JonBenét Ramsey: 20 Years of the Unsolved Child Murder in Pop Culture

Screen shot from Getting Away With Murder

When Investigation Discovery airs JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery on September 12, the three-night documentary event will present never-before-revealed aspects of the unsolved killing of the six-year-old beauty queen. The horrific crime marks its unhappy twentieth anniversary this December 26.

In addition, JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery both conveys and comments on the public’s continuous fascination in regard to the heinous death of this child, the alien-to-many world of child beauty pageants surrounding it, and the myriad questions that remain unanswered — the most profound of which, of course, is “Who did it?”

From the moment it was revealed that her father, John Bennett Ramsey, discovered JonBenét’s lifeless, garroted body in the wine cellar of the family’s luxurious Boulder, Colorado, home the morning after Christmas, popular culture has tapped the case for material. Here is a sampling.

1. TV Movies

From their invention in the early 1970s, made-for-television movies have seized on sensational topics for plot fodder, and few areas have proven more fertile to the form than true crime. It’s mildly surprising then that, to date, there have been only two JonBenét-related TV movies, both of which aired in 2000.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenet and the City of Boulder was a high-profile CBS miniseries based on a respected 1999 investigative book of the same name by Lawrence Schiller. The distinguished cast includes Ronny Cox and Marg Helgenberger as JonBenét’s parents, along with Kris Kristofferson, Ken Howard, and Deidre Lovejoy in supporting roles.

Fox’s two-hour TV film Getting Away with Murder: The JonBenet Ramsey Mystery made far less impact. Some critical reviewers likened the production to the network’s low-budget show biz exposé movies from the same year: After Diff’rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped and Unauthorized Brady Bunch: The Final Days.

The JonBenét TV-movie canon is about to become a trilogy. With the crime’s two-decade milestone looming, Lifetime has announced Who Killed JonBenet?, a new tele-film about the case, that will air this fall.

2. Law & Order: “Ripped From the Headlines” Episodes

Fans of TV’s Law & Order drama franchise count on the show’s “Ripped From the Headlines” episodes, in which the series’s characters take on crimes obviously inspired by real-life cases.

L&O has ripped the JonBenét murder from the headlines twice. The first time, in 2003, was on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The episode, titled “Appearances,” dealt with the savage killing of a nine-year-old beauty contestant.

Three years later, Law & Order: Criminal Intent broadcast “Masquerade,” one of its best-received installments. Liza Minelli guest stars as a former beauty queen whose eight-year-old daughter, Amberleigh, remains the subject of a much-discussed murder from years earlier. The case comes back into the spotlight after an American pedophile in Vietnam claims he killed the child, but he’s revealed to actually have not been remotely connected to the event.

“Masquerade” draws direct inspiration from John Mark Karr, one of the most bizarre figures surrounding the JonBenét case. In 2006, authorities in Thailand arrested Karr for child pornography, and the 41-year-old schoolteacher drew huge media attention to himself by falsely confessing to the murder.

3. True Crime Books

CF jonbenet book

Fact-based books about the JonBenét Ramsey case number in the dozens. They range from critically acclaimed best-sellers to self-published armchair sleuth screeds.

In 2016 alone, two major chronicles of the case have been released: We Have Your Daughter: The Unsolved Murder of JonBenét Ramsey Twenty Years Later by investigative journalist Paula Woodward, and Once Upon a December: Inside the Death Investigation of America’s Most Famous Beauty Queen by David Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor.

JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation by Steve Thomas and Donald A. Davis, first published in 2000, remains the best-known book about the crime, while a pair of well-regarded titles from 2012 shed their own unique light on the subject: Foreign Faction: Who Really Kidnapped JonBenét? by A. James Kolar, one of the original lead investigators, and the self-explanatory The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenét Ramsey Tells the Story of His Journey From Grief to Grace by John Ramsey.

As interest in the case picks up again, more books are bound to keep on coming.

4. Novels

CF jonbenet novel

JonBenét’s presence is not only felt in the nonfiction sections of book stores. My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike by esteemed literary icon Joyce Carol Oates is a 2008 novel clearly based on the JonBenét Ramsey murder. The inspiration is unmistakable to the point that The New York Times described the book as “so thinly veiled as to risk its own kind of indecency.” Other reviewers praised Oates’s creation, and it stands as one of her most controversial works.

On a less conspicuous scale, the 2015 novel Patsy Ramsey: What the Pilot’s Wife Knew by Pamela Archuleta is written from the point-of-view of the title character, JonBenét’s mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006.

5. Dark Satire

Black comedy and other “inappropriate” humor may seem out of fashion in our modern era of “safe spaces” and social-media outrage, but it largely defined the joke-making of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century. The shocking murder of a six-year-old beauty queen, as a result, came up often in bitingly comedic circumstances.

On his 1998 HBO stand-up comedy special, David Spade performs a routine that comments on the sexualization of JonBenét. He got off one frequently quoted line that rankled some, but managed to be statement of irony, critical of the youth pageant industry, to others: “JonBenét wasn’t that hot without makeup.”

“Butters’ Very Own Episode,” the final episode of the fifth season of South Park that aired in December 2001, also savaged the case’s principal (surviving) figures. The show depicts John and Patsy Ramsey as belonging to an elite club of high-profile suspects in the murders of loved ones, along with O. J. Simpson and others.

On the DVD commentary, released well after the broadcast, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone later say they regret how the show portrayed the Ramseys, as the couple was cleared of all charges.

6. Child Beauty Pageants Going “Mainstream”

Screen shot from Toddlers and Tiaras.

Screen shot from Toddlers and Tiaras.

Prior to the JonBenét murder, child beauty pageants remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of the public. The case immediately illuminated the phenomenon, and caused outrage in some, and ongoing curiosity in others.

Over the next few years, child pageant contestants and their families regularly cropped up on daytime talk shows. In 2001, HBO drew big ratings with Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. The documentary, part of the network’s America Undercover series, exposed the inner workings of the pageant circuit. Many were appalled, others were attracted. Millions kept wanting to watch more.

Peak mainstream child pageant prominence occurred with Toddlers and Tiaras, TLC’s popular reality series on the topic. In 2012, John Ramsey himself called Toddlers and Tiaras “unhealthy.”

Despite that or any objections, Toddlers and Tiaras ran from 2008 to 2013 and spun off three other series: Eden’s World, Cheer Perfection, and the short-lived pop-culture juggernaut Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

7. “Katy Perry Is JonBenet Ramsey”: The Conspiracy Theory

YouTube and other video-sharing channels are awash with amateur investigations into and tributes to JonBenét Ramsey.

In early 2016, a handful of extremely specific examples went viral, and social media exploded over their proposed conspiracy theory — that pop superstar Katy Perry is actually the grown-up (and therefore never murdered) JonBenét Ramsey.

Despite the fact that Katy Perry herself was 12 at the time JonBenét died, the conspiracy mongers maintain it was an Illuminati job and cite similarities such as the eyebrows of both figures as “proof.” As of today, the theory remains decidedly unproven.

JONBENÉT: AN AMERICAN MURDER MYSTERY follows experts as they reexamine the evidence of one of the most baffling and infuriating cold-cases of all time, using the latest technology, insights from specialists who have studied the case for more than two decades, and interviews with new and old key players. Watch the special three-night event beginning Monday, September 12 at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery or any device with ID GO. 

Main photo: Screen shot from Getting Away With Murder