The truth behind Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story is that true-crime stories never really do have happy endings. Why Hulu and filmmaker Jessica Dimmock made a three-part docuseries on this case, I’m guessing, is to shut down the sensationalism of true-crime that has sprung up in recent years with countless limited series, podcasts and true-crime shows.
The series focuses on the Steven Stayner abduction case which in 1972 was just another case of a child who was kidnapped but forgotten. That was until around March 1, 1980, when Steven, only 14, and going by the name Dennis Parnell, escaped his abductor, Kenneth Parnell. Steven/Dennis was starting to grow through puberty and he was no longer the childish type a predator like Parnell wanted, so Parnell had abducted a five-year-old, Timmy White.
Steven/Dennis, wanting to save the young boy from the seven years of abuse he suffered, escaped one night and the two were able to hitchhike to Ukiah, Calif., where the boy had lived. Unable to locate his home, Steven/Dennis took the boy to the local police department. From there, an investigation started in which the young teenager would become a media sensation as a hero.
That is until, stories came out about what actually happened. Initially, Steven/Dennis didn’t tell authorities of the years of child sexual abuse he suffered. At the time, it was still considered a taboo subject. Dimmock uses a cringeworthy interview from a school administrator that excuses the bullying Steven endured by saying the sexual abuse might not make him popular with the girls at the school.
It wasn’t just the school where Steven was a victim of bullying and taunts of the derogatory F-word for homosexuals . His parents weren’t fully prepared how to take case of someone who was now 15 and had grown up in their absence. Aside from sexually abusing Steven, Parnell would also allow Steven to drink beer/alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Steven’s parents, Del and Kay, expected Steven to just assimilate back into the family life he had left at seven as if nothing happened and no one talked about it much.
But it was a different time. You can tell through the inteviews with Kay that they probably should’ve handled it differently, but her husband, Del, didn’t like the idea of Steven receiving therapy. It was 1980 and times were different. Steven became a media sensation. But there was also trouble as Steven wanted to still continue to drink beers and smoke cigarettes and lashed out.
It didn’t help matters that a legal loophole allowed for Parnell to only be prosecuted for the kidnappings of Steven and Timmy but not the sexual assault because the statue of limitations had expired. This reportedly led to some changes.
Dimmock assembles Steven’s family members and school friends who talk about his life. But It should be noted that Steven’s life ended at the age of 24 when he was struck while riding his motorcycle on the way home from work and killed by a motorist who ran a stop sign. The traffic fatality happened the day before the 1989 Emmys where I Know My First Name Is Steven, a two-part miniseries, was nominated.
It’s here where Dimmock changes up the format by brining in Corin Nemec, who played Steven in that hit miniseries. I’m not sure if Nemec being interviewed and reading transcripts of interviews of Steven is the right thing, but the miniseries is talked about at length. When it aired, the first night got over 31 million viewers with the second night receiving over 40 million. It was a ground-breaking miniseries that tackled different subjects that even in 1989 was hard for people to discuss.
Steven’s daughter, Ashley, says she likes the miniseries as she can hardly remember her father. And Steven’s son, Steven Jr., bluntly says he doesn’t remember anything about his father. They look through some of his personal belongings and newspaper clippings just to show how much a media swarm the story was.
Part of the reason it took the miniseries so long to be produced is Kay says they resisted. But by 1988 when production began, Steven was now 23 and an adult. He also had stopped some of his wild actions of his teens as he was married now to a co-worker, Jody, and they had begun a family. Also, since his parents refused pscyhological help, the miniseries acted as therapy for Steven.
This all makes his story much more tragic as it looked like he was finally able to put this dark period behind him the best he could. But the story doesn’t end there. Ten years after Steven’s death, his brother, Cary, would be in the news for four brutal murders that occured in the Yosemite National Park area.
Merced was located near the park and Cary was a handyman at the Cedar Lodge Motel in El Portal, Calif., near an entrance to Yosemite when he kill Carol Sund, 42, her daughter, Juli, and a 16-year-old Argentine exchange student Silvina Pelosso, as they were staying at the Lodge. Cary would later kill a naturalist Joie Ruth Armstrong, 26, before he was apprehended.
It’s here where Dimmock turns the docuseries into a more true-crime format. But this was kinda missing with the details about the years Steven was with Parnell. It’s a shift in both format and tone. Kay refuses to talk about this part and who could blame her. Other family members talk about it, mainly Ashley and Steven Jr., who were just kids when this happened and how at one time, their stepfather wanted to legally change their last name, causing problems.
Sadly, the story is about a family who has suffered over the years all on account of one person – Parnell. While different people talk about Cary, it’s obvious the abduction of Steven as well as the media frenzy when he was returned had a lasting effect. Cary has claimed he was molested by an uncle shortly after Steven was kidnapped. That same uncle, Jesse, was fatally shot in his home in 1990. In 1991, Cary attempted suicide. But this doesn’t excuse the murder of four people.
Yet, all this was set in motion when Steven was abducted. You can hear some regret in Kay’s voice when she says she was was about 10 minutes late picking Steven up from school as he had already left walking home. But you can’t blame her for that. And you can’t blame her for not wanting to seek psychological help for Steven. It was a different time. And it appears that Delbert had the final say as he was the “man of the house.” I don’t remember this from the docuseries by when Parnell took Steven to his cabin in nearby Cathey’s Valley, Steven was very close to his wher his grandmother, Kay’s mother, was residing.
But you have to ask yourself one question – how would similar cases be handled if Steven wasn’t abducted. It took years, decades for many child sexual abuse victims to realize they weren’t at fault. Because Parnell was only convicted of kidnapping he was released after five years. Yet, his case changed the laws for sexual predators. It’s just too bad it took the loss of a family’s innocence for all this to happen.
I really wish Dimmock would’ve devoted more to Steven’s family, but I know she was limited in what they wanted to say as well as being concerned how they will be portrayed in the media. Thankfully, this isn’t stretched out through more than three episodes, but it still feels like a lot wasn’t covered.
What do you think? Please comment.