On April 21, “Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story” made its debut on Hulu. The three-episode series follows the story of the Stayner family, a topic covered by true crime podcasts like “Casefile” and “Murder With My Husband” in the past. The first two episodes focus on Steven Stayner, while the third turns to discuss Cary Stayner.
In 1972, seven-year-old Steven Stayner was kidnapped by child molester Kenneth Parnell in Merced, Cal. The Stayner family spent years searching for their youngest son to no avail.
Seven years later, five-year-old Timmy White was abducted from Ukiah. Less than a month later, White turned up at the Ukiah police station with fourteen-year-old Dennis Parnell. When questioned, Dennis revealed something shocking.
“I know my first name is Steven,” he confessed, and police fit the puzzle pieces together.
For seven years, Steven lived as Dennis Parnell, and was told that his family no longer wanted him. He was fairly popular at school and seemed to enjoy life with his friends. But at night, Kenneth turned from a father figure into something much worse. When Steven grew older, Kenneth tried to enlist his help in kidnapping another child. When White showed up, Steven knew he needed to save the boy from Kenneth’s grasp. The two of them snuck out at night and hitch-hiked to the police station, escaping Parnell once and for all.
Though Steven had been reunited with his family, his life was never the same. His father struggled to understand that he had grown up, and reporters were constantly surrounding his house and school. Media coverage intensified when Steven’s older brother, Cary, was discovered to have raped and killed four women in 1999.
“Captive Audience” told this story through interviews with Steven’s mother, siblings and children. But what made the docu-series unique was its focus on the Emmy-nominated mini-series “I Know My First Name Is Steven,” made in 1989.
Jessica Dimmock, director of “Captive Audience,” brought in actor Corin Nemec who played Steven in the show. Dimmock had him listen to recorded interviews Steven had done with the 1989 series’s screenwriter. She asked him to read the lines, and while it was an interesting artistic choice, it sometimes felt excessive. Since they had access to Steven’s words, it may have been more effective to let the audience hear them from his voice instead.
Though having Steven’s family onboard was a nice addition, it sometimes felt like they didn’t want to be there. The series had a strong focus on the effect and intensity of media coverage; the family was tired of reliving the story, yet there they were telling it again.
Dimmock also brought on classmates and teachers that knew Steven as Dennis. Their perspective was a unique contribution, distinguishing the show from podcasts covering the case.
Each episode was just under an hour, and while there were only three episodes, “Captive Audience” ultimately felt a bit long-winded. The story would have been easier to digest had it been limited to a single hour.
Ultimately, “Captive Audience” is a good option for true-crime junkies unfamiliar with the case. But for anyone who’s heard this story before, the series probably won’t teach you anything new.