James Bulger’s mum ‘disgusted’ at murder film

Chilling: Venables and Thompson had tried to abduct another young boy earlier the same day.

The 1993 murder of James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, which sent shockwaves through British society, is the subject of an Oscar-nominated film. Bulger’s family say it should not have been made.

On February 12, 1993, Denise Bulger was shopping in Merseyside with her two-year-old son James Bulger. While she was momentarily distracted, two boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, took the toddler by the hand and led him out of the shopping centre. The three walked over two miles to a train line, where the boys brutally tortured and killed James.

Venables and Thompson were just 10 years old.

Now, the crime has been made into a film. Detainment, a 30-minute short directed by Vincent Lambe, recreates police interviews with Venables and Thompson using real transcripts. On Tuesday, it was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Live Action Short category, despite 900,000 people signing a petition for it to be snubbed.

Lambe hopes his film will help solve the mystery of how two children could commit such an awful act. “If we don’t understand the cause of it, it’s likely that something similar will happen again in the future,” he argues.

But James’s mother does not accept his explanation.

“I cannot express how disgusted and upset I am.” She has attacked Lambe for not asking permission to make the film and accused him of profiting from her son’s death.

In 1993, the murder of James Bulger shocked Britain and provoked a wave of moral panic.

“Freaks of nature,” read a Daily Mirror front page. “The faces of normal boys but they had hearts of unparalleled evil.”

Under pressure from a lynch-mob media and public fury, Venables and Thompson were named publicly and tried as adults. The debate around this decision shaped how we treat young offenders.

Detainment comes amidst a “true crime” craze. The genre has moved away from trashy magazines and gory late-night TV channels, to the acceptable world of podcasts and Netflix.

Series like Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial, which aim to shed new light on closed murder cases, have been streamed by hundreds of millions of people. They have also prompted several retrials.

But the shows have been accused of sidelining victims.

The family of Hae Min Lee, whose killing was the subject of the first season of Serial, agree. “It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime […] when so few are willing to speak up for Hae.”

Cold-blooded

Lambe claims we should try to understand Venables and Thompson rather than dismissing them as monsters. Is he right? Can such a hideous crime ever be understood? Many think his comment was an excuse to exploit a child’s suffering for public entertainment. Is it also wrong to enjoy “fake” torture and murder in horror movies? Why is it different?

In some cases, true crime stories have uncovered new evidence and led to retrials. By exploring these crimes, isn’t it the same as investigative journalism?

You Decide

  1. Should Detainment have been banned from screens?
  2. Why are murder stories so popular?

Activities

  1. Would you, or do you, watch and listen to true crime documentaries and podcasts? Write a paragraph explaining why you think they are OK/not OK.
  2. Class debate: “This House believes there is no such thing as an evil person?”

Some People Say...

“Society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less.”

Sir John Major, who was prime minister in 1993, speaking after Thompson and Venables were arrested.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
From Serial to Jack the Ripper, we have always had a morbid fascination with grizzly stories of true crime. An early example is American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe’s short story from 1842, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which was about a contemporary killing. Journalist Arwa Mahdawi describes the recent boom as the “gentrification of gore.”
What do we not know?
Why stories about murder are so popular. In real life, these crimes trigger reactions of terror and disgust. Why do they become entertaining when they are on our screens? It may be a fascination with the mindset of an “evil” murderer or the adrenaline rush of fear. Many true crime series let viewers play detective by forming their own opinions from the clues, so they have the satisfaction of piecing the puzzle together.

Word Watch

Denise
Now called Denise Fergus, since her son’s death she has campaigned for his killers to receive longer sentences.
Jon Venables
Venables and Thompson were the youngest children ever to be convicted of murder in Britain. The pair were released from prison with new identities in 2001. Venables has since been jailed twice on child pornography charges.
Vincent Lambe
Lambe said he does not intend to profit from the film and has apologised to the Bulger family.
Moral panic
Widespread anxiety sparked by a problem that seems to threaten society. Following the murder, there was a lot of fear about how British society could have created the conditions for such an evil act by children.
Lynch-mob
Vigilante justice, when a group of citizens wants to attack someone they think has committed a crime. “Lynch mob mentality” usually refers to public anger directed at a criminal.
Retrials
Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend Hae Min Lee, has been granted a retrial as a result of the public interest in his case following the release of Serial.