AR recreation of Tupac’s death. Screengrab via Elijah Watson/CrimeDoor
The CrimeDoor app presents itself as more than just fodder for our morbid obsession with true crime — and in some ways it is and isn’t.
True crime is everywhere. From the collection of documentary films and series on streaming services and TV channels to podcast series, there are so many ways for true crime fanatics to get their fix. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as technology evolves, new mediums are being created to give enthusiasts of this genre a more interactive experience. Enter, CrimeDoor.
Launched in 2020, CrimeDoor is an app for those who want to engage further with their interest in true crime. The app features a database encompassing over 2,000 cases around the world including everything from the murders of popular musicians like The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac to more recent localized cases. Once you click on a case, you’re taken to its main page where you’re provided with an array of aggregated content on the case: articles, videos (including trial footage), 911 calls, podcasts — even links to purchase documentaries and books made about the cases from Amazon Prime video and Kindle, as well as a tab to view similar cases are included. In other words, it’s part-Spotify, part-Wikipedia for true crime heads who not only want to digest this type of subject matter, but actively engage with it, too.
The idea for the app came about two years ago. Lauren Mandt, a self-proclaimed “super true crime fan,” was asked by her husband Neil if there was an “ESPN app for crime” after watching some true crime documentaries together.
“There isn’t really one place. It’s a lot of scattered information,” she recalled saying in response, leading to Lauren fusing her love of true crime with Neil’s background in content and technology to create CrimeDoor.
Now, there’s an inherent morbidness with true crime. It can feel exploitative or sensationalist, especially when some of these cases get recreated time and time again as a documentary film or series, or dramatized fictional film or TV series (as we’ve seen in recent years with Ted Bundy). Unlike these other mediums, CrimeDoor presents itself as more than just fodder for our morbid obsession with true crime, with Mandt describing the app as “victim centric.”
“So, rather than having the Ted Bundy profile, it’s really all of his victims have their own individual profiles to really humanize and give a voice to each of these victims rather than glorifying the perpetrators, which happens often,” she said.
This, along with the interactive element of the app, is how it separates itself from other true crime platforms, with the app’s main goal to “not only help people understand crimes better by exploring the crime scenes,” but helping “bring resolution to unresolved cases,” according to its app store description. Mandt also added that they sometimes work with family members of the victims in the cases featured (as was the case with Kelsi German, the sister of Liberty German, one of the victims of the 2017 Delphi murders) and that if a family member of the victims isn’t comfortable with a case profile being on the app, they’re “happy to work with them and remove it or add additional information, additional photos, something that maybe was missing.”
Now, where the CrimeDoor app gets into murky territory is through its 3D/AR (augmented reality) feature. Only available for certain cases (particularly notable ones that most people are sure to know), the feature works by transforming your real world into a virtual one, with users having to scan wherever they’re at with their phone’s camera so that the app can recreate the murder scene, which Mandt said is based on the photographic evidence of those scenes. Once that’s done, you’re literally able to step into a scene that looks like a 2000s-era Grand Theft Auto game, where you’re able to examine the slain bodies of the victims and the area they were murdered in. Now, not all 3D mockups are like this: there’s a Delphi murders recreation that is centered around when the victims meet the perpetrator rather than how they died, as well as an Aurora Theater recreation where no bodies are included. But a handful of them are centered around the victim and how they were murdered, including some that recreate the deaths of iconic musicians.
The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Nipsey Hussle, John Lennon, and Selena each have their own case file and 3D recreation on the app. Aside from Selena (the recreation is centered around the final seconds of her life before she was killed) the artists’ recreations are built around when they were killed. It’s understandable to enter into these virtual worlds and feel as if you’re doing something wrong or something isn’t right. As I examined the murder scenes of Biggie, Tupac, and Nipsey, I was initially impressed with how immersive they are, only to feel uncomfortable immediately after, especially with the latter two recreations. In those, I was able to stand over their bodies and even crouch down to see more details. Seeing Nipsey’s clothes covered in blood or looking into Tupac’s lifeless eyes as he lies in a pool of blood — it’s hard not to feel some unease and wonder, “Is this a line that needs to be crossed?” Sure, there’s the aspect of examining a virtual dead body but there’s also the voyeurism that comes with it, and wondering if such a feature is actually supporting CrimeDoor’s mission statement (to humanize victims and give them a voice), or if it’s just an inevitable next step in true crime recreations, where users are able to insert themselves into infamous murder scenes in a way you can’t do with a podcast series or TV show.
“If you think about it, this is just a different way that — it’s a different medium that you’re seeing this recreated scene,” Mandt said. “So, you could watch it on television. You could hear about it in a podcast. But being in your own space and also walking into this with your phone, it does feel almost like, ‘Should I be doing this? Is this okay?’ Because it is like you’re in your living room and you’re walking through and it’s just a different way — a different delivery mechanism that a lot of people aren’t used to yet, but you’ll be more familiar over time.”
Unlike the rest of the app, the 3D/AR feature isn’t free. In order to use it, you have to either purchase a monthly subscription for $4.99 or a yearly subscription for $49.99. The fact that users have to pay to use these features has popped up in a couple reviews of the app, with these users seeing it as exploitative. After using the feature myself, I err on their skepticism. Although a press release for Biggie’s AR recreation suggested that users may “catch something that’s gone unnoticed until now, possibly leading to a break in the case,” what’s the likelihood of that, especially for cases like this that have been — and will likely continue to be — revisited time and time again?
When asked about the pay for the AR feature, Mandt emphasized how the app offers so much that’s for free, saying: “I would look at all the good work that we’re doing that is free and available to you to do your own research.” She also shared how, although they don’t necessarily need an approval from a person or family member for the case files they have (particularly in regards to using one’s likeness for their 3D/AR feature, which she equated to other medias that make their own recreations), she said that they have shared revenue with family members of victims “to help in their fight for their victim and their family,” including Kelsi German.
Along with some criticism by users and critics, the app has faced controversy. Last year, it scrapped an AR experience of George Floyd’s killing after a press release for the experience faced backlash, with a CrimeDoor spokesperson saying at the time that it was “a very early and unapproved draft.”
Addressing the Floyd experience, Mandt said that it was “something that we had talked about in a larger scope with other scenes, but it wasn’t something that we were going to move forward with.”
“It was just unfortunate that that blind item had gone out the way it did,” she said. “But we really try and take care of, ‘Does it make sense? Is there an understanding, a learning [of these cases]?’”
I imagine CrimeDoor could be the app equivalent to the divisive America’s Most Wanted TV series: something that at best, galvanizes its users to be informed about crime and lead to actual criminal captures and at worst, sensationalizes crime and capitalizes off it. What is for sure is that the app, for better or worse, is the future of true crime.