Captive Audience Director on the Most Shocking Parts of the Steven and Cary Stayner Story

By Margeaux Sippell • May 04, 2022

Captive Audience director Jessica Dimmock remembers seeing I Know My First Name Is Steven on TV as a kid when it aired in 1989. All these years later, the made-for-TV movie about the kidnapping and eventual escape of Merced, California boy Steven Stayner was still stuck in her memory.

So when the producers of the new Hulu true-crime docuseries Captive Audience asked her to direct the series and she learned that Stayner’s daughter Ashley was involved, Dimmock (The Ninth Floor, The Pearl) knew that this was the project for her.

“I’m a kid of the 80s, so I remember,” Jessica Dimmock told MovieMaker. “When I think of a made-for-TV movie, I kind of picture I Know My First Name Is Steven. I didn’t remember the details much, but I had some kind of like recollection about it. So that was the kind of the first step, and when they brought the story to me and I re-familiarized myself with it, there was a lot about it in terms of just the story that’s so compelling, but also the layers of Ashley Stayner being involved.”

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The story of the Stayner family and everything they’ve been through — from Steven’s abduction by convicted child molester Kenneth Parnell and his escape seven years later in 1980, to Steven’s older brother Cary Stayner’s arrest and conviction for the murders of four women in Yosemite National Park in 1999 — is enough to give anyone nightmares.

Jessica Dimmock says two details of the case, in particular, have stuck with her the most.

“There’s a level of cruelty [by] Kenneth Parnell of mental manipulation that he put Steven through. It’s like, you know that someone has been abducted, and you know that that’s cruel. But there’s just a level of — he told him that his parents didn’t want him. He told him his parents couldn’t afford him,” Dimmock said.

“There’s always these questions about, like, ‘why didn’t he run away?’ And it’s like, if you were seven and you were told — I mean, I have an almost five-year-old, and if someone started to tell her that I didn’t want her, the pain of that… it’s just a type of mental cruelty that is truly shocking to me,” she added. “It’s beyond the physical — and the physical was so horrendous — but that really shocked me, just thinking about what a horrible thing it is to do to a child.

“The other part is how very publicly Steven had to return to the world. So it’s like, he comes back and he’s a hero. But these really terrible things that had happened to him, of course, become public in the year 1980 when it was a very homophobic society. And there were no boundaries about it. I mean, they followed him to school, they were there, and he was a kid. He was 14 years old.”

Main Image: Steven Stayner is pictured reuniting with his parents in Captive Audience courtesy of Hulu.

All three episodes of Captive Audience are now streaming on Hulu.

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