The 10-episode Netflix series, “Dahmer: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” released on September 21, rapidly gained almost unprecedented popularity on the streaming platform and has retained the number one spot in their charts for three weeks.
More than 700 million hours of the show have already been viewed, and it is joined on the chart by “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes,” a limited series called for by the public as a follow-up to “Dahmer: Monster.”
Over the 8.8 hours of episodes, the first of which opens with Dahmer’s arrest, the viewer gains an increasingly cohesive picture of the killer’s life, from his birth in Milwaukee in 1960, to his death while incarcerated in 1994.
There are a number of gruesome scenes depicting or alluding to Dahmer’s cannibalization and dismemberment of his victims, the modus operandi that led to his infamy.
The killer is also well-known for how long he went unapprehended – 13 years, from 1978 to 1991 – over which time Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys, the youngest of whom was just 14 years old.
It is widely believed that the reason Dahmer went uncaptured for so long was that most of his victims were black and homosexual. Though Dahmer denies targeting on this criteria – he states he chose the young men because he found them “beautiful” – the racism and homophobia ingrained in the police force was common knowledge. Had his victims been white, it is a fair assumption that the officers would have given the missing person cases far more attention.
The dramatization of these tragedies has been perceived by many as exploitative of the victims and their families. However, despite the questionable morals behind the show’s production, its success has proved that the public appetite for the grotesque is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has amassed 701.3M total hours viewed in just three weeks 📺 making it Netflix’s second most popular English-language series of all time 📈 pic.twitter.com/fRcR4Zq6wE
— Ryan Murphy Productions (@ryanmurphyprod) October 11, 2022
What makes people so interested in true crime dramatizations?
There are multiple theories that attempt to explain the widespread fascination with serial killers like Dahmer.
David Schmid, an English Professor who has studied serial killer popularity, puts it down to desensitization: “We have largely lost our ability to be appalled. It takes a very, very extreme crime for us to now recover that.”
He believes that the proliferation of violence in modern society sets the public on a hunt for the most horrific and shocking stories that will provoke the empathy that more “normal” tragedies are no longer able to stir.
Many true crime viewers claim that they are driven by a desire to understand why killers like Dahmer were able to commit such horrific acts. They search for common themes in the lives of men like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne de Gacy, and David Berkowitz, perhaps with the subconscious aim of differentiating themselves from these examples of the worst of humanity.
Morbid curiosity – an interest in the unpleasant – also plays a part in our attraction to true crime.
As criminologist Scott Bonn states, “our interest in serial killers has something to do with the nature of society itself and the powerful allure of things that are both frightening and incomprehensible.”
Perhaps the most “frightening and incomprehensible” aspect of these killers that draw so much intrigue is the duality they were comprised of.
John Wayne Gacy clearly exemplifies this division of identity. He assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least 33 young men, and yet he spent most of his time entertaining children in hospitals, hosting parties at his suburban home, attending church, and leading a life that on the surface had every appearance of normalcy.
“Dahmer: Monster” divides the jury
The Dahmer series, created for Netflix by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan who also collaborated to produce “Glee” and “Scream Queens,” has been celebrated by much of the public and some critics for the quality of the performances, specifically Evan Peters’ depiction of Dahmer and Rodney Burford’s “compassionate and haunting” portrayal of Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s later victims.
The show can also be credited for the attention it pays towards the failures of the Wisconsin police, who ignored the concerns voiced by Dahmer’s neighbour, an African American woman named Glenda Cleveland, and so allowed the murders to continue.
The consequences of this racism and homophobia ingrained within the criminal justice system can still be seen today since, as Julie Beck, senior editor of The Atlantic, states, “killers who target minority victims are just less likely to get caught, due to disparities in police resources.”
“You’re gonna believe a white man with a criminal record instead of a black man with no record”
That sums up why #DahmerNetflix deserves to be told. It’s a story about racism, poverty, police brutality, injustice and privilege. All of which are still relevant today.
— Evan Ward (@_Tony_Toni_Tone) September 30, 2022
However, these positive responses to the series have been met with the criticisms of the public, and the families of the victims themselves.
Backlash was quickly unleashed as a consequence of Netflix’s tagging “Dahmer: Monster” as LGBTQ, a label generally used to highlight films and series that provide the positive LGBTQ representation that has long been lacking from the mainstream.
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Further upset soon followed as the families of the killer’s victims expressed their upset at the creation of the series, particularly given that they were not consulted prior.
As Rita Isbell, cousin of Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, told Insider, “Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
Netflix’s choice not to consult or warn the families seems particularly cruel given how gruesome many of the scenes are. As Elaine Miller-Karas, co-founder and director of the Innovation of Trauma Resource Institute, asserts, dissecting someone else’s trauma through graphic, violent scenes – without permission – does a “disservice to the families.”
These relatives, who only learnt about the series on the day it was released, must now readdress the wounds Dahmer caused over 30 years ago.
Isbell says that @Netflix never contacted her 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.” https://t.co/xmj2Omq48X
— Entertainment Insider (@EntInsider) September 28, 2022
The casting of Evan Peters, an actor with an already established young female fan base, also seems to have backfired.
In an echo of the aftermath of the 2019 movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” in which Zac Efron was cast as Ted Bundy, there are now a number of “fan girls” creating and posting compilation videos of Peters as Dahmer.
Whilst many provide the disclaimer that their videos are intended to romanticise the actor and not the character, this seems to be a flimsy excuse as they typically only include snippets of Peters playing Dahmer, and in some cases feature images of Dahmer himself.
On TikTok, where these videos are generally first posted, the hashtag “Dahmer Netflix” has now accrued over 1.5bn views.
— zendaya (@zendaya2587441) October 5, 2022
Despite this controversy, the financial gains “Dahmer: Monster” will continue to provide for Netflix likely ensures that another similar true crime dramatization will appear on our screens soon.
However, critics and mental health professionals, including licensed professional counsellor Jessica MacNair, have called for an increased level of sensitivity moving forwards.
Although Netflix has no legal obligation to consult the families prior to creating such a piece, given that the information used is public, MacNair urges that they do so anyway to avoid another “gigantic violation,” in which families are forced to grieve for their lost loved ones all over again.
Finished the Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes and as always after I finish a true crime documentary, I’ll only focus on the victims.
Remember their names! Remember their faces! They are the ones that matter, not the predator that killed them. They are the only ones that should be remembered! pic.twitter.com/P0jsoRrhcD
— 𝐀𝐍𝐆𝐄𝐋 🌺 (@Angeliiiiique) October 7, 2022
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Prison Cell. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay.