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Ashley Stayner on true crime and family trauma in Captive Audience

There’s the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s never been more true than in Captive Audience: A Real 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 murders 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 who was kidnapped in 1972 and returned eight years later to his family. 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 of people for the last 40 years.

Digital Trends: What was what was it like for you to talk about your father knowing that millions of people would be listening and watching?

Ashley Stayner:  It was kind of nerve-wracking a little bit, only because I’m not used to talking about my dad and my family and this is kind of a first for me. So, it was a little intimidating to speak to people, especially about something so emotional to me. It was a little difficult.

How did you become involved in the project?

Ashley: Andrew Jacobs [a producer of Captive Audience] had gotten a hold of me first. He had messaged me on Facebook and he asked me if I was interested in being interviewed. I had never gotten offered or been involved in anything like that so I said, “Sure, why not?”

There’s a part in the documentary where you summarize the appeal of true crime: “Normal people doing normal things until something bad happens.” What is it like for you to be not only a fan of the genre but also a participant in it?

Ashley: I never really thought about it like that until you said that. I guess nobody really sits there and says, “Oh yeah, I’m a part of this complex genre of television and movies.” It’s kind of cool now that I think about it, to be immersed in that.

What was the most difficult thing you learned about your family while shooting Captive Audience?

Ashley: I didn’t really realize all the horrible things my grandparents went through. Losing a child is really difficult and knowing their actual experiences kind of put it more into perspective to me about what they really went through and how really hard it was for them. And because I know my grandma now and my grandpa before he died, I knew how they were as grandparents, but I didn’t know who they were at that time when my father was kidnapped and then returned.

The poster for Captive Audience featuring Steven Stayner.

What was the most difficult thing you experienced during this process?

Ashley: The most difficult thing was just talking about my dad. It was very emotional, only because I didn’t really know him. So, talking about it still kind of gets to me sometimes. I know everybody thinks their dad is their hero, but I think watching the show and really seeing all the things he went through really gives me a more in-depth idea of the type 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 taking that away from him.

What was that like going through that that that experience of the media just demanding an answer from you that you couldn’t give?

Ashley: Right. I mean, when my uncle was arrested for murder, I was in the seventh grade. Everybody kind of looks at you like you should have known about it. And my reaction was, “I’m just as surprised as you are.” Like it’s a shock to me as well. I think it gets people frustrated because they assume that since you’re his family, you should know everything about him. But he was always distant, even from his mom and dad. No one knew.

You try to do the best you can because you still want to give people information if they’re asking for it. I’m more than willing to give whatever information that I can in this situation. But whether it’s the answer journalists want, I can’t do any more than offer what I know.

What was it about this time with Jessica that that was different?

Ashley: I love Jessica. She’s great. She’s made this whole experience just so casual and really easy to express yourself and your feelings. The questions that she asks make it easy to really put yourself back in past situations and bring out those memories.

What do you hope viewers take away after they watch Captive Audience?

Ashley: That’s a good question. I think what I would like them to take away is that no family is perfect. Everybody’s family has issues and secrets. I think with my family, it was just out there more. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings going through life together and trying to figure everything out.

My dad and grandparents were super young when he was kidnapped. Mistakes were made, but great things happened too that are not talked about. I guess you can’t judge people on what you see on media and on the news. If you step back and take a bigger look at everything, you can actually see a family that was really traumatized.

I would like Captive Audience to bring more sensitivity to the subject. This is the way it is, but there’s a lot of emotion behind it. And I think Jessica brought that out, that there were a lot of feelings and a lot of trauma, and it’s more than just a true-crime story. It’s my family’s story.

You can now stream all three episodes of Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story on Hulu.

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