True Crime Tuesdays: Santa Claus: The Serial Killer
Helen Archer | On 20, Dec 2022
This festively titled yet exceedingly grim six-part documentary sees journalist Mobeen Azhar travel to Canada to look into the case of Bruce McArthur, a full-time gardener and seasonal shopping mall Santa Claus who, between the years of 2010 and 2017, killed at least eight men, leaving their dismembered remains on the grounds of a nice suburban home where he was employed.
If the case sounds familiar to you, it’s because it has been covered and analysed extensively in the years since. It made headlines around the world, and opened discussions about homophobia and racism within the Canadian police, as most of McArthur’s victims were gay, Brown men who were preyed upon due to their vulnerability. Despite previous investigations, including books, articles, podcasts and television series, Azhar states from the off that “I had to get to Canada to find out what happened to these men”, and we follow as he makes small talk with taxi drivers, buys thermal underwear, and digs up years’ old information from his hotel room.
Although the first half-hour episode basically lays out the case, Azhar tells us he still has questions, as he Sellotapes the victims’ photos to a whiteboard. His bid to answer those questions takes him to some strange places, both literally and metaphorically. He joins a dating app – where McArthur met some of his victims – in order to track down interviewees. A Facebook page dedicated to the murders puts him in touch with people who had interactions with the murderer. It’s all done in front of the camera, with an air of great seriousness, as though Azhar is making new discoveries via his web sleuthing. Yet most of the interviewees he finds have already spoken not just to the press, but to the police, with their information and stories already in the public domain.
There are, too, strange interviewing techniques – at one point, Azhar takes a trip to a gay sauna, where he undresses and dons a towel in order to pop his head into the steam rooms to ask, randomly, if anyone knew McArthur. Later, he decides that the best place to go to find out more is a chemsex pre-party. He speaks to a man as he injects drugs and fiddles in his underpants, before abruptly ending the interview when he becomes high and horny enough to join the other partygoers. Unsurprisingly, no profound revelations are made.
Most baffling of all is Azhar’s look into the background of some of the victims, as he interviews friends and relatives and asks about their sex lives, their preferences, and, in a couple of cases, their criminal background. This could be to highlight the dangers of drugs and sex work, but it puts the onus back on the victims. Although their lifestyles did make them vulnerable, it may strike some as a little insensitive to be pointing this out to their nearest and dearest in the name of “investigation”.
Perhaps this could have worked better as an analysis of the failings of the police – McArthur could have been apprehended much more quickly, saving numerous lives, had more attention been paid not only to previous incidences of violence, but also the whisper network within Toronto’s gay community. It could, too, have looked more closely at other missing people and the possibility that McArthur has unidentified victims who have fallen through the cracks. But, while Azhar pays lip service to those issues, his focus is on regurgitating known facts and re-opening old wounds. Santa Claus: The Serial Killer is, sadly, a gratuitous, shallow series, made by people who should know better.
Santa Claus: THe Serial Killer is available on BBC iPlayer