Captive Audience Retells a Fascinating Story for the True Crime Generation

The Story of Two Brothers; One a Hero, One a Murderer

Hulu’s new 3-part docuseries Captive Audience premiered Thursday, April 21st, and has given a whole new perspective to a story the world thought they knew.  Following the notorious Stayner family, Captive Audience aims to illustrate the ruthless tendencies of the media in the face of two tragedies that shocked the nation. 

In 1972, 7-year-old Steven Stayner was abducted by convicted pedophile Kenneth Parnell. Stayner was raised by Parnell who changed the boy’s name to Dennis. Though Stayner was routinely abused by Parnell, he still attended school under his alias and developed Stockholm Syndrome under Parnell’s watch. It wasn’t until 1980 till Stayner’s mindset changed. 

After Parnell abducted 5-year-old Timmy White and planned to enact the same violence against him as he had Steven, Steven took action. 14-year-old Steven Stayner was able to escape Parnell’s cabin with Timmy on his back returning to his family after 7 horrific years. Stayner was dubbed a hero and later an NBC TV movie was made called I Know My First Name is Steven after what Stayner said to police when he and Timmy arrived at the station. 

Steven, unfortunately, passed away in 1989 after being involved in a tragic hit-and-run motorcycle accident. 10 years after this horrible ordeal, the Stayner family entered the media again. In 1999 Steven’s older brother Cary Stayner killed 4 women in Yosemite National Park. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002. 

Captive Audience starts off telling Steven Stayner’s remarkable story by switching from real-life footage to footage from the movie trying to cement the idea that reality and fiction were often blurred during this case. 

In addition to analyzing the stories of both Stayner men, director Jessica Dimmock conducts several interviews with the Stayner family including the mother of Steven and Cary, Kay Stayner, sister Cory, and Steven Stayner’s wife Jodi and his children Ashley and Steven Jr. Also interviewed are the actors that portrayed these men in the TV movie Corin Nemec (Steven) and Todd Eric Andrews (Cary). 

Retelling this fascinating story is not an easy task, especially after the inundation of media attention this family already underwent.  Dimmock and her team, which includes the Russo brothers as executive producers, handle this story with the utmost care while simultaneously delivering a chilling narrative through cinematography, long pauses allowing for an eerie effect, and the seamless switching of present-day and the past. 

While only told in three parts, Captive Audience leaves no details behind chronicling the double-life led by Steven Stayner by bringing in friends of his when he was still known as Dennis Parnell. The incorporation of outside sources besides the family expands perspectives and really allows the audience to see everyone’s bewilderment at this captivating story. 

The use of pictures, interviews, books, and other records also gives insight to viewers into how much research was conducted during this dichotomous event. Captive Audience, though short, truly lives up to its title as it will encapsulate viewers’ emotions and grip their senses until the final frame. 

You can stream Captive Audience on Hulu.