Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a recent Netflix series, has sparked controversy due to its apparent glorification of a serial killer and alleged insensitivity towards the families of Dahmer’s victims.
In contrast to journalistic true crime entertainment (which has its problems), dramatizations and fictionalizations of real-life murders, such as Dahmer, have attracted criticism for re-traumatizing victims and their loved ones and the glorification of murderers.
Even though most changes from actual life to the screen are minimal, such as having many police officers portrayed by a single investigator in a work of fiction, some events may be grossly misrepresented.
The journalist who broke the original Dahmer story, Anne Schwartz, has stated that the most current Dahmer Netflix series is “not a constructive representation.” In an interview with the Independent, Schwartz criticized the series’ caricatured portrayal of law enforcement. She also criticized crucial plot elements, such as having critical witness Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash) reside next door to Dahmer instead of in the building next door (as in real life)
Other dramatizations of real-world crimes have gone considerably further, incorporating sensationalist and even supernatural elements. The 2019 film The Haunting of Sharon Tate, written and directed by Daniel Farrands, was widely criticized by reviewers and moviegoers for its violent depiction of the Manson family’s murder of actress Sharon Tate.
Tate (portrayed by Hilary Duff) appears to foresee her murder in her dreams, and the film concludes with Manson’s victims meeting in the afterlife. Owen Gleiberman, a film reviewer, described the film as “full, unadulterated cheeseball exploitation,” stating that it “goes out of its way to transform the Manson murders into schlock horror.”
Victims of crime and their loved ones are usually offended and retraumatized when their true experiences are used for entertainment. Given that legal protections of reputation, such as defamation claims, do not apply if the person defamed is deceased, the relatives of homicide victims are severely disadvantaged when they confront false or disrespectful depictions of their loved ones.
Some of the relatives of Dahmer’s victims have voiced displeasure over the Netflix series, pointing out that they were never contacted about its distribution. Rital Isbell, whose brother was murdered by Jeffrey Dahmer, had her heartbreaking victim impact statement dramatized without her knowledge or agreement in the series. In an article for Insider, she described the series as “brutal and reckless” and stated, “It’s horrible that they’re basically profiting from this tragedy.”
Who benefits from depictions of real-life crimes is a significant subject, with huge studios and streaming platforms gaining millions. At the same time, victims and their families typically endure the consequences of increased public attention.
The struggle between artistic freedom and the wishes of victims’ relatives has not been absent from Australian cinema. The 1997 Australian film Blackrock, directed by Steven Vidler and adapted from a play by Nick Enright, was inspired by the 1987 rape and murder of Leigh Leigh, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, despite Enright’s denial. Upon the film’s premiere, Leigh’s family was extremely hostile, deeming the depiction exploitative and accusing the producers of “feasting on a terrible circumstance.”
The Dahmer Netflix series has been criticized for casting Evan Peters as Jeffery Dahmer, given Peters’ notoriety as a young heartthrob who rose to stardom in American Horror Story, a much lighter horror series created by Ryan Murphy. The Gen Z-dominated TikTok is saturated with fan videos of his portrayal of Dahmer.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as a serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy, received similar condemnation. While jailed, Jeffery Dahmer received numerous pleasant messages and marriage proposals due to an abnormal obsession with serial killers.
Nevertheless, some are concerned that the new trend of portraying attractive celebrities as serial killers may have repercussions. A writer in Odyssey observed that “young and sensitive kids of today may find themselves empathizing with and falling for harmful persons.”
Uncertainty exists as to whether such worries are prescient or a textbook form of moral panic. Ultimately, there will always be an audience for deadly and macabre tales, as a curiosity with the darker side of life is an enormously widespread human impulse.