What Netflix's Night Stalker Documentary Leaves Out About Richard Ramirez
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer documents the shocking crimes of Richard Ramirez, but leaves out plenty of details about his motivations and life story. As a whole, the four-part Netflix docuseries covers the essentials about the subject's 1985 murders, and includes first-hand testimonies from the detectives who led the investigation. What Night Stalker fails to address, however, greatly diminishes its overall quality.
In April 1985, Ramirez began a killing spree all throughout Los Angeles. Investigators knew little about his motivations, but slowly pieced together a modus operandi while also acquiring crucial information from survivors. As revealed in Night Stalker, detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno were especially concerned about evidence being leaked to the press, which would theoretically scare off the killer. By August 1985, the investigators' hard work paid off, as numerous tips allowed them to identify and ultimately apprehend their primary suspect. Ramirez was later convicted on 13 counts of murder and sentenced to death. He died from cancer in 2013 while still on Death Row.
Night Stalker will undoubtedly keep Netflix audiences entertained with its procedural drama and testimonies from investigators who occasionally ham it up during interviews. In addition, the docuseries doesn't shy away from the grisly specifics when documenting the killer's crimes. But if there's a major criticism to be made, it's that Night Stalker doesn't provide much analysis about Ramirez's frame of mind, and instead relies too much on retro aesthetics and played-out tropes serial killer tropes.
Like so many serial killer-themed docuseries, Night Stalker glosses over the subject's childhood years and invests little time in explaining why Ramirez not only killed adult men and women, but also molested young children. The fourth and final Netflix episode, "Manhunt," wisely begins with exposition about Richard's upbringing, and includes the rather important information that his father repeatedly tied him to a cross in a cemetery. Plus, it's also revealed that Richard witnessed his cousin murder his wife. Within two minutes, however, Night Stalker leaves such "horrible stories" behind and doesn't attempt to further psychoanalyze the subject, or at least connect the dots for audiences.
The 2020 documentary Crazy, Not Insane should be a standard watch for anyone who makes a docuseries about serial killers. Psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis details her experiences working with mass murderers during the '80s, and how her evaluations were largely dismissed because people like Ramirez were categorized as simply being "evil" or "insane." However, the information provided during the first two minutes of Night Stalker's fourth episode suggests that Ramirez was traumatized as a child by his father, which could potentially explain why he later targeted men during his killing spree. And if Ramirez resented his mother for not protecting him, then that could also explain why he eventually sexually assaulted adult women after murdering their male partners. Plus, the fact that the Night Stalker attacked little kids may suggest that he was lashing out for what happened to him as a child, especially when considering that Ramirez's uncle, a Vietnam War veteran, reportedly showed him photos of women that he had raped and murdered.
During Ramirez's trial, he famously revealed a pentagram on his hand and stated "Hail Satan." In Night Stalker, interviewees recall the circus-like atmosphere of the trial, and realizing the Night Stalker was taking advantage of the spotlight. Ramirez is identified as a "student" of serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Kenneth Bianchi (The Hillside Strangler), and seemed entirely thrilled to know that he would be held in the latter's former cell after being arrested. Unfortunately, Night Stalker doesn't explore the satanic paranoia of mid-'80s America during Ronald Reagan's presidency, and how that might've affected Ramirez's public posturing. Instead, the Netflix series perpetuates the idea that serial killers are simply evil because they kill.
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By the mid-'80s, there was a cultural belief in America that heavy metal music correlated with evil cults. The band Judas Priest was accused of creating music that inspired teenagers to kill in late 1985, and Congress was also warned about satanic rituals involving children. In 1985, the game Dungeons & Dragons was even identified as a satanic recruiting tool. So, when Ramirez began his killing spree, he presumably had enough pop culture knowledge to know what would terrify adults, and thus began branding himself as a satanic figure. Rather than exploring what led Ramirez to kill, Night Stalker repeatedly underlines the fact that he associated himself with "evil." In reality, though, the killer's AC/DC hat suggests that he was another metal head, and his actions imply that he suffered from deep-rooted emotional trauma.
Why Richard Ramirez Went To San Francisco
Less than two weeks before Ramirez was caught, he left Los Angeles after learning about the media's interest in his crimes. But rather than traveling to see family in Arizona, the killer went north to San Francisco and murdered an Asian man named Peter Pan, and also attempted to murder the man's wife, Barbara. Given the Night Stalker's knowledge of pop culture, and given that the Netflix docuseries shows him referencing Disneyland after his arrest, there's reason to believe that Ramirez deliberately targeted someone who had the same name as an iconic Disney movie character. However, Night Stalker ignores that angle and instead focuses on the fact that then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein revealed important information about the case while speaking to the media, which prompted Ramirez to return to California and throw away his Avia shoes that had been leaving valuable prints for investigators.
Director Tiller Russell (The Last Narc) has noted that he didn't want to "glamorize" Ramirez in Night Stalker, but he inadvertently did just that by ignoring the psychological angle and by highlighting that the subject's "bad boy" persona during various court sequences. After a barrage of serial killer docuseries, modern audiences already know that people have a morbid fascination with mass murderers. But what Netflix streamers may not understand, however, are the various psychological and cultural factors that are so important when analyzing the Night Stalker case. If Russell didn't want to glamorize Ramirez, then why show repeated shots of the killer wearing sunglasses in court? And why show repeated shots of nude photos that women sent to the Night Stalker? The docuseries concludes with some hollow philosophizing a la "How could this happen?," and without attempting to make a clear connection between Ramirez's childhood trauma and his killing spree as a 25-year-old.
Whether Or Not Richard Ramirez Expressed Remorse In Jail
Night Stalker offers little insight about Ramirez's later years, presumably because the director didn't want to humanize the subject. Yet the Netflix documentary still manages to mythologize Ramirez by hinting that he may have done lots of killing before 1985, and by including audio from a 1994 interview in which he implies that he was born a serial killer, or born as a "bad seed." Once again, Night Stalker perpetuates the idea that all serial killers are simply evil, and fails to touch upon the subject's childhood.
By the mid-'90s, Ramirez may have shown little remorse, but it would've been beneficial for Netflix viewers to learn a little more about his perspective. There's no information whatsoever about what the killer had to say about his crimes during the 21st century, and so there's another missing chapter in the story. Night Stalker is indeed an informative docuseries about the focal 1985 events, but it's clearly designed to capitalize upon the recurring '80s nostalgia trend with its synthwave music and retro-style graphics. There's plenty of neon, but there's painful lack of serial killer psychoanalysis.
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