Archive for the 'hollywood vs reality' Category


“A Real Stiff�

Hollywood has a long-standing history of misrepresenting “real life.� In general, people are more attractive and more successful and seem to have a lot fewer problems than the rest of us. Hollywood’s representation of “real death� is no different. With few exceptions—the movie Seven, for example—Hollywood tends to give the impression that only beautiful people die.

The actors that are cast to play “dead end roles� are usually just as appealing as the live actors. The only time an unattractive person is used is when the role requires that look. This practice is certainly understandable. Hollywood is no different than any other business that seeks to provide a product that appeals to the “consumer.�

Here’s a typical Hollywood image:

A body lies flat on a tray in the morgue with the head and shoulders exposed under a sheet folded as though they had just been tucked into bed. The face has an almost blissful look on it as it lies there. If it weren’t for the stab wound or gunshot wound, the body would look as though it had been prepared for viewing at the mortuary.

Here’s a more realistic image:

The only way a person is going to lie perfectly flat in a morgue is if the died perfectly flat. In most cases, a cadaver assumes nearly the same posture it had when it died—with the exception of any areas of rigor that were “broken� as the body was moved, examined, and strapped down for transport. More often than not, a person’s legs are bent at the knees and the hands are not straight down at the sides and the sheet covering the body is usually stained with whatever substance is present on the body.

In reality, the eyes and mouth are commonly open or at least “ajar� and the hair is a rat’s nest. “Bed head� has nothing on “dead head.� I’ve seen bodies on TV that were recovered from a wooded area, but that same body lying on a slab in the morgue doesn’t have a single leaf in its hair. I can only assume that the experts in the crime scene unit meticulously collected every leaf and twig from the hair—to the tune of a classic rock song—and that one of the leaves was traced back to a rare breed of ficus located in the lobby of the building where the killer’s dentist’s office was located.

Hollywood cadavers are in fairly decent physical shape and have the same level of hygiene as an actor in a body wash commercial. In reality, here are some of the more common findings underneath the sheet:

–a person with morbid obesity
–a person with neglected toenails (a.k.a. “Fritosâ€? or “Free thoseâ€? corn chips)
–a person with questionable personal hygiene
–a person with nonexistent personal hygiene
–a person unaware that the concept of personal hygiene even existed
–a person that assumed water was only meant to be taken internally

All of these elements are commonly found but rarely portrayed by directors. I’m sure there’s a valid reason for this disparity between fiction and reality. Playing devil’s advocate, I would argue that portraying death too accurately is probably taboo. If that’s the case, then it must be the last taboo. After all, we live in a world no longer afraid to broadcast reality television, presidential sexcapades, and images of Sipowitz’s bare ass.


“Hollywood Homicide 101�

While driving to a long distance scene one night, I found myself recalling a reader comment from a few weeks ago that seems to have stuck with me. The comment referred to what little television had taught the commenter about what I do for a living. As I drove, I realized that, according to television, I’ve been doing my job all wrong.

According to television, I should enter the crime scene and find something wrong right away (as I only have 60 minutes minus commercials to find the guilty party) and should spot key pieces of evidence at a glance and determine their significance almost immediately. I should then confront the potential suspect in the front yard and make some emotionally-charged, sarcastic statement to let them know that I’m “on to them� in an effort to create an adversarial relationship that will only hinder the investigation.

Even though my role is restricted by statute to determining cause and manner of death, I shouldn’t let that fact deter me from getting involved in all aspects of a criminal investigation. If I were a ballistics expert, I should be able to look at a body and tell exactly what caliber of ammunition made the gunshot wound in the chest (something no self-respecting forensic pathologist would even claim to be able to do).

Since homicides apparently only occur one at a time, ordering evidence comparisons on projectiles, fingerprints, DNA, and fibers is as easy as ordering an extra value meal. I can devote all my time and energy as well as all of the resources of the entire agency into solving this one case.

I should ignore statutory limitations and embark on a personal vendetta against “my� suspect by confronting them at their home or place of business or by reconstructing the crime using role-playing techniques that cause me to take on the pain of the victim.

Then as I drove, I wondered what type of person I’d become if I performed my job the Hollywood way. If I put pieces of evidence together as quickly and as flawlessly as they do on television, then I’d end up being the prime suspect. Aggressively confronting the suspect would certainly be used against me in court by even the greenest public defender. Portraying myself as an expert in all forensic disciplines (as most Hollywood investigators seem to be) would only serve to establish a reputation as a “know-it-all.� Making it my personal mission to “put someone away� or role-playing to catch the murderer would ultimately lead me to wash down numerous types of prescription medication with grain alcohol on a daily basis.

In reality, I let the evidence speak for itself. I don’t even speak to suspects. I limit my observations to the body and any other item relevant to the cause of death. I don’t try to understand how someone could have taken their own life, nor do I care what could lead someone to kill another. My way may not make for good television, but it’s a hell of a lot healthier.


