Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, The Yorkshire Ripper: Watch the Ripper, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel – what do all these Netflix series have in common? They present true-crime cases of real murders. The true-crime genre on Netflix is currently experiencing an extreme boom regarding both the number of produced series and the number of watchers. There are several possible explanations for why people enjoy consuming true crime so much, and you can read Dillon’s blog post if you want to know more about that. However, with this article, I would like to have a closer look at the critical concerns the production and publication of true-crime series recently raise as well as the benefits they possibly have.
Re-traumatization of Victims’ Relatives
The most recent publication of the series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix caused a huge ethical discussion in the media and on many social media platforms. The Dahmer series became a symbol of a range of critical points that speak against the film adaptation of real crimes. First, reenacting severe crimes can retraumatize real victims’ families and friends who watch the series. Eric Thulhu is the cousin of Errol Lindsey who was murdered by Jeffrey Dahmer in the 1990’s. Thulhu publicly criticized Netflix via Twitter for not notifying the victim’s relatives, let alone paying compensation for using their trauma to generate entertainment and profit. This poses a critical ethical concern because real-life crimes with severe consequences for all affected persons are utilized for trivial reasons such as to address watchers’ boredom and curiosity or for simple entertainment.
Satisfaction of Criminals’ Need for Attention
Second, true-crime series pose a huge public platform for murderers who often strive for attention for their crimes. To generate more viewers, series are often overdramatized or sensationalized, and it is ethically questionable to additionally please criminals’ desire for attention by attracting millions of viewers. Moreover, this attention can lead to more profits generated from crimes besides the series. For example, after the Dahmer series had been released, Jeffrey Dahmer’s original glasses were auctioned off for $150,000; not a single dollar of the profits was offered to the victims’ families.
Murderers’ Representation as Romantic Crush or Likeable Buddy Next Door
The third critical point is the questionable representation of the murderers. In many cases, the series contribute to presenting the murderer in a glorified or even fetishized and sexualized way despite their obviously horrific crimes. For example, the actor Evan Peters, already known as the attractive villain from American Horror Story, played the role of Jeffrey Dahmer and gave the murderer the image of a creepy crush. Another example is Ted Bundy who is presented as an attractive womanizer. As a result, not only the murderers and their looks but also their crimes are romanticized, especially on social media platforms like TikTok. However, it is seldom thought of what families and friends of victims feel if they watch videos with declarations of love or cheering support for a murderer of their beloved ones. Moreover, sometimes the representation of criminals is also problematic because they are presented in a funny, likeable way, and consequently, their crimes can seem to be understandable or minor to the public. Joe Exotic, for instance, in the series The Tiger King, was presented as a slightly weird but cool guy who just wants to live his extraordinary lifestyle. However, the grooming of his husbands and prolonged abuse of exotic animals are severe crimes which are almost completely neglected in the series. If a murderer has a glorified and intriguing image once, it is hard to remove and can severely disturb the public’s opinion of crimes and perpetrators.
Subjective Public Reporting
Another point connected to an inappropriate representation of murderers is the problem of subjective filmmaking. Sometimes, criminals are illustrated as innocent, even if evidence of their guilt exists. The lack of objectivity can become clear when facts are twisted or completely omitted to lead the public to form a certain (mostly positive) attitude towards a criminal. An example of this is the series The Staircase on Netflix. Michael Peterson is accused of killing his wife by pushing her down the stairs, and The Staircase was labelled a documentary to show that case. However, journalists found that several facts which indicate Peterson's guilt are not shown to portray him favorably, and the accusations of the series being unethical became even worse as it was revealed that one of the film editors had an affair with Peterson.
Creation of Distorted Realities
Finally, true-crime series can lead to a distorted reality perceived by the viewers. This distortion can be caused by poor research and investigation of a case, the aforementioned overdramatization, or simply by the choice of cases being made into a series. For instance, the crimes which generate the most viewers (and thus profits) are usually the most horrific cases of young women being attacked when they leave their houses. This can lead to women being disproportionally scared of crimes because the amount of true-crime series suggests that those cases are highly common. However, the fact that most women experience crimes within their own homes executed by their partners is neglected.
The Pros of True Crime Series
On the contrary, true-crime series can also have some benefits. First, if victims are presented in an honoring way, the series can help to preserve a positive memory of the victims while condemning the crimes the perpetrator committed against them. Second, series that are made as objectively as possible can raise public awareness of ambiguous and controversial cases. Consequently, new witnesses and information could be found to support persons who are wrongfully convicted, to discover locations of missing dead bodies, or to identify additional perpetrators. Finally, well-produced series can also raise awareness and understanding of complex and important topics that lead to crimes, such as toxic masculinity, drug use, homophobia, or racism.
I don’t intend to encourage or discourage you from watching true-crime series. However, it is important to always have a critical view of these productions and to be aware of the reality they depict.