True Crime Documentary Review, Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story

What Captive Audience: A Real American Horror story is all about without spoiling the show

Captive Audience: A Real American Horror story is a tale in two parts covering two different cases very much related to each other. First, it’s the story of Steven Stayner who at seven years old is abducted by Kenneth Parnell. Seven years later, Steven makes his escape with another boy abducted by Parnell.

This documentary spends the first two parts discussing Steven’s story and the media blitz that followed. In part three, we get to know his brother Cary a little bit more. Without spoiling too much, Cary Stayner grows up to become a serial killer.

Did you know anything about the Captive Audience story before watching?

Both the Steven Stayner and Cary Stayner stories were ones I was vaguely familiar with. It’s the kind of intriguing true crime story that couldn’t possibly be this closely related. Fortunately, for my entertainment purposes, I didn’t connect them when I began to watch this. It wasn’t until later on when my memories of an episode of a podcast covering the Cary Stayner crimes had me remembering how fascinated I was.

Will Captive Audience make people feel uncomfortable?

What happened to Steven Stayner during his abduction isn’t explained in detail which saves viewers from too much uncomfortableness. This documentary focuses more on the media’s reaction and the fallout than the crimes committed and the specifics of each. You’ll get through this fine.

What was good about Captive Audience?

The story itself is tough to take in. Steven was missing for so many years then became a hero in his escape and rescue. Captive Audience does a great job of building up to the bizarre part of the family’s history, ending with Cary.

We get to see a lot of interviews with direct family members, including the boys’ mother plus the wife and children of Steven. I liked the way this was presented. Everyone close to the family has a slightly different viewpoint of what happened with the children obviously not being alive when it happened.

Captive Audience uses audio recordings from the writer, producer, and Steven during the process of making the made-for-TV film, I Know My First Name is Steven. It seems this audio was a big inspiration into making the documentary. Not much of it is particularly groundbreaking for anyone other than the family who never got to hear that side of things.

The documentary is the perfect length with a beginning, middle, and ending. You will, pardon the pun, be a captive audience.

What could have made Captive Audience better?

I would have liked a little more from Steven’s old interviews. Due to his unfortunate and untimely passing, we aren’t getting any new ones. Because this documentary focused more on media portrayals, including the made-for-TV movie, they stray away from a lot of the specific details of the crimes. This might be best for our stomachs, but it does leave a big part of the story untold.

Instead, Steven’s time in captivity is more about the normal parts of his life and how he blended in. It might have been a nice twist in this documentary to start this way instead of revealing early on that he was a kidnap victim. For people who were unfamiliar or forgetful folks like myself who didn’t remember what this story was about, they could have waited a little longer for the reveal.

Captive Audience doesn’t really rely on the cinematic twist because the biggest of all, Cary’s involvement, is what stands out the most. I would have also liked to get a little more on him, however, I can see why the documentary may have seemed like it would never end if the filmmakers chose that route.

Is Captive Audience worth watching?

I really dug this documentary a lot more than I thought I would. There wasn’t anything flashy or particularly emotional about it. Maybe due to the fact that a theme was the media’s heavy involvement, the filmmakers tried to not sensationalize the story. If so, they aced it.

Overall Score: 8 out of 10

Captive Audience was an enjoyable true crime documentary involving two major cases bound by blood. Documentaries covering more than one case have a special zest to this one. You can’t tell one story without mentioning the other.

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