“Splitting Fibers”

When I first became interested in forensics, I loved to watch the Discovery Channel and Learning Channel shows about real-life crimes and the evidence and techniques that were used to solve them. I can only assume that these shows are created by PBS-type production companies rather than by the Hollywood studios that generate crime dramas. Still, I address them here because the documentary style shows can be just as misleading as Hollywood dramas.

This misrepresentation is the main reason I’ve gotten away from watching even the more factually based shows. I suppose part of my disdain for them comes from playing my part in the investigative process day in and day out. Most of these shows contain a synopsis of anywhere from one to three cases packaging months or years of investigative work into a segment no longer than a “Spongebob Squarepants” cartoon. As such, these segments are typically only able to focus on one particular aspect of a case and ignore the bulk of the investigation.

An example would be a case in which a suspect was identified because a single fiber found on the victim matched a rare imported rug that was recovered from the suspect’s home. Granted, this particular piece of evidence may have been the element of the case that ultimately solidified the guilt of the suspect. In my opinion, many shows give the impression that the entire case was based on the importance of one piece of evidence and the comparative analysis of one fiber expert.

In actuality, dozens of people and hundreds of articles of evidence have played a part in any given case. The example given above gives due credit to the fiber expert’s work, but completely ignores the very likely possibility that some other person was proficient enough in their role to have discovered the fiber on the victim and collected it in the first place.

Editorial Comments:

–I’m hesitant to say that it isn’t possible for one piece of evidence in a case to outweigh all the rest. Doing so would completely ignore the exculpating effect of O.J. Simpson “struggling” to put on a pair of gloves in the minds of jurors when it came time for them to evaluate actual evidence.
–I’m not trying to discount the role of the fiber expert. As a matter of fact, I admire their ability to do what they do.


So It’s Not Just Me…

Special thanks to Terri Poposky who submitted the following link to a BBC News article by Paul Rincon:

CSI Shows Give ‘Unrealistic View’


“A Body at Rest…”

I admire the amount of detail that special effects departments are able to incorporate into the modern day crime drama. These shows are able to make the most of computer animation in their storyline unlike any other type of show on television. They can painstakingly create a visual reconstruction of a projectile as it passes through the human body or show how blood spatter is formed as it is cast off of a blunt instrument.

So why is it that studios can’t get the dynamics of a dead body right? Whenever a body is shown in the morgue, it appears flat on a table or a tray under a white sheet. In reality, if the body is covered at all, the sheet is stained with whatever deposits it has come into contact with. Unless the person died in the same position they are laying in the morgue, the posture of the body itself is usually contorted because of the onset of rigor mortis. This posture makes for a rather abstract shape under a sheet.

I happened upon the premiere of a new crime drama last night that I paused on simply because I didn’t recognize it. In this particular scene, the main character (I assume) was examining a corpse at a scene. To get a look at the side of her face, he simply placed his hand on her head and gently turned it to the side. Having passed the point of laughing at such inaccuracies long ago, I simply shook my head and turned the channel.

In reality, a body that has been dead for even a short amount of time can already have rigor in the neck, thus making it very stiff. In reality, it would have taken two hands and some effort to force her head to turn to the side. I find that it’s usually easier to roll the entire body onto its side to look at the side of head. “Easier” is a relative term in this case and depends on the size of the person.

A dead body in Hollywood always seems rather flaccid. A character can grab a body by the wrist in an attempt to lift a hand for closer inspection. In this case, the actor portraying the dead person is as flexible as you or I. In reality, a dead body reacts similarly to a “Barbie” doll. You can try and change the position of the doll’s knees or elbows, but as soon as you let go, the doll is pretty much going back to the position it wants to be in.


Hollywood vs. Reality: An Introduction

As a general rule, I avoid watching Hollywood’s dramatic interpretations of death investigation. I can only assume that physicians have similar issues if or when they watch hospital dramas. The exception to this rule is when I stumble on a crime drama while channel surfing or I’m simply looking for something amusing to watch. To say that writers and directors take liberties with reality is putting it mildly.

These inaccuracies must be the Hollywood equivalent of “anticipated casualties” when the sole intention of any program is to attract and retain viewers. Fortunately for me, these inaccuracies serve as a seemingly unlimited source of writing material for this site.

I plan to use these inaccuracies—and my subsequent issues—in what I anticipate to be a series of segments. I admit this series may be perceived as an extended rant filled with various soapbox issues, but the goal here is to deliver some insight. I certainly don’t expect anything I write here to change the face of television. I fully expect the modern-day crime drama to continue to be successful for years to come. After all, fiction has historically been easier to sell than non-fiction. I prefer the History Channel, but at last check it has yet to eclipse the networks in the prime time ratings.