The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Being a true crime consumer myself, I completely understand the fascination that people have with true crime content. True crime is a nonfictional literature and film genre that analyzes and retells the details of real criminal cases, commonly depicting one of the most extreme types of crime: serial killings. The average human being with a basic moral code intact cannot wrap their head around how or why another human would commit such heinous acts. A natural desire to understand good versus evil drives the obsession with learning about serial killers. However, this obsession often leads to a question that underlines the issue many have with true crime content: What about the victims?
Netflix has long been a dominating player in the making of true crime content, having released many documentaries and film adaptations about serial killers. Oftentimes, their interpretation of these cases focuses on a serial killer as the protagonist or ‘star’ of the production. This narrative structure causes these criminals to be glorified and their crimes sensationalized, the victims and their loved ones left sidelined in the retelling of the worst days of their lives. The 2019 Netflix film, Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil and Vile, features Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, an infamous serial killer and rapist during the 1970s. The film demonstrates the fine line between retelling stories of serial killers and glamorizing them, focusing on Bundy’s good looks and charm while shying away from the gruesome details of his crimes. While it is true that Bundy’s charisma allowed him to attract his female victims, this portrayal becomes problematic when there is little to no attention drawn to the 20, if not more, women he brutalized — it’s a framework that allows Bundy, and serial killers like him, to remain likable.
More recently, the 2022 Netflix series, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, has become the latest buzz in the world of true crime as they tell the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who murdered 17 men and boys between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Unlike Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil and Vile, many critics have applauded the show for doing more justice to the victims and their families, having represented their experiences and perspectives throughout the series — life was given to the young men who lost their lives at the hands of Dahmer, exposing the racist and homophobic system that allowed his crimes to continue for far too long. Dahmer is depicted as the vile killer he was and Evan Peters’ authentic portrayal of the notorious killer is absolutely bone-chilling. However, the series still stirs up controversy due to Netflix’s failure to approach the families of Dahmer’s victims regarding the show’s production.
Rita Isbell, a sister of Errol Lindsey who was a victim of Dahmer, is known for her incredibly emotional victim impact statement that was made during Dahmer’s sentencing, which was faithfully recreated in Dahmer. In a personal essay published by Insider after the show’s release, Isbell shares that Netflix did not ask for her permission regarding 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.” Isbell says.
Isbell also notes that while the show’s booming success will make Netflix a hefty profit, none of the funds will be donated to the victim’s families. She says, “[i]t’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”
Eric Perry, a cousin to Rita Isbell and Errol Lindsey, took to Twitter to share his distaste for 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?” he writes.
Isbell and Perry’s statements expose the realness behind the true crime genre. It is important to be mindful that the true crime stories made to entertain viewers are the result of someone else’s immense trauma, which is carried by the family members and loved ones of these victims every day. Ensuring that these stories are victim-oriented is the bare minimum in the production and consumption of true crime content. Failure to bring attention to who these victims were and include those affected by their loss in the retelling of true crime can contribute to the glorification of their killers or the exploitation of their stories.
Caplan, A. L. (2022, September 26). Jeffrey Dahmer Victim’s cousin says Netflix’s monster is ‘retraumatizing’ family: ‘for what?’. Peoplemag. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://people.com/tv/jeffrey-dahmer-victim-errol-lindsey-cousin-eric-perry-calls-netflix-series-monster-retraumatizing/
Vlamis, K. (2022, September 26). My brother was murdered by Jeffrey Dahmer. Here’s what it was like watching the Netflix show that recreated the emotional statement I gave in court. Insider. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.insider.com/rita-isbell-sister-jeffrey-dahmer-victim-talks-about-netflix-show-2022-9