Netflix’s “Dahmer” seems to think it’s different from other true crime media— but it can’t avoid the repercussions of depicting serial killers.
“This is not some Halloween story,” Niecy Nash proclaims in “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
Yet, in an ironic way, given the show’s insistence that it’s different, it has become a Halloween show. People are watching it for the sensationionalized version of the story, and a serial killer is made into a glamorized character.
In an interview with Netflix, Evan Peters, who portrays the titular character, states:
“As an audience, you’re not really sympathizing with him [Dahmer]. You’re not really getting into his plight. You’re more sort of watching it, you know, from the outside.”
Regardless of show creator Ryan Murphy and Peters’ stylistic choices, Dahmer is still centered as the show’s main character. The show is named after him, and claims to be his story, showing his life from an early age.
The fact that this TV show centers him as the main character can be dangerous. Though Peters’ portrayal of Dahmer is far from flattering; other aspiring killers or abusers may be tempted by this level of fame, or inspired by the graphic kills accompanied by the ways Dahmer committed the crimes. This can also lead to viewers empathizing with Dahmer, despite Peters’ assertion, as he is the main character.
A study was done on media coverage of the Golden State Killer by Lasherica Thornton for her 2018 thesis with The University of Mississippi. This concluded that most media coverage and articles relating to serial killers focus on them rather than their victims, which fosters empathy with the killer. This empathy for serial killers can sometimes lead to groups who consider themselves fans, as well as causing emotional harm to the victims’ families. In the show, victims’ families, as well as Dahmer’s neighbors, are shown being unable to move forward due to media portrayal and coverage.
“Due to the nature of serial murder and increasing media attention, serial murderers have
ascended to something approximating celebrity-like status, gaining recognition and a fan following,” Michael Spychaj explained in his 2017 thesis that focused on serial killer interest.
Publicly centering serial killers and adding to their fame only encourages copycats as well. This is a hazardous phenomenon.
This is not helped by casting Peters, a popular figure who is often noted for his looks. His characters are frequently glorified, and his charming demeanor creates a disconnect between the real figure. His fans often sexualize his characters regardless of morality (such as his character in the first season of “American Horror Story”), but in this case, he is portraying a real person. There are a multitude of edits on TikTok romanticizing Peters in this role – many videos ended up with comments about Peters’ looks.
While TikTok users have also taken to the platform to critique the show, there are still lots of videos on the other side of this. One particular video was posted about wishing the show was more graphic, while the user zoomed in on her Dahmer earrings. It is also not uncommon to see self-proclaimed true crime fans expressing sadness and sympathy for Dahmer himself.
Centering Dahmer is a risky move but not a unique one. Netflix faced similar criticisms in 2019 after releasing its Ted Bundy film; “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” With the rise of true crime, it’s been noted that victims are the ones who should be featured and focused on, rather than the killer. This could be a step in the right direction, and prevent idolization in theory.
Episode 6, “Silenced,” features Tony Hughes, a victim of Dahmer’s who was deaf and an aspiring model. Though his mother has spoken against the show, his story is the most effective way Murphy solidified the monster that Dahmer was. This was achieved by focusing on the life and future that was lost, not the person that took the life. Of course, with shows like these, victims’ families are rarely consulted. The show highlights the problems with monetizing serial killers at the expense of the victims and their families, seemingly critiquing the media that did so; for example, Dahmer’s father’s book, “A Father’s Story.” Yet, it is monetizing it as well.
In all fairness, the show properly portrayed the systemic problems with the police’s handling of the case. The portrayal of the police’s involvement in unknowingly aiding Dahmer highlighted their incompetence, homphobia and racism. Despite the show’s other faults, Murphy was able to effectively show examples of this injustice and how the system let down each family – a real-world issue that continues to this day.
There has already been controversy surrounding people who are dressing up as Dahmer for Halloween. Something that again feeds this glamorization of depicting Dahmer as a celebrity and pop culture figure, rather than a regular person who committed horrific crimes. The creators needed to be more aware of how these shows can be impactful.
Overall, the viewer can be left with the impression that the show wants the audience to feel sorry for Dahmer, and that it wasn’t easy to see him as a monster by the end. His death is practically framed as tragic, and he is shown being baptized and seeking forgiveness just days before his murder. Any potential killers watching could be encouraged by this: become famous for your crimes and be immortalized through the memory of them twenty years later.
No matter how much “Dahmer” wants to set itself apart from other series, it cannot as long as it centers on a serial killer. There are too many real-world ramifications to be considered, and though the show believes it is self-aware, it does not avoid them.