When True Crime Drama Crosses the Line of Exploitation

by Netflix DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, produced by Ryan Murphy and featuring american horror story star Evan Peters, has been a major topic of conversation since his spontaneous fall on the streaming platform. Lots of conversations surrounding Dahmer were praised for Peter’s chilling performance as a serial killer. The series follows the titular killer through his high school career, a brief stint in college, and the chilling crimes he committed before he was caught by the police.

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In the short time since its debut, the ten-episode series has managed to break records on the streaming platform. It is currently Netflix’s most-watched streaming title, having amassed over 196 million hours of viewing. However, the show’s success has many scratching their heads, based on its subject matter and what the series represents on screen.

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Jeffery Dahmer’s story has already appeared in the media. Disney alum Ross Lynch starred in My friend Dahmer, portraying the serial killer. However, My friend Dahmer focused its lens on Dahmer’s education and did not account for any of the murders. The only hint of the murders was the film’s closing scene, an ominous foreshadowing of the encounter that would lead to Dahmer’s first victim. Lynch was praised for his portrayal as the story was told in a way that was more sensitive to the victims as it did not depict their vulnerability on screen.

However, in Murphy’s series, this is not the case. The first episode depicting the moments leading up to Dahmer’s arrest, showing the police as they uncover the shocking details of his crimes. With Polaroids of severed bodies and graphic images of victim body parts extracted from Dahmer’s freezer, the viewer is placed directly at the scene of the crime. And therein lies the problem.

Throughout the series, the murders of Dahmer’s victims are graphically depicted to the public, with no remorse or sensitivity for those affected by these deaths. Families of the victims have spoken out since the show’s release, after many family members were portrayed on screen without their consent. Rita Isbell, who lost her brother Erroll Lindsay to Dahmer, said watching the reconstruction of her victim impact statement “I wanted to relive it all.” She added that she was never contacted about the current show. She felt that Netflix should have reached out to the victims’ families, especially since the content triggers them. In his words:

“They didn’t ask me anything. They just did.

Eric Perry, Isbell’s cousin, also took to his Twitter to express his sentiment on the docuseries and pose a question: “How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” Perry’s question sheds new light on how the public consumes genuine criminal material, and Murphy’s Dahmer is criticized by many.

People don’t argue with the show’s insensitivity to the victims of these crimes, but it’s also said to tap into both black trauma and the traumatic LGBTQ+ community. Many of the Dahmer murders the series shows were of black Americans. The racism the victims faced is believed to be the reason the murders lasted as long as they did, and this is portrayed in the show. The police ignore calls from Dahmer’s black neighbors about mysterious smells and even attempt to interview a black survivor who managed to escape Dahmer’s attempt on his life. The silence of black voices in society is accurately portrayed; however, the exploitation of dark trauma obscures the story Murphy is trying to tell, leading to this message that is integral to the whole case getting lost in the fog of it all.

Netflix also faced major backlash for initially listing the series in the website’s LGBTQ+ section. Although Dahmer has identified as a gay man, the show is not LGBTQ+ media — it’s a story of death and heartbreak. This further shows how the streaming platform failed to take sensitivity into account. It should also be added that despite the show’s rating, the platform failed to add trigger messages before the start of episodes which show extremely graphic content.

These days, true crime is a popular genre. But are there ways to tell these stories without crossing these lines that exploit what has been lost? It’s not impossible to portray these stories in this way, but the glitz and glamor should be removed, and it should be a raw, fact-driven story. Dahmer is not that. In fact, he is wrong about the major facts of the case. For example, the show portrayed Glenda Cleveland (played by Niecy Nash) as being Dahmer’s neighbor, which was not true. Cleveland was not a resident of the Oxford flats; she actually lived in the building next door. It was Pamela Bass who lived across from Dahmer. It seems that the series blends the experiences of these two women into one. It was an odd choice and contradicts the message about amplifying black vocals, since Bass’ voice gets lost in the middle.

Dahmer gets this major detail wrong, but was keen to romanticize Dahmer’s choice to be baptized the day fellow serial killer John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to death. The cinematography parallels these events and depicts a lunar eclipse that also occurred that day. There are also details that the show missed. For example, Peters as Dahmer during his trial is always shown in his glasses; however, in real life, Dahmer chose not to wear his glasses during the trial as he did not want to see the families of the victims clearly. These types of details are so small, yet so impactful.

Nonetheless, Peters’ performance is chilling, as expected. However, it is in the interest of these studios to make an effort to protect these disadvantaged families and communities who have suffered so much. Forcing them to suddenly relive this dark chapter is unfair, and for many families it will be a major step backwards in their attempts to heal from what they have endured. Going forward, I hope Netflix and other media giants who choose to bring true-crime stories to the screen take a moment to weigh the impact of the story they tell.

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Sources: tab, People, Initiated