Dahmer series exploits victims, glorifies killer


By Lyn Guanci , Staff Writer

In a world that functions online, heavy-seated topics often make the rounds like a party of high school stoners passing the joint. Complicated concepts ricochet around niche pockets of various social media platforms in a mess of vernacular and distortion until nobody can identify where it began or why it started. Rarely, in the world of internet intricacies, is it possible to be able to pinpoint exactly where a trend has started. But when it comes to the modern true crime craze, it’s actually very easy to identify the origins.  

It all began with the podcast “Serial,” a narration following the nonfiction tale of Adnan Syed, as told by widely acclaimed journalist Sarah Koenig. According to Apple, “Serial” broke records on a global scale, becoming the fastest podcast to exceed 5 million downloads in iTunes history. The breakout success of “Serial” led to a spin-off frenzy consisting of hundreds of memes, microcultures, articles, podcasts, and docuseries all vying to capture the same prosperity. Beauty gurus began to do their makeup while casually describing all the ways stalkers in the night stole the breath of their victims. Podcasts dedicated solely to discussion of murder most foul came into the public eye. And thus, society was off, a dog chewing on a bone that had no intention of putting it down any time soon.  

It would be fallacious, however, to claim that the trend of true crime does not exceed past the 21st century. In fact, according to Pamela Burger of JSTOR, the human obsession with the realistic criminal lives of their fellow man can be dated back all the way to 1550. As literary rates expanded and new technologies such as the printing press were developed, the oral and written tales of morbid criminals began to circulate throughout early Britain in particular. The earliest “true crime narrative,” as it can be defined, consisted of ballads, or poetry that conveyed the crimes of England’s Most Wanted, which were posted on bulletins around cities and towns. Members of high society would often occupy their evenings by reading the grisly “emotion-laden crime reports,” as they were called at the time, which were dramatic retellings of a criminal’s transgressions, often complete with woodcut prints depicting the imagery of the aforementioned crime in gory detail.  

From there, the fascination evolved into more complicated works of literature. The most famous example is Truman Capote, the self-proclaimed father of the narrative true crime genre. His novel “In Cold Blood” depicted in great detail his imagined mindset of the Clutter family before they were murdered, even going so far as to include personal thoughts and dialogue exchanges that he could not possibly know. It is undeniable that “In Cold Blood’s” success only furthered the advancement of the genre into the modern age, as people began to take more and more creative liberties with what the definition of true crime actually was. 

This long history, of course, has always come with a consistent moral qualm. The main controversy over the role of true crime lies in the sheer indifference towards actual people it inspires. Unlike fiction, true crime considers the lives (and deaths) of very real people, and because of this, it skirts the line of moral reprehensibility. After all, how ethical is it to rely on a deeply affecting tragedy that ruined actual lives as a personal source of entertainment?  

The answer, of course, lies in how it is handled.  

And let’s be frank: rarely is it handled well.  

Ryan Murphy’s “Dahmer- Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” claims to be of the sub-category of true crime that centers on  the victims. Actress DaShawn Barnes, who depicted Rita Isbell in the new series, stated on Twitter that she was, “grateful the victims weren’t an afterthought but their humanity and perspectives were reflected in the series.” However, this promise to respect and honor is growing cheap and abused. As true crime docuseries continue to be released, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the creators and consumers alike care very little for the lives of those they are exploiting.  

While fans on TikTok dropped rave reviews where they bragged about how well they handled the gore, the actual Rita Isbell, sister of one of Dahmer’s murder victims, was forced to relive one of the worst days of her entire life. As interviewed by Insider, she stated, “It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then. [Netflix] didn’t ask me anything. They just did it. That’s what this show is about, Netflix trying to get paid.”

She continued by saying that she only watched one episode, and after that, couldn’t stand it anymore: “I don’t need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened.”  

It is obvious that no matter how much large corporations claim they want to honor the victims, those close to the victims don’t feel that they are honored. Survivors are hurt, betrayed, and exploited, and that can only lead to one conclusion: it doesn’t matter how cinematically impressive or quality the Dahmer series was. It is impossible to watch it without engaging in a morally deplorable act.  

The issue with the true crime narrative as a genre is that it will never commit to portraying it’s dearly beloved killers as the villains that they actually were. From the very deliberate choice to cast the conventionally attractive and swoon-worthy Evan Peters in the titular role, to its deep-seated focus on Dahmer’s personal life beyond the killings, “Dahmer- Monster” is doing the same thing that every other Dahmer documentary has done: taking a sympathetic eye for the killer. It didn’t bring anything new or valuable to the table as it claimed it would. It only continued to glorify a serial murderer.  

According to Vox, Jeffery Dahmer is already the most commonly depicted serial killer in all of modern true crime. So the question is: was this sub-par, already done series worth the revictimization and retraumatizing of actual people? For years, the same bodies have been dug out of the ground and paraded around again and again for the public’s own gluttonous consumption of shock value and fear. When will it finally be enough? 

The opinion that ultimately matters when it comes to true crime narrative works is very straight-forward. It’s not the critics with degrees leaving rave reviews, it’s not the TikTok fans, it’s not the Netflix social media managers, and it’s certainly not mine. The only opinion that has ever mattered is the victims: the real people, the people who could be any of us, whose families were torn apart by the effects of one very small, ugly man. By handling the true crime narrative poorly, creators such as Ryan Murphy genuinely ruin lives. Which begs one final question: should we continue to risk handling the genre at all, or is it finally time for the narrative true crime epidemic to die?