I’ve never understood the cultural obsession with serial killers or the “true crime” genre – the focus on the history of a murder and the fascination with all the macabre details. But the genre has proven incredibly popular, and Netflix’s recent release of “Dahmer” only adds more evidence to the appeal. The ten part miniseries has received mixed reviews from critics, complaints after Netflix originally attached an LGBTQ tag to the series, and accusations that the series is exploitative, using the experiences of so many who were hurt by the murders to profit. But are products like “Dahmer” merely exploitative or is there a legitimate public interest in hearing these stories and viewing them on the big and small screen?
For those who are unfamiliar, Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin responsible for the deaths of 17 men between 1978 and 1991. After years of targeting gay men among others where Dahmer would kill and eat some of his victims, he was finally captured in 1991 after one of his victims managed to escape and alert police. When police entered Dahmer’s apartment, they found photographs of his previous victims and he was arrested. Dahmer confessed to police, and he pleaded guilty at his trial. He was sent to prison where he was beaten to death in 1994 by a fellow prisoner. Since then, there have been numerous films made about the events. A small budget film was made in 1993, but there was also a Jeremy Renner film made in 2002, and another in 2017, and now the recent Netflix series.
Making a film or show about a real-life crimes like murder attracts controversy, because such projects are considered exploitative. When these crimes occur, they affect not only the families of the victims but the communities in which they occur.
For a production company to come along after the fact and make a product capitalizing on their pain to make a profit, it is sure to attract criticism. For example, the series has been criticized for its slow, matter-of-fact pacing, giving the audience a voyeuristic perspective on Dahmer’s activities without analysis. As The Guardian notes, “Dahmer is undoubtedly fetishized here. The squalor of his apartment is lingered over, right down to the blood stains on the mattress.” Other stylistic choices like the fuzzy desaturated look of the series, as well as the attention paid to lead actor Evan Peters, have also been criticized for romanticizing the crimes.
The families of Dahmer’s victims have also criticized the show. One family member recently tweeted: “It’s traumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” He also explained how strange it was watching a reaction of his cousin having an emotional breakdown in court in front of the person who tortured and murdered her brother. His cousin, Rita Isbell, has called the show “harsh and careless” saying that the showrunners are “just making money off of this tragedy. It’s just greed.” Netflix never consulted or sought consent from the families for their depictions. As a recent article notes, the families of homicide victims are disadvantaged when encountering inaccurate or insulting depictions of their loved ones because normal legal protections of reputation such as defamation doesn’t apply if the defamed is deceased.
There is also the effect that these productions have on the local community as a whole. The murders have commonly attracted tourism to Milwaukee and the recent series is attracting new tourism that isn’t always welcomed. It has brought back painful memories to family, friends, and neighbors, and it has upset members of the Black gay and queer community who lived through those times and the fear it inspired.
We might ask whether there is a valid public interest that is served by dramatizing these events.
For example, some dramatization of a traumatic event can be beneficial for reclaiming the lives of the victims if the focus of such a dramatization is on the victim rather than the killer. As The Guardian points out, “By being murdered, these people are robbed of a legacy…They will always simply be a photos and a name in a line up of victims…The good thing a show like this can do is steam the spotlight from the murder and show who these people actually were.” Towards the later half of the series, the show does focus more on the victims such as one episode showing the life of Anthony Hughes. While we could still criticize “Dahmer” for devoting too much attention to the killer (the name of the show is very telling here), that doesn’t mean that any production that chooses to focus on such events must be exploitative.
Another way in which productions about murders can serve a public interest is by better informing us about the social and political contexts in which the events took place.
For example, the police were criticized for not catching Dahmer sooner. Officers John Balcerzak and Joseph Gabrisk failed to protect Konerak Sinthasomphone after he escaped from Dahmer. They ignored the women who found Konerak and ultimately believed Dahmer and escorted them back to Dahmer’s apartment. The officers were also criticized for homophobic remarks they made, and the city was eventually sued by the family. Productions like “Damher” do shed light on how discrimination, neglect, and prejudice by police can allow crimes like this to occur and why the gay community in particular has been at risk. For example, documentarian Joe Berlinger produced a project on Dahmer with the stated intention of facilitating conversations about improving community police work.
More controversially, one might ask whether there is a public interest in covering events that hold the public imagination. As I said, I really don’t get the public fascination with true crime, but perhaps there is some benefit to reflecting the darker aspects of the world around us. As a Vanity Fair article by Richard Lawson points out,
Many of [Dahmer’s] viewers, myself included, are surely partially drawn to the show out of morbid fascination—a natural human impulse that has become perhaps over-served in these true-crime boom years…maybe there is, lurking somewhere in this heavily articulated dark, something profoundly relevant about Dahmer.
One might argue that there is a public interest in investigating what the existence of serial killers tells us about us and the society we live in. Perhaps it’s completely valid to explore these topics through the visual arts, but that doesn’t mean that “Dahmer” is the best or healthiest way of doing it.
These concerns haunt most of the true crime genre. Where should we draw the line between documenting something and exploiting it? Or between humanizing murders and glorifying them? Are shows like “Dahmer” romanticizing a killer or are we all just being morbid voyeurs? Perhaps as much consideration should be given our own intentions as consumers as we dedicate to judging the intentions of the filmmakers.