About a year before her sister, Brooke Preston, was brutally killed by their roommate Randy Herman, Jr. in 2017, Jordan Preston remembers driving with her from Sarasota, Florida, to West Palm Beach, where she had a job interview. On the car ride over, they accidentally hit a turtle in the middle of the road. Brooke was devastated. “It broke her heart. She was literally crying, because she was so compassionate about this turtle,” Jordan remembers. In a Snapchat video she took, Brooke is seen uncontrollably sobbing as her sister, who’s filming, giggles. “I can’t see the road,” she sobs, snapping at her sister, “it’s not funny!”
This is the version of Brooke that Jordan and her family would like people to remember: the friend to everyone, the life of the party, the girl who would want to turn around on the road to check on a potentially injured turtle. But that’s not the version of Brooke that comes through in Dead Asleep, the Hulu film about her murder slated for release on Dec. 16th.
Directed by Skye Borgman, who also helmed the 2017 Netflix film Abducted in Plain Sight, Dead Asleep is largely centered around police and trial footage, reenactments, and interviews with Herman, the man who was convicted in May 2019 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. At trial, Herman put forth a sleepwalking defense, based on what his family reported to be his history of sleepwalking. For what it’s worth, Jordan, who also lived with Brooke and Herman for six months, says she has no memory of Herman sleepwalking while they lived together. (Herman is currently trying to have his conviction vacated, claiming his attorneys did not provide proper defense.)
For the most part, the central narrative of Dead Asleep uses interviews with Herman, his family members, psychiatrists, and sleep experts to wrestle with (and largely accept) the validity of Herman’s defense. Aside from police and trial footage — including an absolutely gut-wrenching moment at the station in which police inform Brooke’s parents of the grisly nature of her death — there’s little of Brooke or the Preston family in there. There is also video of Jordan testifying on Herman’s behalf, saying that she had never witnessed him behave violently or creepily in the past, which she still maintains is true (though she says she only testified on his behalf under threat of subpoena).
There’s one very good reason for that: the Prestons did not participate in the making of Dead Asleep. When the producers of the film reached out to the Preston family to see if they wanted to be interviewed, Jordan says they immediately said no when they learned it would be focusing on Herman’s side of the story. “They said it was something like, they were gonna be digging into the sleepwalking defense. They pretty much made it clear it was gonna be about him and not her,” she says. “Why would we want to support anything about him? He took her from us. Why does he get to speak to the world and she doesn’t?”
Jordan says the family not only refused to participate, they also requested that the production team refrain from making the film. “If it wasn’t about him, we probably would have gotten involved. We’d love to share her story and how amazing she was,” she says. “But you could just tell that wasn’t what this was.” So when Jordan saw the trailer for Dead Asleep drop last month, prompting a slew of clickbaity explainers and teaser blog posts about her sister’s death, her worst fears about the film were confirmed. “Nobody deserves to feel like this,” she says. “Even that little piece I saw — it’s tearing me apart.” (Borgman did not respond to questions sent by Rolling Stone, but we will update if we hear back.)
To convince people not to watch the movie, Jordan made a TikTok. “You think you can hurt me? Hulu just released a documentary on how my little sister was brutally murdered without our families’ consent so now we get to relive the worst day of our lives,” the caption of the video, which has 15 million views, read. She also posted a Change.org petition attempting to stop the release of the film, which has more than 11,000 signatures.
Typically, journalists and documentarians do not require subjects’ consent to make films or write stories about them, though it is best practice to reach out for comment and offer both sides of a story the opportunity to weigh in. Jordan acknowledges that legally, she and her family may not have any case against the team behind Dead Asleep. She sees it largely as an ethical issue. “You might not need our consent [to make the film], but I feel like morally it’s what you should get,” she says. “It’s wrong. We’re a grieving family. Why do they want to exploit us? They’re putting our pain up on the screen. What they’re doing is hurting our family.”
Jordan’s crusade against Dead Asleep reflects a larger discussion that’s been rumbling on TikTok about the ethics of the true crime genre, and whether our cultural obsession with poring over real-life mysteries has gotten out of control. Most recently, this discussion resurfaced with the disappearance of Gabby Petito, an aspiring van life vlogger who had been traveling with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie and was found dead in October (Laundrie was also later found dead in an apparent suicide). Petito’s disappearance sparked a slew of conspiracy theories on TikTok in particular, which racked up tens of millions of views, prompting discussions about whether creators were exploiting the tragedy for views. This discussion about whether consuming true crime is ethical has expanded beyond the platform as well. Earlier this year, for instance, plans for a London theater company to produce a musical based on Making a Murderer, the Netflix series about the grisly death of photographer Teresa Halbach, were put on hold after the creators faced internet backlash, with many accusing them of exploiting Halbach’s memory.
There are some in the true crime community who feel that the obsessive consumption of content about violence and murder can serve a therapeutic effect; other creators also claim that they cover the true crime world to raise awareness of certain oft-ignored societal phenomena, such as sexual abuse, But TikToker and conspiracy theory researcher Abbie Richards, who has extensively researched the true crime community on the platform, says that more often than not, this is a veil for a prurient interest in the misfortune of others. “In a world where the creation and consumption of art are more accessible than ever before why do we continue to exploit people’s trauma for the entertainment of strangers?,” Richards tells Rolling Stone. She has concerns about the long-term psychological impact that the popularity of the genre might have on people: “I don’t think culprits deserve the attention and I don’t think obsessing over murder is good for anyone,” she says.
Although Jordan’s objective in making her TikTok video was to get people not to watch Dead Asleep, she does realize that by drawing attention to her sister’s case (and by talking to Rolling Stone about the movie), she is effectively raising awareness of the film. Indeed, though she does not name Dead Asleep in her videos, her TikTok comments are full of people asking where they can watch it.
“I definitely was worried about that in the beginning,” she says when I ask her if she’s concerned about this. “But I thought about it. As awful as it is that it’s getting traction for people to watch it, it’s also informing people how awful this movie is, and it’s getting more of our side of the story out, and her side.” A lot of people who saw her original TikTok video, she says, are watching other videos about Brooke on her page, which she believes show Brooke for the sweet, silly, relentlessly positive young woman she once was — even if the Hulu documentary does not.