Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story
By Melissa Camacho,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Disturbing, insightful true crime docu points lens at media.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
It gives the Stayner family a voice, and addresses true details about what happened to Steven from the family's first-hand experience. Characterizes the media and the public's fascination as partial reasons for Steven Stayner's post-escape struggles, and in some cases, for Cary Stayners' criminal behavior. There's discussion of how mental health interventions would have helped when Steven returned home.
Positive Role Models
The Stayners are a regular family who have endured very tragic events in their lives. Media is characterized as being problematic. Steven Stayner is shown to have struggled with substance abuse in his teens but turned his life around to become a good father.
Men and women are interviewed throughout; all participants are White.
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Violence & Scariness
While not graphic, the overall docuseries centers around kidnapping, pedophilia, adult sexual violence, and serial killing. Some details about how Cary Stayner's victims were killed are offered. Scenes from a motorcycle accident are shown.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Dating and getting pregnant is discussed.
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Words like "pissed" are audible.
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Products & Purchases
Local and national news outlets are featured, as is the TV miniseries I Know My Name is Steve.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Beer drinking and cigarette smoking is visible in featured TV movie scenes. These activities, and pot and drug use, are referenced during interviews.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story revisits the infamous and sensational stories of kidnapping survivor Steven Stayner and his brother Cary, who is a convicted serial killer. Child abduction, pedophilia, murder, and mental illness are all themes, as is the way media has covered these stories, and the problems that ensued because of it. There's some occasional strong words, and beer and cigarette smoking is visible, and drug use is referenced. Scenes from the miniseries I Know My Name is Steven (1989) are prominently featured.
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Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story
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What's the Story?
CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: A REAL AMERICAN HORROR STORY is a three-part true crime documentary that examines the impact of the intense media coverage of a kidnapped young boy's return home. It revisits the case of seven-year-old Steven Stayner, who in 1972 was abducted in Merced, California, by convicted sex offender Kenneth Eugene Parnell. Seven years later, after escaping with 5-year-old Timmy White, he returned to his family and was thrust into the media spotlight. The series looks at how the subsequent media focus on Steven affected him and his family, including his older brother Cary, who years later became the serial murderer known as The Yosemite Killer. Interviews with members of the Stayner family, many of whom have never spoken publicly before, share what they endured in the years after Steven's kidnapping; when he tragically died in 1989; and when Cary was arrested and convicted. Acquaintances, investigators, and journalists also share their interpretation of events, and archive media give additional details while highlighting the extensive, and sometimes aggressive, way they pursued the separate stories. It also showcases the efforts the entertainment industry made to retell Steven's story, and the creative license taken in order to appeal to TV audiences, despite the fact that the Stayners' experience did not have a Hollywood ending.
Is It Any Good?
The disturbing docuseries raises questions about how media chose to cover Stayner's kidnapping, and the long-lasting impact it had on him, his family, and the public's perception of what transpired. Captive Audience offers the opportunity for members of the Stayner family, including Steven and Cary's mother, their sister, and Steven's two adult children, to tell their stories. These journalistic elements are combined with scenes from the 1989 Emmy Award-nominated series I Know My Name is Steven, which are accompanied by audio recordings of writer J.P. Miller discussing how he adapted Steven Stayner's story for TV audiences. It also features Corin Nemec and Todd Eric Andrews, the actors who portrayed Steven and Cory on TV, performing on-camera readings of interviews with the two men before the series went into production. It's a unique way of deconstructing the sensational, and sometimes fictional, stories about Steven's life that continue to be perpetuated by media today. But as artistic and insightful as Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story is, you can't help but think about the fact that it is contributing to the very phenomena it is criticizing. Nonetheless, it's a robust true crime story that will draw in viewers who like the genre.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why and how media covered the Steven Stayner story, and the narratives they present about Cary Stayner's criminal behavior. Should media be blamed for covering stories the public is interested in?
Why have true crime stories become so popular? How can TV series and documentaries about true crimes potentially misrepresent the real facts surrounding each incident? Does Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story avoid distorting the details about the Stayner cases?
- Premiere date: April 21, 2022
- Cast: Steven Stayner, Kay Stayner, Ashley Stayner
- Network: Hulu
- Genre: Reality TV
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: July 5, 2022
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