DAHMER: Is True Crime Ethical?

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By: Naomi Lilac Gordon

Graphic Designer: Caitlin Embrey

I

The Jeffrey Dahmer Story

On September 21, 2022, Netflix released the original miniseries, “DAHMER- Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”, or “DAHMER” for short. The biographical drama detailed the life of the notorious serial killer, from his childhood, to his crimes and sentencing, and all the way up until his death. The show also covered the aftermath of his arrest, with the last two episodes taking place after he is incarcerated. The show is another creation of Ryan Murphy, known for “Glee”, “American Horror Story”, and “Ratched”, and falling in line with much of his other work “DAHMER”, is gritty, graphic, and presented to make audiences’ stomachs turn. Murphy is no stranger to horror, nor is the star and actor portraying the titular killer, Evan Peters, who has starred in multiple of Murphy’s projects as well as Marvel properties like the “X-Men” film franchise, and Disney’s “Wandavision” miniseries. From its debut, the biopic was polarizing, with various controversies surrounding it.

Despite these controversies, the success of the show is undeniable. According to Indie Wire, out of the various hit shows that Netflix has released, “DAHMER” had the most-watched first week on record, even more than blockbuster-hit shows like “Squid Game”. In its first week of availability, it was watched for a total of 196.2 million hours, and debuted to a #1 spot in Netflix’s top 10. As of now, “DAHMER” is Netflix’s 9th most watched English language series of all time according to TV Insider, and at the time of my writing this, nearly a full month after its debut, it still sits at the #2 spot. To say that the show has been popular would be an understatement. However, with popularity comes controversy, and “DAHMER” is no stranger to controversy. Ryan Murphy is no stranger to touching on real history with his work. Fans of his work may remember fictionalized versions of historical figures like Marie Laveau, Delphine LaLaurie, Anne Frank, and Richard Ramirez from “American Horror Story”.

However, this Jeffrey Dahmer biopic has widespread appeal and attention in a way that even some of the biggest seasons of “American Horror Story” didn’t. “DAHMER”goes deeper than many of these past depictions by having actors not only playing Jeffrey Dahmer and his victims, but family members impacted, neighbors, and friends of victims. A day after the show’s release, Eric Perry, cousin to one of Dahmer’s victims, spoke out. Responding to a side-by-side of his cousin Rita Isbell’s real life testimony in court and the scene from the show, he tweeted, “I’m not telling anyone what to watch, I know true crime media is huge rn, but if you are 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 was the first, but not the last, of the family members to speak out about the depictions in the show. Rita Isbell herself spoke out, telling Insider, “If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.” When asked about how the show being released made her feel, she said, “I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it. But I’m not money hungry, and that’s what this show is about, Netflix trying to get paid. I could even understand it if they gave some of the money to the victims’ children. Not necessarily their families. I mean, I’m old. I’m very, very comfortable. But the victims have children and grandchildren. If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless. It’s sad that they’re making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”

Erroll Lindsey’s daughter, Tatiana Banks, also spoke to Insider, saying, “I feel like they should have reached out because it’s people who are actually still grieving from that situation. That chapter of my life was closed and they reopened it, basically.” Discussing how it personally impacted her, she said, “Honestly ever since that show’s been on I haven’t been able to sleep. I see Jeffrey Dahmer in my sleep.” One of the more prominent victims highlighted in the show was Tony Hughes, a deaf gay man that the show depicts Dahmer as having a relationship with and then killing after they first have sex. His mother, Shirley Hughes, has been vocal about her disdain for the show. In some of her public statements she’s drawn attention to the cultural impact of this show as well, telling TMZ how hurtful it is to see people dressing up as her son’s killer for Halloween. The families are in a consensus, and they’re not happy.

However, these problems don’t seem to be going away. Right after “DAHMER”came out, Netflix released another Jeffrey Dahmer related miniseries in “Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”. This is also five years after the controversial film, “My Friend Dahmer”. It’s become clear that Jeffrey Dahmer-related films are popular, and that there’s an audience for them, despite those personally affected by these things taking issue with it. However, “DAHMER”isn’t the only major show to pimp out the trauma of real people for profit. One could argue that’s what the entire true crime genre does. From documentaries, to dramatizations, to youtube videos where white women in their mid to late 20s talk about some gruesome, bloody death while doing their makeup or eating a mukbang. It’s even this very article, for isn’t discussing true crime just adding fuel to the fire?

