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‘Dahmer’ and the Dramatization of Crime

photograph of 'Dahmer' logo on smarthpone with scene from the show displaying in background

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.

The Ethics of Dark Tourism

photograph of neon Cecil Hotel sign

In February 2020, Netflix released a four-part docuseries called Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The series focuses on the death of Elisa Lam, but along the way it tells the story of the building. It was built in the 1920s with all of the glamour that is often associated with hotels of that age in that area. The hotel struggled during the Great Depression. It is located on skid row, and eventually it became a common resting point for the city’s poor. The Cecil is infamous for the deaths that have taken place there and for the fact that two famous serial killers, Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger, stayed there during the period in which they were actively killing people. A season of American Horror Story was based on the folklore that surrounds the Cecil Hotel.

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old student at the University of British Columbia. She vacationed in California in the early months of 2013. Several days into her trip, she checked into the Cecil Hotel. It was frequented by international travelers because it was inexpensive and functioned as a hostel. These travelers were also largely unfamiliar with the hotel’s past and as a result they were undeterred by it. During her stay, Lam initially shared a room with some of the hotel’s other international travelers. She was moved to her own room when those travelers complained about her erratic behavior. Shortly thereafter, Lam disappeared. The last known images of her are captured on a hotel security tape. Her behavior is unusual. The police released the tape and the video went viral, causing internet sleuths across the globe to speculate about what happened to her. At times, she appears to be checking for something or someone outside the elevator door. She moves her hands in unusual ways and presses the buttons to all of the floors. Finally, she walks awkwardly out of the elevator and down the hall. She was found weeks later, naked, dead in the water tower on top of the hotel which a maintenance worker checked after guests complained that their shower and tap water was coming out black.

After the series came out, there was renewed interest in staying at the Cecil Hotel. Crime aficionados and ghost hunters were eager to spend the night — preferably in a room in which Ramirez or Lam once stayed. The hotel has been closed for renovations since 2017, but this has not stopped “dark tourists” and social media personalities from sneaking in to take pictures and footage.

Many people would rather visit the home of a serial killer, the location where a famous murder happened, or the site of a natural disaster than a sandy beach or a world heritage site. Dark tourism isn’t new. People often feel powerful connections to some of the world’s most tragic events. This connection is so strong that thousands of people visit Gettysburg every year, not simply to observe a historical site or to pay their respects to the many human beings that died in that battle, but to actually take on roles and act out what occurred there.

People will engage in dark tourism even when there is risk that doing so might be dangerous to their health and safety. For instance, for years tourists have been visiting Chernobyl, the location of the nuclear disaster that led to agonizing death and long-term illness for so many people in the 1980s and beyond. The risk of exposure to radiation has been no source of concern for many tourists who just want to be close to tragedy.

One way of viewing this kind of behavior is as just one form that an interest in history can take, and there is no reason to be critical of anyone for taking an interest in history. Millions of people visit the Tower of London every year. The fact that terrible things happened there is part of what makes it an interesting place. Most cities and the buildings in them have a rich variety of stories to tell. The ability these destinations have to call up our sense of empathy and shared humanity is part of what makes many of us interested in traveling in the first place.

On the other hand, intentions may turn out to matter quite a bit. If a person gets a charge from visiting the home of a serial killer and their preferred vacation destination is a tour of death, that person may have some soul searching to do.

It also might matter whether it is “too soon” to treat the location in question as a place where tourists can get cheap thrills. Since the Battle of Bosworth happened in 1485, it may be the case that no one can be thought of as particularly perverse for experiencing excitement when visiting the location where it took place. If the event occurred in living memory, it may be wise to be more circumspect. There are actual living, breathing human beings that might be hurt by the decision to treat the location of their personal tragedy as if it is a great spot to grab an Instagram photo on spring break. In the case of Elisa Lam, there is good reason to believe that mental illness played a role in her death. When people visit the Cecil Hotel hoping to contact the ghost they believe killed her, it minimizes the real tragedy of what likely actually happened.

That said, it may be that some events were so inhumane that it is never appropriate to visit sites associated with them for kicks. For instance, over the years there has been much discussion about what to do with Hitler’s childhood home. There was discussion for a while of turning it into a museum dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Nazis. In recent years, Austria has decided to tear it down to reduce or eliminate the attraction the location has for neo-Nazis.

In Salem, Massachusetts, visitors can buy a ticket to the Salem Witch Dungeon, which is ostensibly a site to educate tourists about what the trials, imprisonment, and execution of people accused of witchcraft would have been like for those who experienced them. Unfortunately, at many turns the Witch Dungeon is more like a modern haunted house than it is a respectful educational opportunity. When people wearing spooky makeup are hired to generate screams, it can be easy to forget that everyone who was accused of witchcraft was innocent of that charge and that the events that are being reenacted in the dungeons are based on the last torturous days of the innocent.

