Casting JonBenet: Exploring Community Trauma and Memory

March 30, 2018

Looking for something forensic and entertaining to watch over the break? Here is my suggestion!


Casting JonBenet is a documentary unlike any other. Consisting of local actors vying for roles in a dramatization of the case, each person has their own opinion on what happened, who committed the murder, and different memories for the details of the case. How does a community deal with trauma? How can a community heal from a trauma that raises more questions than answers? How do people’s memories differ for an event? These are all overarching questions that this documentary aims to answer through interviews and dramatizations.


On December 26th, 1996, JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered in her home in Boulder, Colorado. It has been over twenty years, and nobody has ever been charged for the six year old’s murder. The case included many questionable details and evidence pointed towards many different people, including her mother, father, and brother. To this day, everybody has their own opinion on who killed JonBenét and what happened that Christmas. But how does her community remember this tragedy?


Throughout the documentary, interviews and opinions by local townspeople and actors are interspersed with scenes they have filmed re-enacting various events related to the case. For each aspect of the crime, the actors all have their own varying opinions on what it means for the case and the importance of it. There are a lot of negative opinions on the quality of police work and how the case was handled by law enforcement. One of the men auditioning for the role of the police chief was a police officer in Chicago when the crime occurred. He even says, “we used the investigation techniques from the Boulder Police Department as a ‘how not to’ for our cadets.” Everyone also had strong opinions about the ransom note, including who wrote it, the length of the note, and the amount of money that was demanded. Most people were quick to criticize the lack of emotional display from Patsy and John in the interviews and appearances they did, as if they are trying to determine innocence or guilt based on a person’s reaction to trauma. However, a woman whose brother was murdered explains, “you don’t know how you’re gonna react”.


Another reason this documentary is so interesting is because the people being interviewed are auditioning to play the role of a real person that was thrust into the public eye. When preparing for an audition a lot of research goes into the role, especially if the role is that of a real person. These actors have been doing research on the people they are playing, which just adds an additional level of insight into the crime.


For some people it is clear who murdered JonBenét Ramsey, even though nobody was ever arrested or charged with her murder. Some people are convinced that Patsy killed her daughter, while others are sure that Burke killed his sister. Throughout the interviews, the actors project their opinions onto the case and the suspects, with some people providing completely conflicting opinions. Despite how infamous this case is, how publicized it was, and a personal connection to it, it is difficult to remember the details of it and form consistent and coherent theories after twenty-one years. The hodgepodge of information that the actors ended up with ranges from untrue to bizarre, plausible to factual. The amount of information that the members of the community had pouring in from friends, family members, friends of friends, and most importantly, the media, led to many conflicting ideas and raised more questions than answers.


As one man points out, “just about any theory in this whole situation sounds pretty crazy. You know, parents killing their kids, brothers killing their sisters, intruders coming in to kidnap a kid and writing the letter, but not kidnapping the kid, just leaving the kid there, I mean, any theory is kind of cracked in this situation.” This case has remained infamous for twenty-one years, and not just because the victim was a young child, but because every theory sounds somewhat crazy. There is an incredible amount of speculation and almost all of the details are up to interpretation, leading each person to create their own narrative of what really happened to JonBenét. When trying to understand a situation, we draw from our own history and personal experiences in order to attempt to make sense of it. The actors shared their own personal experiences that are related to this case, including stories of murder, death, and trauma, and how those experiences influence their opinion of the case and the people involved.


Casting JonBenet culminates in a montage of different scenes filmed with all of the actors, exploring each potential possibility of what happened in this case. The documentary never speculates on what did or did not happen, nor who is guilty or innocent. Instead it gives a voice to members of the community who experienced this tragedy, and lets them express what they think happened based on their personal memories and what they remember reading about, hearing, and seeing in the media.


Here at John Jay, there are professors and research labs that focus on memory and how trauma is related to memory. Dr. Charles Stone researches memory, and is currently examining how memories of 9/11 are transmitted to the next generation. Dr. Maureen Allwood investigates the effects of trauma and violence exposure on development.


Casting JonBenet is available on Netflix.



Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload