Ashley Stayner on true crime and family trauma in Captive Audience
There’s the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s never been truer than in Captive Audience: A True American Horror Story. The three-part docuseries, now streaming on Hulu, tells the true and tragic story of the Stayner family, who endured the kidnapping of one son and, decades later, the arrest of another son, Cary. Stayner, for the murder of four women.
To tell this story, director Jessica Dimmock enlisted key players in the Stayner saga, including Ashley Stayner, the daughter of Steven Stayner, the child kidnapped in 1972 and returned to his family 8 years later. In an interview with Digital Trends, Ashley talks about her father’s legacy, the media scrutiny surrounding her uncle’s arrest for the murders of 4 women in 1999, and what it’s like to be involved in a true crime story that has fascinated millions for the past 40 years.
Digital Trends: How was it for you to talk about your dad knowing millions of people would listen and watch?
Ashley Stayner: It was a little nerve-wracking, just because I’m not used to talking about my dad and my family and that’s a first for me. So it was kind of daunting to talk to people, especially about something so emotional for me. It was a bit difficult.
How did you become involved in the project?
Ashley: Andrew Jacobs [a producer of Captive Audience] got hold of me first. He had sent me a message on Facebook and he asked me if I was interested in being interviewed. I had never been offered or involved in anything like this, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
There’s a part of the documentary where you sum up the appeal of true crime: “Normal people do normal things until something bad happens.” How does it feel to not only be a fan of the genre but also to participate in it?
Ashley: I never really thought of it like that until you said that. I guess nobody really sits there and says, “Oh yeah, I’m part of this complex genre of TV and movies.” It’s kind of cool now that I think about it, to be immersed in that.
What’s the hardest thing you learned about your family while filming Captivated audience?
Ashley: I didn’t really realize all the horrible things my grandparents went through. Losing a child is really hard and knowing their real experiences puts me in more perspective on what they really went through and how really hard it was for them. And because I know my grandmother now and my grandfather before he died, I knew what they were like as grandparents, but I didn’t know who they were when my father was kidnapped and then returned.
What was the hardest thing you experienced during this process?
Ashley: The hardest part was talking about my father. It was very moving, only because I didn’t really know him. So talking about it still touches me sometimes. I know everyone thinks their dad is their hero, but I think watching the show and really seeing everything he’s been through really gives me a deeper idea of what kind of person he was. And I loved him before, but I loved him even more just because he was a good person. There’s no way to take that away from him.
What was it like having this experience of the media just asking you for an answer that you couldn’t give?
Ashley: To the right. I mean, when my uncle was arrested for murder, I was in seventh grade. Everyone is looking at you like you should know. And my reaction was, “I’m just as surprised as you are.” As if it was a shock for me too. I think that frustrates people because they assume that since you’re his family, you should know everything about him. But he was always distant, even from his mother and father. Nobody knew.
You try to do the best you can because you always want to give people information if they ask for it. I am more than willing to give all the information I can in this situation. But let that be the answer journalists want, I can do no more than offer what I know.
How was this time with Jessica different?
Ashley: I love Jessica. She is awesome. She made this whole experience so laid back and really easy to express yourself and your feelings. The questions she asks allow you to really put yourself back in past situations and bring out those memories.
What do you hope viewers take away after watching Captivated audience?
Ashley: It’s a good question. I think what I would like them to take away is that no family is perfect. Everyone’s family has problems and secrets. I think with my family, it was just there more. In the end, we’re just human beings going through life together and trying to figure it all out.
My father and my grandparents were super young when he was kidnapped. Mistakes have been made, but great things have also happened that are not talked about. I guess you can’t judge people by what you see in the media and in the news. If you step back and take a closer look, you can actually see a family that has been really traumatized.
I would like Captivated audience bring more sensitivity to the subject. It’s like that, but there’s a lot of emotion behind it. And I think Jessica brought that out, that there was a lot of feeling and a lot of trauma, and it’s more than a true crime story. This is the story of my family.
You can now stream all three episodes of Captive Audience: A True American Horror Story on Hulu.