Aristotle thought that part of what it is to be a virtuous person is to habituate the dispositions to have apt feelings and reactions to one’s circumstances. This requires practice and keeping a close eye on others who have well-developed characters. Having the right response to a location associated with tragedy may not be a matter of avoiding these locations, but, instead, visiting with the appropriate amount of respect and understanding.

True Crime and Empathy

photograph of coroner and officer hovering over body

True crime is a prism through which we understand a myriad of social concerns, including race, gender, class, and mental illness. It’s an arena where the political is made personal, where structural inequalities are boiled down to or made manifest through individual acts of stunning violence. It’s also infinitely versatile in terms of form (podcast, documentary, online forum) and tone (prestigious, comic, sensational). There are many obvious pitfalls for the investigative journalists and television producers that peddle true crime stories. They might influence public opinion about a case, or even change the course of an investigation, as happened with both the podcast Serial and the hit show Making a Murderer. But what does the popularity of this genre teach us about empathy, and what ethical dilemmas are faced by its adherents?

Those adherents, as Rachel Monroe says in her 2019 book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Crime, Women, and Obsession, are overwhelmingly women (one 2019 study says that women make up about 85% of true crime aficionados). These women, as Monroe explains, “reinvented themselves, finding personal meaning through other people’s tragedies. They used [true crime] as a way to live out other kinds of lives, ones that were otherwise unavailable to them.” Monroe argues that those with an active interest in true crime (men and women alike) tend to identify with an archetypal figure; they can be the analytical detective who seeks justice within the judicial system, the battered victim, the avenging vigilante, or even the murderer.

We can even identify with the archetypal true-crime reporter. The success of the podcast Serial, Alice Bolin says, depends on how relatable the host is: “Like the figure of the detective in many mystery novels, the reporter stands in for the audience, mirroring and orchestrating our shifts in perspective, our cynicism and credulity, our theories, prejudices, frustrations, and breakthroughs.” This process of identification is the driving thrust behind true crime fandom. It isn’t enough to see the facts laid out, we want a narrative to project ourselves into, and the form that projection takes is rooted in our deepest needs and desires. Though the stereotype of true-crime fans is that of the addict, the passive consumer, it’s virtually impossible to get invested in crime without some element of it speaking to you.

In the world of true crime, the line between creator and consumer is tenuous at best. This is most evident in the Elisa Lam case, which was the subject of a recent Netflix documentary. Lam died tragically on the roof of a hotel after going off her medication, and a surprising number of people (many of whom are featured in the documentary) became obsessed with “uncovering the truth” behind her death. Internet sleuths constructed an elaborate web of conspiracy, positioning themselves as authorities over her story, while also consuming it voyeuristically. Some claimed she was the victim of supernatural forces, others harassed members of her family. This case exemplifies that identifying with the victim is not the same as showing empathy for the victim.

Narratives, more broadly, give us a sense of justice and stability. Kevin Balfe, the founder of the wildly popular true crime convention CrimeCon, explained to Time that “most of these stories represent what all great stories have. There’s a hero. There’s a villain. There’s usually a mystery. There’s oftentimes a traumatic event. There’s usually a resolution.” The question is whether or not immersing ourselves in such narratives can make us blind to reality, as the almost fairy-tale narrative structure described by Balfe suggests.

At the same time, it’s difficult to prove concretely that true crime reinforces negative stereotypes or stirs up undue fear of violence. How do you draw a straight line between a true crime documentary and a person’s heightened anxiety about serial killers, or their blind support for the judicial system? And such concerns can easily veer into baseless moralizing, which is especially troubling given how many true crime fans are women. Women’s interests are so often trivialized and policed, and any critique of true crime should take this into account. Anyone with critical thinking skills can love true crime as mere entertainment, without over-investing their identity into their favorite stories, and there is nothing inherently wrong with an interest in the macabre.

Content creators have obligations to research their stories thoroughly, and present the story without sensationalizing or cheapening tragedy. But those who consume true crime also have obligations to remain empathetic, and not massage a real tragedy into a more cohesive or alluring narrative. When we do this, it is an injustice to ourselves, to the messiness of reality, and most importantly, to the victims true crime fans are meant to care about.

The Ethics of Amateur Podcast Sleuthing

In late 2016, Up and Vanished, a podcast produced and hosted by independent filmmaker-turned-podcaster Payne Lindsey, released its first episode.  The topic of the podcast is the until recently cold murder case of Georgia eleventh-grade history teacher Tara Grinstead.  Grinstead went missing, presumably from her home in Ocilla, Georgia, in October 2005.  

Continue reading “The Ethics of Amateur Podcast Sleuthing”