The recent Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has drawn controversy for its apparent serial killer glamor and perceived callousness towards the families of Dahmer’s victims.
In contrast to the more journalistic true crime entertainment? (which has its own problems), the dramatization and fictionalization of real-life crimes, such as Dahmer, has sparked a wave of criticism for re-traumatizing victims and their loved ones, and glorifying criminals.
Artistic license or tabloid idiocy?
Whether presented as an accurate retelling or simply “inspired by true events,” there will always be some artistic license in transforming a complex true crime story into a film or television series.
While the changes from real life to screen are usually relatively minor, such as having multiple police officers portrayed by a fictional detective, others can significantly misrepresent events.
Anne Schwartz, the journalist who broke the original Dahmer story, has said that the recent Dahmer Netflix series is “not a helpful representation.” In an interview with The Independent, Schwartz criticized the caricatured depiction of law enforcement in the series. She also took aim at key plot elements, such as key witness Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash) living next door to Dahmer, rather than in the building next door (as in real life).
Other real-life crime dramatizations have gone much further, adding sensational, and even downright supernatural, elements to actual events.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate, written and directed by Daniel Farrands and released in 2019, was universally criticized by critics and audiences alike for graphically depicting the real-life murder of actress Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family.
In the film, Tate (played by Hilary Duff) has apparent premonitions of his murder in her dreams, and the film ends with a reunion of Manson’s victims in the afterlife. Film critic Owen Gleiberman called the film “pure, unadulterated cheeseball exploitation” and opined that it “strives to turn the Manson murders into mindless horror.”
Re-traumatizing victims and their families
Crime victims and their loved ones are often angry and re-traumatized when their real-life stories become fodder for public consumption.
Families of homicide victims are particularly disadvantaged when faced with inaccurate or insulting portrayals of their loved ones, since reputational legal protections, such as defamation lawsuits, do not apply if the person defamed is deceased.
Some of the families of Dahmer’s victims expressed outrage over the Netflix series, noting that they were never contacted about the show’s release. Rital Isbell, whose brother was killed by Dahmer, had the heartbreaking victim impact statement dramatized in the series without her knowledge or consent. She called the series “tough and sloppy” in an article on Insider expressing that “it’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy.”
The question of who profits from depictions of real-life crimes is an important one, as major studios and streaming platforms make millions, while victims and their families often bear the brunt of increased public attention. .
Australian films have not been immune to this tension between artistic freedom and the wishes of the families of the victims. The 1997 Australian film Blackrock, directed by Steven Vidler and adapted from a play by Nick Enright, was clearly inspired (although Enright denied it) by the real-life rape and murder of 14-year-old schoolgirl Leigh Leigh in 1987. Leigh’s family was highly critical of the film’s release, calling the portrayal exploitative and accusing the filmmakers of “partying in an unfortunate situation”.
Make serial killers famous
The rise of online “fandoms” surrounding real-life killers is an increasingly documented phenomenon that is likely related to the growing pop acculturation of true crime.
The social networking site Tumblr has a variety of accounts dedicated to fans of history’s monsters, with everyone from serial killer Richard Ramirez to school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold getting special treatment.
Researcher Andrew Rico believes such fanaticism is motivated in part by a need to shock and shock the public, but notes that it also indicates that tabloid depictions of criminals, such as school shooters, have led to a form of obscure celebrity. This is supported by the work of PhD student Sasha Artamonova, who sees dark fandoms as a kind of “counterculture” movement uniting against moral norms.
The Dahmer Netflix series has drawn criticism for casting Evan Peters as Jeffery Dahmer, given his status as a teen heartthrob who rose to fame in creator Ryan Murphy’s much more light-hearted horror series, American Horror Story. The Gen Z-populated TikTok is filled with fan videos of his portrayal of Dahmer.
Similar criticism was leveled at another Extremely Wicked Netflix series, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which featured Highschool Musical star Zac Efron as serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy.
Read More: True-crime entertainment like The Teacher’s Pet may shed light on cold cases, but does it help or hinder justice?
An unhealthy obsession with serial killers is of course nothing new: Jeffery Dahmer received many positive letters and even marriage proposals while incarcerated.
However, some are concerned that the recent trend of casting attractive celebrities as serial killers could have positive effects. A writer in Odyssey noted that “today’s young and impressionable people can empathize with and fall in love with people who are really dangerous.”
Whether such concerns are prescient or a textbook example of moral panic remains to be seen.
Ultimately, there will always be an audience for stories of murder and macabre, with a fascination with the darker side of life, an incredibly common human drive.