II

Yet Another True Crime Show

In recent years the true crime genre has been booming. Once a niche interest with a dedicated subculture, it’s seemingly grown into something with broad, mainstream appeal. It feels like the amount of true crime content being pumped out is growing larger in number and more rapid in succession, with it seeming like a vast majority of shows debuting these days are either reboots of some variety, or true crime. The boom in true crime content isn’t without reason, though. These studios are responding to simple supply and demand. People want it, so the studios make it. And make it. And make it, and make it, and make it. These shows only seem to get stranger and more niche as they go on, as the cultural canon of gruesome murders and unsolved cases grows more and more barren of fresh content. Today, while watching Hulu, I got an ad for a true crime series about dead girl scouts hosted by Kristen Chenoweth.

In a July 2021 article by the Ringer, exploring the popularity of true crime documentaries on Netflix since the release of their daily rankings in March 2020, it’s reported that eight true crime documentaries have hit #1 and another four have peaked at #2. These include some pretty big names, like “Tiger King”. This was a year ago, and even in the past year, it feels like the appeal of content like this has grown exponentially. True crime documentaries, both movies and series, are cheaper to produce than full-scale scripted series. Producers can pay for interviews and investigations much easier than they can an array of actors, sets, designers, writers, and the like. Documentaries can be made on far lower budgets than can other types of media. There’s no shortage of low-budget documentaries out there, made on niche topics, a fact I’m sure any college student in the humanities can attest to. The existence of shows like Dateline NBC and 60 minutes is evidence to that.

In his interview, titled Serial Killers are Just IP Now Too, journalist Sam Sanders draws attention to the idea of serial killers as a form of IP. “When we think about studios and platforms relying on their IP, we think of Star Wars, we think of Marvel, we think of franchises that they just keep building more stuff around. And the reason is they don’t have to explain who Spider-Man is. You already know. So that part of the marketing is already done for you. Serial killers are IP. It’s a horrible thing, but it’s true. People know who Jeffrey Dahmer is,” says Sanders. This perspective sees the recent boom in rebooted content and the recent boom in true crime as one in the same. (See also, the popularity of biopics like the recent Elivs film.) Both already have a built-in audience making them more recognizable and easier to market. Just like Batman, Spider-Man, the MCU, serial killers are ingrained into the cultural consciousness in a very similar way, which means one thing. Easy money.

When psychotherapist F. Diane Barth explored the reasons people watch true crime, her core question was, “What could make media about violence feel so calming?” One response that she noted was from comic book writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick, known most recently for Eisner-Award Winning Wonder Woman Historia: the Amazons, who said that true crime podcasts soothed her at the start of Trump’s presidency as well as during the pandemic. In short, true crime media was an outlet for her anxieties, giving her solace in uncertain times. I think we can see this quite heavily with millennials, and even more so with Gen Z. The youngest generation, the generation that I belong to, is the only generation that has continually lived through wars, violent conflicts, and social upheaval. From 9/11 and the War on Terror, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the rise of white nationalism, to the COVID-19 pandemic. From our earliest years, our formative memories, we’ve been exposed to conflict. Is it any wonder that we seek solace in the gruesome?

III

True Crime-fighting

So far, I may have led you to view the true crime genre in very specific bounds. I may have painted it as a deeply unethical, cheaply made product, tailored to the nostalgic, morbid fascinations of consumers, that harms the families and opens up old wounds. I stand by all of that information, and while all of that is definitely worth considering, talking about, and personally engaging with, it’s not the full story, and I can’t in good faith ignore the positive things that have come from the genre. Many of you have probably heard of the podcast Serial. This true crime podcast, in its first season, focused on the murder of 18-year old Hae Min Lee, and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, also only 18 at the time, to life in prison. Serial was a big deal for the podcast medium, and rocketed the medium, the podcast and the case it covered, into the public eye.

