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Glorifying the monster? Netflix, Jeffrey Dahmer and the morality of true crime

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bristol chapter.

Galadriel from Lord of the Rings. Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence. Daemon from House of the Dragon. She-Hulk. And, finally, Jeffrey Dahmer. Not the world’s easiest round of ‘spot the odd one out’, but the selection presented by TV Time for their list of September’s ‘favourite TV characters’. Jeffrey Dahmer, the sex offender and cannibalistic killer who murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys. Jeffrey Dahmer, mythologised into a ‘character’ to be categorised alongside elves and superheroes.

‘Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’, with Evan Peters in the titular role, is the talk of the Internet. Already one of Netflix’s most viewed shows of all time, the clunkily titled series has precipitated an intense and fervent debate. TikTok, as always, serves as the virtual Socratic seminar for millions to relay their thoughts, many of which are extremely alarming. “Not morbid enough!” “I wish they showed the gore!” countless people have complained, even “I might be a psychopath myself!”, as they brag about being able to happily chomp on their snacks while gruesome reenactments of pain and torture unfold in front of them. I have even seen a woman wearing earrings adorned with Dahmer’s face.

It is easy to decry these types of responses as exceptionally insensitive and outlandish. Overt bloodlust and sympathy for Dahmer, not to mention the sexualised edits of Evan Peters in character, are not difficult to recognise as distasteful. However, the more uncomfortable discussion arises when we start to interrogate the broader context and morality of true crime itself. To denounce these ‘true crime obsessives’ as a deranged, soulless anomaly is to oversimplify the issue. They are an objectionable but not altogether surprising symptom of a society which has become incredibly desensitised to real human trauma. We can pontificate from the moral high ground and think of ourselves as more discerning viewers, but where do we draw the line between unacceptable voyeurism and a ‘reasonable’ level of true crime consumption? Because, ultimately, every viewer is sending Netflix the same green light. We might not be making earrings out of his face, but everyone who tunes in is willingly consuming real-life tragedy for their entertainment.

Netflix maintains that the show does not constitute a glamorisation of Dahmer. Supposedly, it is “centred around the undeserved victims”, an exposure of “the systemic racism and institutional failures” that allowed him to remain undetected for so long. But let us not delude ourselves. If you wanted an accurate, thoughtful insight into the flaws of the American justice system, your first pick would not be the smash hit Netflix drama with the Hollywood heartthrob that has been vocally decried by the victims’ families. The sister of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims, has revealed how the family were not even asked for permission before their very personal grief was twisted into a ghoulish spectacle and paraded out for millions to see.

This is not to say that everyone who watches true crime is individually evil and we must immediately cut ties with them. Our fascination with the horrifying and the macabre is certainly nothing new – I am not trying to retroactively cancel the Victorian housewives who went to gape and throw fruit at public executions. We are all victims of the zeitgeist, and as long as these shows are made, people will inevitably watch them. Even by writing this article, I (as are the authors of the myriad think-pieces in the same vein) am furthering the cycle. Controversy fuels intrigue, and we are keeping alive the interest in a figure that should have long been condemned to the annals of history.

Whether true crime can be consumed in ethical ways is a contentious and ultimately subjective question, but a multinational corporation capitalising on the trauma of grieving families without their consent is certainly not one of them. In an ideal world, this reminder would go without saying, but serial killers are not fictional characters to obsess over. They are real people who have inflicted real and immeasurable suffering, and we would do well to reflect on our true crime consumption and remember the real human cost behind our macabre escapism – the victims and their loved ones. Because, for the moment, we are all still talking about Jeffrey Dahmer.

University of Bristol student studying Politics and Spanish.