America’s obsession with true crime has landed us in a strange and precarious place. A natural curiosity about diabolic lawlessness that terrifies and confounds us has become a driving force behind an increasingly obsessive infatuation with macabre and ghoulish storylines.
For many of us, these tales offer intrigue, with retellings helping us try to make sense of what unfolded, how it could have been prevented, and why such heinous crimes were perpetrated.
But I can’t help but wonder if the new Netflix series “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” crosses moral and ethical lines. I, along with millions of other true-crime fans, have tuned in only to find ourselves tossed between fits of captivated anxiousness, outright fear, bewilderment — and shame.
It’s that latter emotion I’ve been forced to grapple with in recent days, as I’ve found myself internally asking three key questions: Why was this show made? Why am I watching it? And most importantly: What impact is this having on the victims and their families?
It’s no secret that Dahmer was a diabolical serial killer and sex offender who brutally murdered 17 men in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, before being captured, convicted, given 15 life sentences, and inevitably killed in 1994 by a fellow prisoner.
The graphic and horrific nature of Dahmer’s crimes terrified the nation and solidified him as one of the worst, most sadistic murderers in American history. But while it’s no surprise that interest and intrigue continue to surround Dahmer’s case, it’s hard to understand why he is being given a newfound Hollywood treatment — one that’s so bombastically dramatized.
I’ve seen claims about how the show’s creators wanted to highlight the systemic issues that allowed Dahmer to go undetected as he embarked on his crime spree. And while that’s a noble goal considering the tragic crimes he committed, did we really need to create a 10-part TV series about a cannibalistic necrophiliac to accomplish that objective? Spoiler alert: No, we did not.
There are also claims being made about how the victims deserved attention, with the show highlighting some of their lives and deaths.
“It’s called ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,’ but it’s not just him and his backstory,” actor Evan Peters, who plays Dahmer, told Netflix Queue. “It’s the repercussions; it’s how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times because of racism and homophobia. Everybody gets their side of the story told.”
But the series does tell an awful lot about Dahmer’s life, relitigating facts that don’t necessarily need to be revisited. If I’m honest, I’ve been scratching my head, wondering who really benefits aside from those who produced the series.
And sure, we could argue the show is entertaining and wel done, but should our insatiable thirst for entertainment come at the cost of heaping more pain and suffering on Dahmer’s victims and their families? And that’s where I struggle the most.
“It couldn’t be more wrong, more ill-timed, and it’s a media grab,” Eric Wynn, who knew some of Dahmer’s victims, told The New York Times.
Rita Isbell, whose brother Errol Lindsey was murdered, has spoken out about her reaction to the show. Ms. Isbell is most remembered for her emotional impact statement in court — one during which she lambasted Dahmer for his evils. For her, watching the Netflix scene was difficult.
“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,” she said of the actress who portrayed her. “That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.
“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.”
She said she found it “sad” people were profiting from the show and that the money wasn’t going to the victims’ families. If the latter had happened — if efforts had been made to help those families — she said it wouldn’t “feel so harsh and careless.”
“It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy,” Ms. Isbell said. “That’s just greed.”
It’s hard to disagree with these assessments, as I’m still not sure I even minutely understand the series’s purpose. And that brings me to the most uncomfortable question: Why am I watching “Dahmer” ?
Sadly, the answer is that I was looking for entertainment and hadn’t thought much about the aforementioned questions until I was well into consuming the series; it’s admittedly a bleak answer.
Nathaniel Brennan, a professor at New York University, told the Times that true crime tends to exploit. In the end, even when someone is well-meaning, he said these projects create a scenario in which “the victims become the pawn or a game or a symbol.”
“Dahmer” has perhaps woken me up from a stupor and convicted me of this troubling reality. I can no longer look past or unsee the fact that we’re adding tragedy upon tragedy by obsessing over such diabolical offenses. Let’s be better.
• Billy Hallowell is a digital TV host and interviewer for Faithwire and CBN News and the co-host of CBN’s “Quick Start Podcast.” He has written four books, including “Playing With Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts,” and “The Armageddon Code: One Journalist’s Quest for End-Times Answers.’”He was formerly the director of content and communications at Pure Flix and the former faith and culture editor at TheBlaze.
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