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Netflix's Dahmer--Why Does Hollywood Keep Glorifying Serial Killers?

Within the past few years, America has seen a rise in true crime popularity, and, thus, a rise in true crime entertainment, from documentaries to podcasts to adapted dramas. According to Parrot Analytics, the production of documentaries is rising: new documentary series rose by 63% from 2019 to 2021, becoming the fastest-growing streaming genre. Although not a documentary, the most recent addition to the true crime production spike is Netlfix’s series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, known as just Dahmer. The show garnered 196.2 million hours of viewership in the first five days of its being out. The show raises many questions about our need for true crime media in general, most importantly, is it ethical?


Firstly, let’s discuss the new phenomenon that is Dahmer. The series, created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, follows the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dahmer killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, and the series is told mostly from the point of view of the victims. This adaptation is not the first to tell Dahmer’s story. Notably, there is Dahmer, the biopic starring Jeremy Renner, and My Friend Dahmer, starring Ross Lynch and based on the graphic novel by John Backderf. There are also countless other TV series and podcast episodes dedicated to Dahmer’s story and victims. Additionally, other series and movies about serial killers have garnered popularity. One that is often compared to Dahmer is another Netflix production, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. 


Although it is not a documentary, it is important to note how historically accurate Dahmer is. As an adapted drama of Dahmer’s and his victims’ lives, the show necessarily takes certain liberties in order to tell an entertaining story. It does not help, either, that the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, is not known for his historical accuracy. Russel Murray for Looper notes that Murphy has had a couple of run-ins with actors and families associated with his adapted dramas because of their inaccuracies. On the other hand though, Kayla Cobb for Decider in her review of the show claims that the show is almost entirely accurate. She says that “through imagined conversations and small tweaks, the story is made to flow better as a drama” but that, overall, the important details remain true. Can these embellishments change how the story is received, though?


The fan’s and critics’ reactions to Dahmer differ. The Rotten Tomatoes’ scores are 53% and 85% for the critics and fans respectively. One of the audience reviewers, Terri W., praised the show because “It didn't focus on the [killer]...they took the time to humanize the innocent victims who never had a voice.” Similarly, a critic who gave a positive review of the show, Brad Newsome, thought that the creators “steer[ed] clear of the lurid, showing respect for the American serial killer’s victims.” Other critics, though, gave negative reviews. They all had similar things to say, namely that the show has “a grisly slowness and amounts to a familiar fetishizing of the serial-killer figure,” as critic John Doyle writes. 


This comes up a lot in the reviews of Dahmer, both the good and the bad. The idea that movie and show adaptations are fetishizing serial killers is not a new question, as Paul Tassi points out in his review of the show for Forbes. Tassi also brings up the ethical dilemma of the fact that Dahmer and his story are being used again and again to make money off of the horror of his killings, money that isn’t going to Dahmer’s victims’ families. 


Although fans’ reviews of the show were mostly positive on Rotten Tomatoes, other audiences have nothing but critiques for the show, especially when it comes to exploiting Dahmer’s victims. One notable example is reported by the Los Angeles Times, in which the family of Errol Lindsey, one of the victims, spoke out against the show saying that they are angry about the show and the fact that they were not contacted about its production. Eric Perry, Lindsey’s cousin, wrote a series of tweets on the subject, including this one where he is questioning the purpose of retelling Dahmer’s story: “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”


In addition to exploiting victims, critics are also wary of the show because of its glorification of Dahmer as a serial killer. One reason the show does this is the casting choice. Evan Peters plays Jeffrey Dahmer in the show, and critic Richard Lawson calls it “a mesmerizing performance,” in his review for Vanity Fair, and says the show puts Dahmer “in an aura of appeal.” Not just that, but also Peters is attractive, much like Zac Efron in the Ted Bundy movie. Of that movie, Johnny Oleksinski for the New York Post says “It’s a movie that makes you laugh, makes you blush and leaves you feeling queasy—for the wrong reasons.” The end of that, the blushing and queasy part, could be said of Dahmer with Peters’ performance. CNN calls Dahmer Netflix’s “‘star’ of the month,” saying that it brings up the question of whether or not Hollywood “can’t help but romanticize [serial killers] in a media-obsessed age.”


In a further effort to empathize with Dahmer, the show draws on his identity as a gay man. Lawson mentions this in his review, saying that the way the show was filmed and edited makes Dahmer’s sexual desire come across “more as common queer feeling than prelude to predation.” This idea of appealing to LGBTQ+ audiences is not a new controversy for the series; in fact, Netflix came under some heat from fans after it included the LGBTQ tag for the show. A New York Post article quotes Twitter user Lizthelezbo who says about the original tag, “I mean, I know it’s technically true, but this is not the representation we’re looking for.” 


As mentioned, Lawson attributes the show’s insistence on Dahmer’s gayness to Murphy’s touch on the show. Of Murphy’s other projects, including American Horror Story and The Boys in the Band, Lawson says that Murphy has “become deeply invested in his idea of the tortured, liminal space between gay expression and gay pain.” Furthermore, Lawson believes that this emphasis on the struggles of being gay ruins the more positive intentions of the show, such as focusing on the victims’ sides of the story. To this point, Lawson ends the article, “While the series respectfully mourns and inveighs all the loss that surrounds him, it also turns Dahmer into a hideously immortal thing: an icon.”


Although it may not be immediately clear what impact Dahmer, or series and movies like it, has on society and our treatment of serial killers, it is clear that the output of adapted dramas and documentaries will continue if the demand for them keeps rising. Is it ethical for Hollywood to make series and movies that have the potential to glorify these monstrous killers, turning them into “hideously immortal thing[s]” and exploiting victims and their families for money? Or is the educational and historical value of these stories worth rehashing the pain and gore? 


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