It’s easy to see why Piers Morgan chose to make a documentary series about female murderers. ITV’s documentary series Killer Women will get attention because as a society, we’re fascinated by the topic: women are the ‘life-givers’, so the idea that they would take life away is compelling.
So even though I bristled at the lurid title Killer Women (imagine Louis Theroux making a documentary with a title like that) and think it’s unhelpful to fetishise female violence, I was definitely interested. Despite myself, I wanted an insight into the mind of a convicted murderer.
Except that the first episode of Killer Women didn’t give me that. Morgan’s interview with Erin Caffey, the teenager serving two life sentences plus 25 years for plotting and helping to carry out the murder of her mother and two brothers, feels strangely empty considering how tragic and unusual the story is.
It’s partly that Caffey is in some ways a difficult subject; she’s not very open about the crime. She’s always denied killing her family, and talks a lot, seemingly reasonably, about “bad choices.” But the real issue with the documentary is that that Morgan bashes us over the head with how creepy and evil she is.
He starts off by getting her to sing Amazing Grace. A pretty young female murderer singing sweetly and beautifully is meant to send chills up our spine, but it’s seriously over-egging the pudding.
While Louis Theroux or Trevor McDonald would let the subject speak for itself, Morgan delivers lines like, “Is Erin Caffey a cold calculating murderess or she is a vulnerable young women who got caught up in a romantic thrall with a controlling boyfriend?”
At another point, he asks Caffey whether she still feels passion for ex-boyfriend Charlie Wilkinson, who is also jailed for life for the murders. Is it likely she does? What would we gain from knowing that? A headline, probably… “America’s notorious murderess still lustful for the man who helped her murder her family”
What emerges, instead of being a spine-tingling story about a dangerous, ‘unnatural’ woman, is a picture of a complex tragedy in which Caffey says she played a role. She admits in this documentary that she could have stopped the murder of her family, but didn’t. “When I look back on it now, this was all just stupid. I mean, for what? They weren’t beating me, they weren’t starving me to death. I had it made.”
Her father Terry visits her and supports her, and says that while he knows she was involved, he doesn’t believe she’s wholly responsible. Morgan implies that it’s shocking that Terry has forgiven his daughter. It’s certainly impressive, but is it all that shocking given what the father says? “I honestly believe she was not the mastermind,” he tells Morgan. “This was a vulnerable 16-year-old girl with a controlling, psychopathic guy.”
So the story itself is, of course, interesting and heart-wrenching. But Morgan’s desperation to creep us out about Caffey undermines all that. If the convicted murderer had been a young man, would Morgan have asked him to sing a song, or commented on how unlike a killer he looks?
Killer Women with Piers Morgan feels like the TV equivalent of a horror movie, in which the music is so scary you think something’s going to happen – but it never really does. Even Morgan’s tweeting that Caffey is the “most evil human I have met” demonstrates how much he wants to show that Caffey is demonic. Because otherwise people might not be interested, right?
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 10, 2016
She might be “evil” or she might not be. There’s absolutely no way of telling from the documentary. But what is clear is that Morgan is desperate for us to believe she is.