“I’m Going as a Serial Killer this Year!” - Netflix' Dahmer and True Crime

Children wearing Halloween costumes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer have become a surprise sight of 2022. Their inspiration stems from the successful new show “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” which is Netflix’ new chart-storming hit and its second-most streamed premiere of all time just behind Stranger Things 4. The 80s serial killer who committed horrendous sexual and violent crimes killing 17 Men and boys has become the newest focus of the rising true crime genre of media where the stories of real crimes are recounted. The show’s current popularity and the reporting on it exemplifies the true crime genre as well as the controversies connected to it.

The controversy around the show comes partly from allegations of the producers not involving the families and friends of Dahmer’s victims. The sister of one victim, Rita Isbell, alleged that no contact was made by the producers while the show is profiting of the victims and making them relieve trauma. Multiple other relatives of victims stated they were not contacted, while the production team of the show alleges that around 20 of the victims’ families and friends where contacted to no avail.

Another point of critique arose from Netflix labeling the show under a LGBTQ+ tag. While Dahmer as well as his victims were gay, parts of the LGBT community followed with outrage  leading Netflix to remove the tag.

The last major aspect of controversy stems from accusations of glorification. The show does not depict Dahmer explicitly positive, but some say it still informs the glorificationi trend through stylistic devices and mere focus on his character. The Halloween costume trend mentioned above led E-Bay to stop sales of Dahmer paraphernalia.

While the current popularity of true crime in podcasts and online streaming could intuitively be understood as a new phenomenon, there are many parallels to earlier crime cases, which were discussed extensively in the media of the time. From the widely portrayed English thief and prison escapee turned celebrity Jack Sheppard in the early 18th century (who was so popular that a third of London’s population turned up for his execution in 1724), to the “legendary” Bonny and Clyde in the 1930s to the 1990s murder trial of O.J. Simpson, True Crime as a media genre has existed for centuries. In spite or because of its popularity, ethical questions surrounding the genre have always been discussed as well, like the case of Sam Sheppard in the 1950s, whose conviction even was deemed a mistrial because of intense public pressure on coroner and court to convict him.

Ethical Questions asked then and now as in the case of Dahmer are also concerned with whether cultural significance alone justifies (fictitious) media adaptions of serial killers at the risk of glorification. If so, do producers carry a moral responsibility to not put criminals on a pedestral and idealise them at the costs of victims and their families? We invite you to share your thoughts on this question. Write to: csblog(at)uni-landau.de

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