Trends: Another Day, Another Dahmer

Criticisms surrounding “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” offer new insights into the ever-growing popularity of true crime serial killer dramas.

by Ryan Yim | 10/3/22 2:00am

dahmer
by Lucy Handy / The Dartmouth

Helmed by “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” released Sept. 2022, is far from the first form of entertainment centered around serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. From movies like “Dahmer” (2002) and “My Friend Dahmer” (2017) to documentaries like “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” (2012), there has certainly been no shortage of content surrounding the “Milwaukee Monster” for the public to consume. In fact, Netflix is releasing yet another true crime series about Jeffery Dahmer, titled “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes,” on Oct. 7.

“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” stars Evan Peters as the titular killer and chronicles his murders from 1978 all the way up to his eventual arrest in 1991. The series not only delves into the societal impact of Dahmer’s grisly murders, but also addresses the institutional failures and racial prejudices of the police system which allowed Dahmer to kill 17 young men — the majority of whom were Black and Brown.

Unlike its predecessors, this show attempted to portray the stories of the victims as well as the emotional turmoil endured by Dahmer’s parents as a result of their son’s infamy. In an interview leading up to the series’ release, Peters reiterated the importance of drawing attention to the victims and their families.

“It was so jaw-dropping that it all really happened that it felt important to be respectful to the victims — to the victims’ families — to try to tell the story as authentically as we could,” Peters said. And, you know, you need to have certain plot points because he did do these things, but you don’t need to embellish them.”

However, many have criticized “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” for forcing the victims’ families to relive their traumatic experiences in yet another piece of entertainment media about the murders. One critic review on Rotten Tomatoes calls the series “salacious,” “exploitative” and “self-aware of the peril in glorifying Jeffrey Dahmer.” Another labels it as a “familiar fetishizing of the serial-killer figure.”

The victims’ families have also spoken out about the show. In an interview with Insider, Rita Isbell, the sister of 19-year-old victim Errol Lindsey, spoke out about her inclusion in the show’s climactic court scene.

“When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” Lindsey said.  

Eric Perry, who is both Lindsey and Isbell’s cousin, also took to Twitter to express his discomforts regarding the series: “I’m not telling anyone what to watch. I know true crime media is huge [right now], but if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) are pissed about this show. It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” Perry wrote.

Perry’s last point is especially notable considering the oversaturation of serial killer content in today’s entertainment industry. IMDb lists 454 movies and series that feature or are centered around serial killers since 2000. In the past three years alone, IMDb lists 135 new films under this category. 

Furthermore, the film industry has a noticeable tendency to capitalize on the same killers, such as Ted Bundy and the Zodiac killer, in addition to Dahmer. David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007) follows the investigation of the Zodiac killer, whose mysterious identity and idiosyncratic methods of murder served as inspiration for the antagonists of “The Batman” (2022) and Fincher’s own “Se7en” (1995). Bundy has been portrayed in films such as “The Deliberate Stranger” (1998), “The Riverman” (2004), “Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019) and most recently “No Man of God” (2021). 

“Extremely Wicked; Shockingly Evil and Vile” became the center of intense Internet controversy upon its release, earning $9.8 million globally and becoming by far the most successful film surrounding Ted Bundy’s murders. Described as a “glassy-eyed biopic of the satanic dreamboat” by The Guardian, “Extremely Wicked” puts Bundy’s “grotesque vanity” on display. This is in contrast to “No Man of God,” which is based on real transcripts and focuses more on FBI agent Bill Hagmaier than Bundy himself. Though critics audience members alike appreciated its careful maneuvering around unintentionally glorifying the “Lady Killer,” “No Man of God” earned a measly $215,876 at the global box office — suggesting that audiences do not truly desire serial killer films that pay less attention to the killers themselves.

Such a disparity in reception could be attributed to a multitude of other factors besides Bundy’s portrayal: “Extremely Wicked” starred a far more notable cast than “No Man of God” — with the likes of Zac Efron, Haley Joel Osmant, John Malkovich and Jim Parsons working under oscar-nominated director, Joe Berlinger. “No Man of God,” on the other hand, was directed by Amber Sealy, who has worked on much smaller films. Lastly, “Extremely Wicked” was eventually picked up by Netflix while “No Man of God” went to relatively obscure streaming services such as Sling TV. 

Even so, there is clearly a draw to “Extremely Wicked” which mirrors that of  “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Since it aired less than two weeks ago, the show has earned a staggering 196.2 million hours of viewership and is currently the number one series on Netflix. To put this into perspective, the number two show on the platform sits at a remarkably lower 62 million hours. Still, some viewers feel that the portrayal of Dahmer is dulled down. One review for “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” says, “Honestly the series doesn’t show the full horror of what he did and it makes him look better than he was.” Another read, “I wished it to be more horrifying and graphic but I guess Netflix isn’t there yet.” 

If there is such a persistently enormous market for such content, what stops filmmakers and production companies from creating movies that unabashedly depict violence and trauma? Furthermore, do the explicit and subliminal messages of these films — regarding the justice system, mental health and sexual violence — justify the need to “retraumatize” victims and their families? 

In the same interview with Insider, Isbell criticized Netflix’s approach to victim compensation and permission, emphasizing her lack of involvement in the Netflix original’s development. 

“They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it… I could even understand it if they gave some of the money to the victims’ children,” she said. “… If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.” 

Somehow it is this carelessness which has earned “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” an 85% average audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, number four spot on IMDb’s trending movies list, and almost certainly a few nominations come awards season. Regardless of the questionable ethics which surround this trend, it seems that the serial killer craze will not be cooling down any time soon.

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