Prior to watching Netflix’s newest true-crime docuseries, I associated Richard Ramirez with “American Horror Story’s” Billy Idol-loving Satanist. I expected “Night Stalker” to paint a more realistic biography of this character. Instead, I got something better.
Ramirez’s name wasn’t confirmed until the third episode of the four-part series and a brief explanation of his abusive upbringing did not come until the last episode. Needless to say, the star of the show wasn’t the killer, but rather those who helped eventually bring him into custody. While the natural sound, interview lighting and cinematography in general was perfect, the focus on everybody but the killer himself is what makes “Night Stalker” stand out.
The show used original interview footage to show how an East Los Angeles neighborhood sealed Ramirez’s fate. After a failed carjacking, an angry mob of neighbors recognized Ramirez and vowed to not let him evade police again. “Night Stalker” stands out from other reality crime shows in its spotlight on how everyday people prevented what could have easily been a dozen more deaths. As much respect as I have for Detectives Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo, I find these residents to be the stars of the show. Well, them and a 6-year-old girl.
Anastasia Hronas tells how she was taken in the middle of the night from her home, sexually assaulted by Ramirez and then released at a gas station. This occurred when she was around age 6. Her testimony is paired with eerie close-ups of her surroundings that night: flies buzzing in what we can assume was Ramirez’s residence, lights of the gas station and the dim car. This is the first time we are introduced to Hronas, amongst graphic images of murders and other survivor accounts. Even though she is not super graphic in her retelling, her story stuck with me more than the carnage shown earlier in the episode. Honestly, I’m not sure whether this was because of the excellent job the producers did when pairing imagery with her story, the fact that she was a child when the crime occurred or that she actually saw Ramirez.
What makes her story even more remarkable was her willingness to assist the police. Once Ramirez was in custody, she pointed him out in a lineup. As the detectives recount, she would have testified against Ramirez in court but didn’t get the chance. Because Ramirez was already charged with several counts of murder that would no-doubt result in him being sent to death row or life in prison, prosecutors did not want to retraumatize the children by trying those cases.
In shows of this nature, producers walk a fine line between keeping the viewers interested and glamorizing the monster. We do hear from Ramirez throughout the episodes, the audio of his voice transcribed in fluorescent block lettering. The show mentions the young women who fawned over him during the trial. His upbringing is briefly discussed. Yet, the show isn’t too hung up on humanizing him or harping on the psychology behind his gruesome crimes and apparent Satanism. It’s all presented in a straightforward manner as evidence. The groupies were part of the trial’s landscape, and no merit was given to them.
Simply put, the show shines a light on those who deserve recognition: those who ended the terror that swept through California in the 80s. Whether that be the detectives, survivors or vigilant citizens. It’s not a one-dimensional story of violence, but rather one of the resilience of survivors and two men working an exhausting case. It doesn’t gloss over hardships either. Without directly assigning blame, it shows the hardships and complexities of working a case across jurisdictions and deciding what to release — and what not to release — to the public. While I wanted an in-depth analysis of the monster dubbed “The Night Stalker,” I honestly cannot complain with being introduced to the strength of humans impacted by violence. Sometimes those with the best stories aren’t written in the headlines.