The stories behind riveting murder cases, some which remain unsolved, will come to life on stages across New York City this week for the debut true-crime festival “Death Becomes Us.”
Borrowing from the pages of the city’s successful television and film festivals, the festival takes viewers’ self-appointed role of true-crime investigator “out of the URL and into the IRL,” director Jenn Tisdale says.
Stretching five days, “Death Becomes Us” pieces together the rare opportunities to sit before the wrongly accused (Amanda Knox, Damien Echols, etc.) and the cold-case experts who’ve turned such cases into a Hollywood obsession.
“What you can expect from this festival is people sharing a stage who’ve never shared a stage before,” Tisdale, 38, says. “I would say it’s the wedding day of festivals, something old, something new, something borrowed and something gruesome.”
More than a dozen discussions and screenings are set through Sunday at venues like Gramercy Theatre, The Strand and Nitehawk Cinema. A “pregame” “Women Who Kill” event kicked off the grim week Tuesday with Cara Robertson, author of “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” and Harold Schechter, author of “Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.”
Murder cases that have captivated audiences will once again be up for debate — like that of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized California in the ’60s and ’70s; Echols, who spent 18 years on death row; and Knox, whose time imprisoned in Italy for the 2007 death of her roommate has been sensationalized in books, films and a television series.
“I took myself as the target demographic. Who would I want to see? Who would I want to ask questions” says Tisdale, who was sucked into the true-crime genre by “America’s Most Wanted” in the ’80s, and the later cases of the Menendez brothers (1989), Tonya Harding (1994) and O.J. Simpson (1994-5).
The “Death” fest made its debut in Washington, D.C., last December, drawing 8,000 true-crime fanatics to eight shows in two days. The turnout inspired Tisdale and her team at online magazine and event company Brightest Young Things Media to organize an NYC edition months later.
About 6,000 fans are expected to turn out for the NYC event. But the drop in attendance is attributed to smaller venue capacity — for more intimate discussions — not a decline in interest.
Limited early “bundle” packs ($125) for the entire city run sold out before the event lineup dropped. Individual event passes are still available, and some events are free.
“People are curious because they don’t know what a true-crime festival is. It’s just not a thing,” she says. “I’m kind of making it up as I go along.”
Podcasts like “Serial” and “Criminal,” and a growing list of bingeable shows, from “Making a Murderer” to “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” have put true-crime cases in fans’ living rooms, surging interest in cases decades old.
But Tisdale says the spiking interest in serial cases and glorification of the murderous psyche is more rooted in human nature than TV.
“It’s always been around. We’ve always been slowing down on the highway to look at a car accident — but now we’re doing it at a festival, and hopefully nobody will be hurt,” she says.
The “Death” fest isn’t expected to follow rigorous formatting in its big-city debut. Adapting to the vibe of its live audience, shows will vary between Q&A sessions, moderator discussions and podcast and series screenings.
“I feel like we can get a little weirder in New York than in D.C.,” she says. “I think we erred more on the side of straightforward information in D.C. and we’ll be out there and a little strange in New York.”
The fest is already the force behind passionate Twitter debates, like one involving the innocence of Knox who was acquitted in 2015 due to “stunning flaws” in the Italian investigation.
“Death Becomes Us” might eye an annual home in New York City depending on turnout. It’s set to return to D.C. in November.
IF YOU GO: “Death Becomes Us: True Crime Festival” hits New York City March 20-24. Tickets and full lineup available at deathbecomesus.com.