With the immense popularity of the new Netflix series ‘Dahmer’ a decades old discussion about the ethics of true crime stories has resurfaced, as more and more people speak out about how damaging it can be.
As of October 2022, ‘Dahmer’ is one of Netflix’s most viewed series ever, racking up 856.2 million hours watched in the first 28 days of release, surpassing other popular shows such as Bridgerton and 13 Reasons Why. It focuses on the life of Jeffery Dahmer, played by Evan Peters, and documents the murders he committed. On Google, the synopsis reads : ‘The story of one of the most notorious serial killers in the United States, largely told from the points of view of his victims’. However, the creator of the series, Ryan Murphy, revealed that although they reached out to 20 of the victims’ families and friends, no one responded. So, can a show be told from the victims’ point of view if their loved ones had no input in it? Instead, they relied heavily on researchers, and, consequently the first half of the show revolves heavily around Jeffery Dahmer, and spares little thought for the victims until the latter half of the show. This show could have been an opportunity to showcase the injustice the victims experienced and celebrate their lives, but instead it seems to be more focused on sensationalised graphic murder scenes designed to create entertainment instead of any serious evaluation of Dahmer’s criminality and the response by the American justice system.
The show has been met with a barrage of criticism, and has been accused of silencing the victims, and creating the show without the permission of those most affected by the murders. It seems to capitalize on the deaths of the victims, without sparing a thought for their families and friends. Furthermore, the series gives a large role to Dahmer’s father, Lionel, who revealed that he was not contacted before the show aired. His assistant also claims that he was a very caring father and was portrayed incorrectly in the show. He goes onto say that, ‘all the information that needs to be public is right there in his book’, and ‘everything else is just glamorized and provides attention to details that aren’t proven fact’.
However, despite the many people closely related to the killings coming forward to speak negatively about the show, it has amassed a loyal fanbase who not only defend the show – but also defend Dahmer himself. People claim that he only committed the crimes because ‘he needed a friend’ and that ultimately it was the parents’ fault. This is the main danger when the media reinvents reality to prioritise profit.
It could be argued that the problems with the Dahmer series are a microcosm for the wider problems created by the mass consumption of true crime narratives. The world we live in today makes it much easier to access crime cases that we usually would not understand in so much detail – with YouTubers like Eleanor Neale and Bailey Sarian laying out case details in minute detail. The plethora of true crime documentaries on Netflix allow us to immerse ourselves in these sometimes decades-old cases and endless true crime podcasts dominate Spotify and other podcast services. True crime is a profitable industry, but should we be engaging in it? Often the people who committed the crimes are humanized, which allows people to feel empathetic towards them, which not only minimizes the victims’ experiences but also diminished the heinous crimes they have committed. If a murderer is deemed conventionally attractive, edits of them will spring up on TikTok, with people calling for them to be freed. When we engage in true crime media, we are almost saying to the victims that we care more about being entertained than we do them being protected and free from further traumatization.
Surely we must try harder to protect victims and their families from people trivializing their experiences and capitalizing from them. We should all make a more conscious effort to consume true crime media that has been made by the victims and their families to share their side of the story.