Dahmer, Bundy and Beyond: Are True Crime Series Harmful?

The rise in our mass obsession with true crime has been an interesting, albeit disturbing, trend when you really think about it. On the one hand, the genre introduces a massive audience to unsolved crimes, which in turn can lead to cases being reopened and in some rare instances, also lead to them being solved. For example, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” was the documentary that led to the capture and arrest of its titular subject. On the other hand, true crime podcasts, documentaries, and films based on the crimes (which is what we’ll be exploring today) often feel as though they’re monetizing real-life tragedies, and humanizing the killers rather than their numerous victims. Now we have another example of Hollywood cashing in on these infamous individuals with Netflix’s “Dahmer: Monster- The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”.

The 10-episode retelling of Dahmer’s crimes is currently the number one series streaming on Netflix and it boasts an all-star cast of Evan Peters, Niecy Nash, Molly Ringwald and Richard Jenkins. This isn’t the first time Netflix has adapted a true crime story into a major film or series, as 2019 brought us “Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile” with Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Heck, this isn’t even the first dramatized retelling of Dahmer’s heinous acts. Jeremy Renner dawned the glasses in 2002’s “Dahmer,” and all the while Ross Lynch played a teenage Dahmer in 2017’s “My Friend Dahmer.”

Courtesy of Netflix.

For this new Netflix outing, the series has garnered mostly negative reviews, and speaking from my personal viewing I thought the series was mediocre, to say the least. A large chunk of the criticism directed towards the series is coming from the families of those hurt the most by Dahmer’s acts. Eric Perry, the cousin of Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, tweeted a response following the show’s release. As he said, “I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge, but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbells) are pissed about this show. It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new when it comes to true crime media in general. Oftentimes, these shows choose to explore the killers rather than their victims. There are dozens of documentaries about Dahmer, Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and more, but the people whose lives were cut short by these monsters often feel more like cliff notes rather than the part of the stories that should matter. It’s clear why studios choose to focus on the killers, but recent true crime media has disproportionately focused on the worst aspects.

There are some examples of these films and series that are done in a more respectful manner. “Mindhunter” is a show that focuses on real-life killers, but never attempts to recreate their acts on screen. It’s much more about the psychology of why they did what they did, but at no point does the show ever expect you to sympathize with any of the killers. Now, look at Netflix’s “Dahmer,” by episode two we get Jeffrey Dahmer’s entire early life and it’s clear that the show is trying to make us feel something other than disgust for this person.

Courtesy of Netflix.

Another major issue that comes with the rise in dramatized true crime is the actors they have portrayed them. It’s unfortunate that when “Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile” premiered, people were more obsessed with how attractive Zac Efron was, rather than the fact that he was playing this vicious, womanizing, psychopath. It’s also quite disturbing that shows become more and more obsessed with accuracy and making sure that every detail of the crime is pinpointed. Ryan Murphy, who is the creator of Netflix’s “Dahmer,” also created “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” and both shows are guilty of recreating the gruesome details, as well as barely focusing or giving the time of day to the victims.

When it comes down to it, true crime is a tricky story to tell. I feel that the best and most respectful way to tell these stories is to focus on the victims rather than the killers and keep the families and friends of those victims in mind. This is something this new Netflix series clearly forgot to do. When recreating these horrifying moments in excruciating detail, not only do you force the viewers to imagine the real-life scenarios, but they’re also re-opening the wounds of those who had first-hand experience with these moments. No matter how “interesting” you think these stories would make for a ten-part Netflix original, there has to be an understanding that these are real people, who had real lives, and real people who loved them.

“Dahmer: Monster- The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is now streaming on Netflix.

By Adam Beam

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