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Dahmer - Exposing the truth behind the true crime genre

Written By Maddie Deane

The release of Netflix’s most recent controversial series: Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has thrown the acclaimed true crime genre in question, with regards to the moral implications of producing and consuming such ‘entertainment’. As the name would suggest, 'True Crime' is media, often television series, podcasts, and literature, based on real-life crime. The genre, however, incorporates both factual accounts of court trials, as well as artistic and interpretive dramatisations of crimes, in the case of 'Monster'.

By no means is this a new interest. Despite the recent surge in true crime, it is an entertainment genre which has reigned popular for centuries. It can be dated all the way back to the mid-16th century, in which pamphleteering publicised violent accounts of murder and assault. The genre was further popularised by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It's clear, then, that humans are historically fascinated by stories of violent crime. And in an era of mass-media consumption at home through streaming services, bolstered by increasingly addictive social media platforms, there is a perpetual seeking of shock value and deeply disturbing horror. Perhaps a symptom of the extreme desensitisation that increased technology has afforded...

In recent years the genre has expanded astronomically, partly due to the streaming giant 'Netflix'. You need only sign in to the now top streaming service in 94 countries to be spoiled for choice with a torrent of fresh, new crime series. From the likes of Tiger King, American Murder: The Family Next Door, and Abducted in Plain Sight, the list goes on.

Don't get me wrong, I have watched and enjoyed my fair share of true crime, but something about the shift from series' which are based on legal fact and justice, to the current rise of serial-killer dramatisations makes me uneasy. 'Monster' is no exception to the genre's unbelievable success. With 300 million hours viewed in England alone in the first two weeks of the series' release it is now the second most-watched English-language series ever.

So why are we so fascinated with the story of Jeffery Dahmer which has been told and retold for decades, in a total of 20 projects released since 1992?

With the likes of Ryan Murphy, director of "American Horror Story", and the show's former star Evan Peters playing Dahmer himself, the series certainly promises a cinematic spectacle, which we simply don't get with true crime documentaries grounded in reality.

This therefore begs the question: how do we make the distinction between moral True Crime and immoral True crime?

Nancy Glass, producer of 'Monster' has confirmed that the series is "not meant to be a documentary", in the Australian radio show "Kyle and Jackie O". Despite Glass' involvement in the real-life case, through her speaking extensively with Lionel, Dahmer's father, and the "Milwaukee Cannibal" himself, the series openly admits to the adjusting of certain details in the real-life events, and furthermore that some elements of the show are entirely fabricated for viewer entertainment.

A problematic consequence of this is that the series arguably sympathises with its titular serial killer, giving voice to his childhood experiences through to adolescence and manhood. Whilst the show somewhat differentiates itself from its contemporaries through the viewing time it appoints for Dahmer's victims, it is ultimately Dahmer's heinous crimes which are the show's focal point. Furthermore, with the victims being mainly young black queer men, the series decentres an already historically marginalised group.

Whilst being based on the real people who were brutally killed by Dahmer, the families of the victims have reported that they were not contacted prior to the release of the series. The family members have described their pain of having to relive the trauma over and over again, with every show released about the serial killer.

Hazel Wright, a published expert in the subject, has investigated the moralistic question of the true crime genre. In her research paper "Ethics and True Crime: Setting a Standard for the Genre" she concluded an 'ethical work of crime' is a narrative that "does the least amount of direct or indirect damage to the subject and the readers." The black LGBTQ+ community, however, have said that Monster is retraumatizing for not just the family's victims, but the community as a whole. Eric Perry, the cousin of Errol Lindsay, one of Dahmer's victims, has branded the series as 'cruel'. He went on to further criticise the creators for failing to give the victim's families a share of the profit, or even notifying them prior to public release.

This series, for me, is another example of the countless dramatisations, which disregard the importance of the consent of the real-life people they are depicting.

It seems that Jeffrey Dahmer has become embedded into US, and now more so British culture. It's a phenomenon which we have seen with other killers throughout history. Our obsession with brutal serial murders, such as Jack the Ripper and the Moors Murderers, mythologises the killers. It seems that the more gruesome and evil the crime, the more notoriously glamorised the perpetrator becomes.

Ultimately, the true crime genre reflects our societal desire for collective consciousness. A shared interest and participation in social commentary and entertainment. I think we all can continue to enjoy true crime, but it comes down to being aware of the implications that it holds for those represented, and the groups in discussion. In an industry where viewing time essentially puts money in creators' pockets, our main focus should be on the people depicted in these shows, and how they feel about them.

*Perspectives claims no ownership of the images used in this article.

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