The trailer release has revived interest in a decades-old murder in Africa, allegedly perpetrated by the author’s family.
Taylor Swift certainly didn’t see her latest musical endeavor garnering this sort of controversy. The “All Too Well” singer announced via her Instagram on Thursday that she recorded the theme music for the highly anticipated film adaptation of the bestselling 2018 book Where The Crawdads Sing, stating, “I wanted to create something haunting and ethereal to match this mesmerizing story.” But it didn’t take sleuth-y Swifties very long to bring up the complex and upsetting unresolved drama involving the book’s author Delia Owens, her former husband Mark, and his son Christopher. While acting as conservationists in Zambia, Mark and Christopher were accused of being involved in the murder and cover-up of an unidentified poacher. So while pop culture buzz has been reviving the Crawdads tale, a decades-old crime in Africa is resurfacing.
Owens’ book stars a protagonist named Kya, an abandoned girl who raises herself in North Carolina; she lives an isolated life, before being accused of killing a local boy. Reese Witherspoon added the book to her Hello Sunshine Book Club in 2018, it became a New York Times Bestseller, and she eventually signed on to produce a film based on it. The film’s trailer was released this week, alongside Swift’s song “Carolina,” exciting fans who are hungry for the film’s summer debut. But the questions around the Owenses date back as far as 1995, when ABC’s Turning Point profiled the family for an episode titled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.” In the episode, the network followed a group affiliated with the Owens on a patrol, during which shots were fired at a trespasser who died on camera. The New Yorker also published an exposé on the Owens’ story in 2010 by Jeffrey Goldberg, titled “The Hunted.”
As of 2010, according to the New Yorker article about the Owenses, the couple was still wanted for questioning in Zambia on the matter. It does not help matters that Mark was flippant in the ABC interview with Meredith Vieira, saying about the death, “It’s the reality — the messy reality, I’m afraid.” Vieira reacted, “It is. It’s very messy. It almost gives conservation a very ugly name.” Mark retorted unfazed, “But that’s the reality. It’s ugly why? Is it ugly because of the elephants? They haven’t done anything wrong. It’s people who make it ugly. ... It’s a very dirty game. It’s a measure of the desperation of the situation.”
Delia is not personally a suspect in the crime, but her former husband and stepson both allegedly played a part in the death. Apparently, that was not the only incident of violence and intimidation that the family participated in while waging their own personal war on poachers in the area. Slate reported that a surfaced letter, that both Delia and Mark claim is fabricated, implicates that the Owens family ordered raids on villages to scare locals while they tried to find poached ivory and bragged about the deaths of two other poachers, claiming that they were, “just getting warmed up.” The Owens family has maintained their innocence.
Delia Owens posted a thank you letter to Swift on her Instagram, stating, “Dear Taylor, thank you for the stirring yet sensitive theme song you wrote and sand for the Crawdads movie. I cannot imagine a more perfect tribute to Kya’s story than your voice drifting forever through the marsh.” It’s unclear if revived interest in the Owens family’s controversial — and downright horrifying, if true — past will change the trajectory of the film’s release. It is eerie, though, that the book parallels many of the real-life attitudes and potentially criminal behavior that the Owens family allegedly participated in. So far no one involved in the making of the film has commented on the unsettling revelations — including Swift. In Reese Witherspoon’s own Instagram post announcing the trailer, she wrote, “This story has such a special place in my heart and to see [Delia Owens’] words come to life is true movie magic!”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Delia and Mark Owens were present on the night a poacher was shot in front of an ABC news crew. It also erroneously stated that Delia Owens was accused of being involved in the murder and cover-up. We regret the errors.