We may never be rid of Jeffrey Dahmer.
The new Netflix series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022), which captured public attention in late September, is just the most recent addition to a long line of Dahmer-related media. It follows My Friend Dahmer (2017), Hulu’s film about the serial killer’s adolescence based on a graphic novel, as well as the newest season of Joe Berlinger’s Conversations with a Killer (2022), which—naturally—focuses entirely on Dahmer as well.
But we can’t pretend this phenomenon is limited to Dahmer. As growing numbers of people flock to shows like Dahmer Story or podcasts like Serial (2015), the true crime genre seems more popular than ever. But as viewers all gape in horror at Evan Peters glaring cinematically into the camera, it’s easy to forget that Dahmer was real—and that his victims didn’t have the benefit of a screen between them.
It’s clear that many of us are exhilarated by seeing atrocities committed up close and personal (but from the safety of our couches, of course). The rise of true crime in popular culture has prompted novel conversations about how we depict killers and victims in storytelling, and a larger question about the value of the genre itself: Is true crime worth it?
The genre is plagued with problems. Too often, true crime glorifies the criminal, intentionally casting them in a mysterious allure, sometimes even sexualizing them. (Consider the “Ted Bundy is Hot” movement that coalesced with the release of the Zac Efron-led Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2020)). Streaming services like Netflix use killers’ names like brands—continuing to peddle content regardless of the message it sends about the criminals themselves.
“True” crime has a reputation for distorting its victims; that is, it treats real people as blank canvases whose lives can be freely warped to embellish the story. In an op-ed, Hilary Pozesky recounted how her friend’s murder was dramatized by a local TV show. The network doubled down on the murder’s late-October timing, splicing in assorted shots of tacky Halloween decorations and giving the narrator a voice straight out of “Monster Mash.”
But the show slapped on more than just fake blood and gratuitous jump scares. It added suspects, insinuated the victim had an affair with a neighbor, and generally directed attention away from her actual killer—the victim’s estranged husband who she had a restraining order against and the only person of interest throughout the investigation. After watching this vulgar, somewhat victim-blaming reenactment of her friend’s murder, the journalist was wrecked: “She died uselessly twice.”
Stories that warp the nature of victimhood are common throughout the true crime genre. Victims’ lives are co-opted by producers, perverted for a shameless cash grab. The killers themselves are lionized so that viewers, acting on twisted curiosity, might be more inclined to watch Dahmer- or Bundy-branded content in the future.
Regardless of how artfully a true crime piece is created, it inevitably commodifies trauma. During Dahmer’s trial, Rita Isbell, the sister of victim Errol Lindsey, gave a heart-wrenching impact statement about how her brother’s murder ravaged her family. “Now I don’t ever want to see my mother through that again,” Isbell said during the trial. “Never, Jeffrey!” It was one of the most powerful moments of the proceeding, and one that crystallized all the harm that Dahmer had caused.
And Dahmer Story mimicked it exactly. DaShawn Barnes, the actor playing Isbell, sported an identical haircut and clothes, and spoke every word voiced by the grieving sister 30 years before. All of Isbell’s pain was fully on display, not just for the courtroom dedicated to convicting her brother’s killer, but for all of us—the millions of viewers paying Netflix to proudly present the destruction of families and lives. “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy,” Isbell wrote in an Insider op-ed. “That’s just greed.”
But true crime isn’t categorically unjust—at its best, the genre gives more than it takes. For example, it can highlight underrepresented stories that ought to be told. (sienagolfclub.com)
Dahmer Story, for all its flaws, takes on an angle that was mostly unexplored in previous Dahmer stories: his exploitation of Black queer people and other people of color, and the role of systemic racism in inhibiting his capture. The show isn’t exactly breaking new ground—Black artists like Elizabeth Axtman in her “Dark Meat” exhibition have been pointing to Dahmer’s anti-Blackness for years—but it is one of the first widely successful Dahmer pieces to acknowledge race in any meaningful way. The true crime genre itself, or at least the part that has entered the mainstream, too often fails to reckon with how whiteness contributes to the violence committed by these (almost exclusively white) men.
True crime can even become a form of “true justice,” increasing public pressure on police departments and inspiring everyday people to work on unsolved cases—culminating in a criminal’s capture and conviction. Just two months ago, a suspect in a 30-year-old cold case was arrested because of evidence uncovered in a Barstool Sports podcast. To be clear, the attention that comes from the true crime genre can be psychologically devastating for victims’ families, but there are times when a story generates the kind of zeal that results in resolution for unsolved cases and closure for victims’ families.
Yet a purely ethical true crime piece seems elusive; its abuses are too deeply embedded within the genre. Creators are incentivized to expand criminals’ notoriety and twist victims’ lives to be maximally entertaining, regardless of their effect on the real people behind the stories. Exploitative true crime, grounded in the commodification of actual human beings, doesn’t deserve its viewers. And that’s where we come in.
It’s up to all of us to stop producing and watching shows that exploit the voices that are key to generating true crime, yet have no power to influence it. Voices like Eric Thulhu’s, who tweeted that Dahmer Story was “retraumatizing” his family. “And for what? How many movies, shows [and] documentaries do we need?”
He isn’t just asking Netflix. He’s asking us.