During the first season of Serial, investigative journalist Sarah Koenig explored both the murder of Lee, and the conviction and subsequent incarceration of Syed, continually creating doubt and pushing back against the conviction and the narrative that surrounded it. With this case finding its moment in the public eye, many saw Syed as wrongfully incarcerated, and called for his release. This public outcry coincided quite closely with a lower court ordering a retrial in 2016, leading to a long and difficult fight for Syed to be released. On September 19, 2022, after a long and strenuous battle, Adnan Syed was finally released from prison, and it’d be dishonest to ignore the role Serial played in that. The publicity that his case gained from the success of the podcast was essential in righting this wrongful conviction. In this situation, true crime, and the audiences around it, led to something amazing.

This isn’t the only time that true crime media has led to advancements in cases, though. The 2018 podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, led to the conviction of Chris Dawson for the murder of his wife back in 1982 according to the New York Times. The Rolling Stone reported that the 2019 podcast, The Murder Squad, led to arrests in a 40 year old cold case. (I should mention that the latter podcast has had allegations of sexual harrassment, and has since gone off the air for that reason).

There have also been occasions where true crime fandom can also hinder investigations, and do genuine damage when they do. According to the BBC, after the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, true crime fanatics on reddit took it upon themselves to find the culprit, examining every photo, video, and firsthand source that they could find. In their mind, they’d found the 22 year-old Sunil Tripathi, missing at the time, guilty. Soon afterwards, the FBI found the true bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but by this point the damage was already done. The mainstream media ran with the narrative around Sunil Tripathi. Most of the suspects that the redditors had identified were Arab men, their racial biases seeping into their so-called investigation, and putting innocent people on blast in the process. Sunil’s body was found a month later, dead. 

There have been times where true crime media has led to cases being solved, convictions being made, arrests being carried out. This content has led to good things in the past, and probably will in the future, and those positives shouldn’t be overlooked. True crime journalism, like all journalism, can be a force for good, but when journalistic integrity and the public’s hunger for content and entertainment mix together, things can often tend to take a turn for the worse. Even if some of this content is ethically made, and leads to positive changes, can things really stay this way when the emphasis is on entertaining the public? If the goal is profit?

IV

Changing the Narrative

Recently, I watched “DAHMER”, and I went in knowing all of the controversies surrounding it. Despite my reservations, I engaged with the content in good faith, and I ended up getting a lot from it. The show was as much about Jeffrey Dahmer and the acts that he committed as it was about race relations in Milwaukee at the time, queer history, and the inequities fundamentally ingrained into our justice system. The show highlighted again and again that it wasn’t that Dahmer was exceptionally good at getting away with his actions, but that the justice system simply failed to apprehend him. He was given chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity to continue to harm others, and because the people he was killing were largely queer people of color, the authorities turned a blind eye to his crimes. The police and the court system are active parts of the story, and are shown to be complicit in facilitating the environment for Dahmer’s actions.

In what could’ve been yet another tacky dramatization of white male anger, the show attempted to avoid falling into this pitfall by maintaining an area of distance between the viewer and the lead character. According to series’ star Evan Peters, “We had one rule going into this from Ryan [Murphy] that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view. As an audience, you’re not really sympathizing with him. You’re not really getting into his plight, you’re more sort of watching it from the outside. It’s called The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, but it’s not just him and his backstory. It’s the repercussions; it’s how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times, because of racism and homophobia. The Jeffrey Dahmer story is so much bigger than just him.” I can’t say that I think that the series was fully able to avoid telling the story from Dahmer’s point of view, or that it completely avoided getting into his plight. The depictions of the home he grew up in, as well as the homophobia that he experienced from his family, were depicted in harsh detail, and watching them it’s hard not to empathize.

However, even in these moments, the show never lets you forget the impact that his actions had on others. One of the best examples of this is in the final episode, “God of Forgiveness, God of Vengeance”, in the depiction of Dahmer’s murder at the hands of fellow inmate, Christopher J. Scarver. They show Scarver brutally beat Dahmer with a metal pole, before walking away, leaving him in a pool of his own blood. However, even in this scene, a barrier is presented to prevent audiences from empathizing with him. We’re given low-angle shots of each blow that Scarver delivers to Dahmer’s body. However, instead of intercutting these with shots of Dahmer’s body taking the damage, we’re subjected to shots from earlier in the show of Dahmer’s victims, of their bodies, some already dead, some almost. We’re reminded that this beating that Dahmer is taking is a mere fraction of the pain he’s inflicted upon others. Even in his most vulnerable, we’re not allowed to forget exactly who he is, and exactly what he’s done.

