Credit David von Diemar via Unsplash

The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: Are films about serial killers exploitative?

By Melissa Friel

Melissa explores the ethics behind the plethora of true crime content as she reflects on Netflix’s latest instalment about Jeffrey Dahmer.

With the leaves on trees turning brown and the spooky season finally upon us, there’s no better feeling than having a cosy night in and scaring yourself shitless. Just in time for a Halloween binge, Netflix has released yet another serial killer documentary, seeing the famed American Horror story Duo Evan Peters and Ryan Murphy team up for a new biopic about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. However, with Errol Lindsay, the cousin of Dahmer Victim, tweeting that series’ such as this are ‘retraumatizing over and over again’, the show has garnered a serious backlash as viewers share his question of ‘how many movies/ shows/ documentaries do we need?’ 

As an avid Halloween lover, I will be the first to admit that you can’t beat a good horror movie. With ‘oh my god I can’t look’ moments, your favourite 90s actress as the scream queen, and those iconic theme tunes, a good horror film brings together the best of the gothic and detective genres to make a kind of dark aesthetic which is perfect for an October night in. 

However, the last few years have seen a surge in true crime-based content. From documentaries and podcasts, to movies and interviews with the convicted, horror risks straying into a new, more puzzling genre. Why, when we remove the classic horror movie hallmarks and leave only disturbing stories of real-life suffering, do we still watch them? 

Perhaps it has to do with humanity’s obsession with ‘the other’; there has always been art and media produced about ‘the outsider’, ‘the monster’, or the one who doesn’t ‘fit in’. Does the recent obsession with serial killers embody this fascination, putting on display our interests in dark psychology and our morbid curiosity of the human mind? Almost like a modern day equivalent to a roman fight to the death, or puritan executions, does this media quench our secret thirst for violence? Is it the satisfaction of a killer getting caught? The sense of justice that comes with the Scream mask coming off as the threat is packaged safely into the back of a police van, taken far away to a place where they can never kill again? For some it may be the ability for evil to lurk behind the normal; the way some people are able to work a 9-5 by day and become a monster by night, like a kind of real life anti- superhero. Above all, I think it’s our sense of distance, the ability to experience the thrill of a genuine threat while remaining guarded by time, page or screen.  However, this sense of removal is exactly where the problem comes in. By turning the threat into an icon of fear that ceases to exist once we close the book or click the remote, we are promoting the fictionalisation of very real actions, reducing  the suffering of the victim and trauma of their loved ones into merely elements of plot. 

This dangerous blurring of fact and fiction, and all the problems it brings, is no better embodied than in the new Jefferey Dahmer series. Whilst the series can be seen as  ‘good’ and ‘entertaining’ in a cinematic sense, the fact that I was watching real life stories of suffering as a form of post-library relaxation didn’t sit right with me. However, in all honesty, this fact slipped out of my mind as I got lost in the cinematics of the series. With Peters playing Dahmer, it is easy to forget that the series is based on fact and is not merely the newest American Horror Story instalment. While he is a very talented actor, he represents a wider problem in the true crime industry by becoming the newest face to join a list of heartthrobs who have played serial killers (Troy Bolton and Austin Moon, I’m looking at you). Not only does this trend invite a twisted sexualisation of murderers, it also exemplifies the platforms’ tendency to focus on the killer in lieu of the victim. Arguably, this gifts killers with an ongoing (and undeserved) media presence, which not only outshines those they have impacted, but would most certainly be a dream come true for many of these violent narcissists. With Ted Bundy stating in one of his tapes “I am looking for an opportunity to tell the story as best as I can”, why should these people be given a platform and a voice beyond the grave when they have silenced so many?

Media platforms are clearly more than happy to profit from this, conveniently releasing this content in hoards every year when Halloween draws closer, where they appear in the horror category next to the likes of Scared Shrekless and Scary Movie. I can’t help but feel that this placement is not only highly strategic but also disrespectful to the victims of these true horror stories.

After finishing the series, I couldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed it, as it caused me to feel unsettled for a few hours. However, after the initial shock had passed I was fine to get on with the rest of my day, carrying no lingering emotions. This in itself is the main problem with the genre: what to us as viewers is a casual watch is unnecessary pain inflicted on those trying to recover. While our experience of the content ends once the credits roll, this can’t be said for those affected by the crimes we so easily watch on the screen, even causing people with similar experiences to undergo a traumatic reliving of the events. 

Ending the documentary with a montage of black and white photos with sad piano music for 30 seconds, after hours of content focused on the killer, is not paying respect to, or even considering, the victim. All it does is squeeze in a nod in a backhanded gesture, further emphasising the fact that the victims have been treated as side characters in their own stories. 


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