Content warning: This article contains descriptions of physical and sexual violence.
On September 21, Netflix aired Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a short series that depicts the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 young men before getting arrested and convicted of homicide. Dahmer notoriously mutilated these young men and used their bodies as objects for his sexual gratification. Through his cruel actions, Dahmer denied these young men an adult life, the chance to grow old, and, most disturbingly, human dignity.
Despite the pain Dahmer inflicted on his victims and their families, the Netflix series does not pay tribute to victims. Instead, the series is a gruesome portrayal of Dahmer’s actions that glamorizes murderous behaviour. From the cinematic effects to the famous cast in the series, it is clear that the entertainment industry has no interest in respecting victims of violence. Instead, the industry cares more about romanticizing violence so that it can line its own pockets.
Victims of violence and the true crime industry
The Dahmer series quickly rose to number one on Netflix, with approximately 56 million households streaming the show. Although I find it deeply disturbing, it is unsurprising that upwards of 56 million people are so intrigued by Dahmer’s crimes that they would stomach incredibly graphic scenes that display the dehumanization of his victims. After all, history has shown that people tend to have a morbid curiosity for violence.
In a European history class, I recently learned about how the guillotine and decapitations were once treated as spectacles in France. For members of the audience, it was a sensational and captivating experience. The same horrifying curiosity that urged those spectators forward is what makes viewers so eager to watch the Dahmer series. However, by capitalizing on people’s morbid curiosity for violence, the true crime industry is actively dehumanizing victims and survivors of violence and reducing their traumatic experiences to popular culture.
The cruel reality is that Dahmer isn’t the first murder sensationalization piece by the industry. In January 2019, Netflix released Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a drama film about Ted Bundy, who confessed to and was convicted for 30 murders, and is suspected of more. The series sparked much controversy because its creators were accused of romanticizing Bundy.
Bundy was played by Zac Efron, who became famous as Troy Bolton in Disney’s High School Musical franchise, and then went on to be voted the “Sexiest Man Alive” in magazines such as Glamour and People. Given Efron’s sex appeal, there’s no question that the casting choice romanticizes a man who assaulted and murdered young women. When Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was released, relatives of Bundy’s victims were still alive. They were understandably infuriated with the film’s portrayal of Bundy and his victims.
Similarly, after the release of Dahmer, victims’ family members shared that they were not even informed that a Netflix series was to profit off their lived trauma. Where is the dignity? Where is the respect? To what extent do entertainment companies truly care about the impact of the media they release?
Rita Isbell, the sister of Errol Lindsey, a victim of Dahmer, shared in a letter to Insider: “It’s sad that [Netflix is] just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.” Isbell voiced her frustration with how Netflix cast an actor identical to her who recites the same testimony she did at trial, yet did not inform her of the series or offer any of the film’s profit to the families of victims.
By casting famous celebrities and launching glamourous marketing campaigns for true crime shows and movies, Netflix effectively makes personal experiences impersonal. Viewers do not have to acknowledge that the murder scene they just watched did truly happen; it’s not their trauma.
How should the media treat victims of violence?
There is a distinction that must be made between informational media about criminality and the exploitation of victims of violence for entertainment.
The docuseries Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich discusses disturbing crimes against women, sexual violence, and pedophilia among a group of the elite. As such, much like the Ted Bundy movie and Jeffrey Dahmer series, this docuseries exposes horrific criminality. However, the Jeffrey Epstein docuseries is different in that it is a platform — albeit overdue — for survivors to share their experiences. This docuseries does not attempt to vividly recreate the lived trauma of others. In doing so, it respects survivors and their lived experiences.
What makes the series on Jeffrey Dahmer and the film on Ted Bundy so unsettling, and yet intriguing, is not the cruel actions of these men, but their glamourized and romanticized stories. After all, we could simply turn to a newspaper to read about their crimes, but having an attractive and alluring celebrity vividly reenact such morbidly fascinating cases draws us in and thus keeps the true crime industry profitable.
By focusing solely on the stories of killers, the true crime industry effectively silences victims and survivors, and their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we should not document and report true crime stories, but rather that these conversations belong in informative documentaries, not popular culture series. The media should represent convicted individuals as who they are, and not equate them to celebrities who people admire and emulate.
Sarah Stern is a third-year English and European affairs student at Victoria College.