“DAHMER” stands out from the masses of exploitative serial killer content because it changes the narrative. The show doesn’t present Dahmer as an object of intrigue. The show of course spends time with him and tells his story. It’s the Jeffrey Dahmer story, after all. However throughout all of it, the show seems far more interested in the systemic inequalities in Milwaukee’s justice system. The show focuses on the ways that this story plays into queer history, showing the lives of queer men, more often than not men of color, in the gay nightclub scene of the time. We’re shown depictions of bathhouses, of homophobia from police. The show engages with the anti-asian racism too, spotlighting the family of Konerak Sinthasomphone, the 14-year old Laotian boy who the police gave back to Dahmer’s custody, leading to his death. We’re shown how prior to this, anti-asian racism impacted the sentencing of Dahmer for sexually assaulting Konerak’s older brother, with the man only getting a year behind bars.

Paramount of all these concerns, is the show’s stark engagement and condemnation of anti-blackness. We see time and time again that the police are active oppressors in communities of color. In the first episode of the series, we see how Dahmer picks up Tracy Edwards, and attempts to trap him in his apartment. Edwards escapes, and manages to find the police who see him as a threat, and point their weapons at him. This is but one example of the various textual depictions of racism by the justice system in the show. We see this in the way that the police disregarded Glenda Cleveland’s calls, their refusal to look into the disappearance of Tony Hughes, and the ways that Ronald Flowers’ firsthand accounts are ignored. It’s also shown in how the police and the mayor react to the news, and the community rallying around in response to the tragedies. The show forces the viewer to reckon with the realities of racism and its intrinsicness to the case.

One of my favorite episodes of the show is episode six, “Silenced”. It details the life of Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s victims, starting off by letting us get to know him and his life, before his killer even enters the picture. Hughes was deaf, and certain scenes between him and his deaf friends are entirely silent, taking us into his world. The show allows us to fall in love with Hughes, and when Dahmer kills him, it’s done off screen, granting him the dignity of not having such a heinous act shown. It’s because of things like this, though, that I don’t believe the issue of the show is as clear cut. Unethical practices were carried out in the creation of this show, but it also spotlights the victims. It doesn’t let you view this as something salacious, existing to sate your morbid curiosity. It forces you to reckon with the weight of these actions, and in doing so, rejects the consumerist impulse that so many true crime products are tailored to. This show isn’t easy to swallow. The show doesn’t make itself accessible for your average true crime fan. In fact, it’s anything but.

V

Conclusion

In episode nine of the show, “The Bogeyman”, we’re shown a scene where Shirley Hughes, Tony Hughes’ mother is convinced by a lawyer to sue Jeffrey Dahmer’s father to have the proceeds of his book go to the families of the victims. In this scene, the way that the families weren’t notified, and received none of the proceeds is shown as a moral ill, and yet that’s exactly what the show does. I can appreciate the things that this show did while still acknowledging that those actions were heinous and deeply harmful. At the bare minimum, families should’ve been contacted. Nobody deserves to have their trauma dug up in the public eye without notice like this. Not everything is about money, but given that profit was the main goal of this show, a portion of proceeds should’ve gone to the families of the deceased, or at the very least, like Rita Isbell suggested, their children.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to whether shows like these should exist, or whether true crime media should exist at all. There are aspects of these things that are deeply harmful, but they can also lead to a lot of good. However, even with the best of intentions, when driven by profit, and with large amounts of money as motivating factors, things can quickly spiral out of control, and into morally dubious territory. After watching the show, I genuinely do believe that the producers and writers on this show were as well intended as they could’ve been. Yet, even with that, no one is immune to greed.

If I know one thing though, it’s this. If I am murdered in some greusome way, and some youtube true crime girlie talks about my murder while eating a mukbang, I’m haunting the fuck out of her.