movie about him attracted a massive audience of 40 million. Cary Stayner has been depicted some dozen in various media—a 20/20 episode from 2019 attempted to summarize the Stayner brothers’ dual tragedies. Kay Stayner, mother of five including Steven and Cary, voices a bit of frustration in Captive Audience over the fact that her sons’ story is the topic of yet another media dissection. She wonders how everyone isn’t already aware of a tale that now stretches back 50 years.
What separates Dimmock’s endeavor—and its excellent product—from those that came before is sheer access—family members (including Steven’s widow Jody and his surviving children, Ashley and Steven Jr.), neighbors and classmates of Steven’s when he was living with Parnell and known as “Dennis,” journalists, Cary Stayner’s mitigation specialist Michael Kroll, and more, weigh in. Interviews conducted by I Know My First Name Is Steven screenwriter J.P. Miller allow us to hear directly from Steven and Cary Stayner, as well as Miller himself as he openly shapes Steven’s horrific experience into something that can be consumed by network TV’s mass audience.
Dimmock allows these accounts to echo and clash—Ted Rowlands, a journalist who interviewed Cary Stayner soon after he was arrested for murder, swears that his goal was to outdo Steven, a media darling of sorts after heroically rescuing himself. Kroll counters, “That’s as far from the truth as you can get. He was fame-averse.”
But in addition to Dimmock’s impressive roster, her meta angle distinguishes Captive Audience from other portraits of the Stayners, as well as from most other entries in the true-crime genre. Dimmock’s doc is as much about narrative construction as it is the darkness that humans are capable of.
Some, though, might argue that narrative construction itself illustrates and facilitates said darkness. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall does exactly that in his 2021 book The Story Paradox. The paradox at the heart of Gottschall’s book—full of stories as it is, in its own right—is that as effective as stories can be in promoting empathy, they can also tear humanity apart. Storytelling is, in Gottschall’s estimation, “our doom and our salvation.” More to the point here, a story is “always an artificial, post-hoc fabrication with dubious correspondence to the past.” But it often feels like the best we can do to make sense of things. Plopped in the middle of infinity as we are, narrative organization means elimination. To tell is to reduce, and to understand is to overlook. “Our minds are designed to deal with complex reality through narrative simplification,” writes the author at another point.
Dimmock seems aware of these notions as she weaves a complicated story while avoiding convolution. As the directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin illustrated in their 2021 documentary Tina, one way to tell a story that’s been told so many times is to tell its telling. This grounds things sturdily, for the mechanics of how a story are told are far more objective things to work with than the actual product of those mechanics.
This method also telegraphs a sense of how things unfolded in people’s minds. Steven Jr. doesn’t remember his father, and only knows him through stories. Initially, when he only understood his father to be a hero, he perceived a narrative of happiness—until he realized the abuse Steven Stayner had suffered at the hands of Parnell. In fact, for a month or so after Steven Stayner’s return home, there was open speculation from the media and his family as to what Parnell’s motive was. The consensus seemed to be that he just wanted a child and kidnapping was his means of making that happen. It was only later that Steven revealed Parnell’s sexual abuse, and suddenly his behavior made a miserable kind of sense.
Dimmock weaves certain similarities of Steven’s and Cary’s stories together—Yosemite was where Parnell headed after he kidnapped Steven, and it was also the scene of Cary’s crimes. Ashley, Steven’s daughter, talks about being captivated by reports of the people that went missing from Yosemite—Carole Sund, her daughter Julie, and friend Silvina Poloso—and shares that the flutter of hope she had was much like that which her grandmother, Kay, held onto for Steven in his seven-year absence. Then, of course, Ashley found out that the person responsible for the disappearances she had been following was her own uncle.
Watching Captive Audience, it’s natural to wonder just how much a family can take. Kay talks at length about Steven—the triumph of his return and the hardship he faced as a then-teenager attempting to return to a family and town he had long left. When reports of his molestation hit the news, kids at school called him a faggot. Can you imagine going through what he went through—saving himself and another child from unthinkable abuse—only to be stigmatized for what was done to him? The tragedies keep popping up like weeds. Kay pointedly refuses to discuss Cary. She’s taken a lot, but she only has so much to give.
While the full story of the seeming curse the Stayner family has endured remains shocking and sad beyond comprehension, it’s the people—the humanizing—that make Captive Audience the moving experience that it is. Dimmock’s refusal to compress and simplify yield brilliance. Her approach creates palpable tension at times. Regarding her uncle’s murders, Ashley warns against simplistic narrative, “Nobody really can sit there and say, ‘Yeah. This is why this happened.’” But, paradoxically, Kay justifies the importance of the narrative: “If you live an experience and it doesn’t become a story then it dies.” Both of these things are true.
Toward the end, Dimmock asks Kay what she thinks about closure. “Closure? I think it stinks,” she replies. “Even if you get the best verdict in the world, it’s not closed. Nothing ever closes, ever. It stays with you forever.” It’s oddly satisfying to hear her say that, so succinctly summarizing why her story defies narrative simplification.