Netflix’s ‘Dahmer’ exploits victims

Billy Bernfeld, Contributing Writer

On Sept. 21, 2022, Netflix released the controversial drama series “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Starring actor Evan Peters, “Dahmer” depicts the life and murders of its namesake serial killer through a storylike narrative-based format.

Shortly after its release, the series received mixed reviews. Some have praised it for its acting and production, while others have rightfully condemned it for its exploitative practices. While the outrage may fizzle out and fade into obscurity, we need to have detailed discussions about the questions it raises: why do people dislike the series? Who is to blame for the controversy? And why are programs like “Dahmer” inherently harmful?

The drama series portrays Jeffrey Dahmer’s life as a tale to be told, rather than a tragedy to be taught. In each episode, its priority seems to be to portray Dahmer less as a monstrous criminal and more as a tragic protagonist, albeit a morally reprehensible one. This is the essence of why the series is problematic and this theme needs to be addressed.

Nate Rich

Dahmer is notorious for the murder and dismemberment of 17 people, each of whom are treated in the series as mere casualties for his racist, homophobic killing spree. Ignoring the victims’ humanity and dismissing the trauma that Dahmer inflicted upon their families is nothing short of obscene. Moreover, it glorifies Dahmer by turning him into a horror character similar to the likes of Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. It presents him as a fantastical force to be followed and watched by an audience, rather than a horrifying manifestation of some of society’s biggest problems. To put Dahmer on a pedestal while showing disrespect for his victims is deeply disturbing — and exploiting their tragedy for profit is absolutely vile.

Real people are affected not only by the actions of people like Dahmer but also by the systemic bigotry and neglect that aided him. The problem, however, is that companies like Netflix don’t care — when it comes to true crime, they’re only in it for entertainment, even if it means exploiting victims and their families while virtually ignoring the systemic homophobia and racism that allowed Dahmer to slaughter so many people.

Not every worthwhile piece of media needs a lesson, but with topics such as murder and the aftermath thereof, respect for the dead is a requirement. When dealing with the victims of a killer, there is an unspoken question of ethics that every documentarian must find a way to answer: what can people learn from this tragedy?

A true crime documentary needs to be treated with the same care that the people whose stories it tells deserve. They must be treated with courtesy and common decency, as must their families, whose trauma persists to this day. Sadly, though, “Dahmer” does not do that — it follows the format of a horror movie.

Series like “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween,” follow the bloody escapades of fictional murderers as they hack and slash their way through crowds of people. Serial killers are a staple of modern popular culture; enjoying a good slasher film is perfectly fine. The problem comes when we try to make thrilling stories out of real events because there is a major difference between a slasher film and a true crime documentary: one is fictional while the other is not.

Making a drama series from Dahmer’s point of view treats him as if he is the protagonist of the story, rather than the villain. It glorifies him and the havoc he wreaked. In my opinion, a better approach would be to depict the story from the perspective of his victims, whose crucial voices and experiences were somewhat neglected in lieu of the focus on Dahmer.

When discussing true crime and the criminals who fuel the genre, we need to take a step back and recognize that there is a serious weight to how we portray the horrors of history. It is possible to make a program about serial killers, but it must be done in a way that emphasizes their problematic nature and what society can learn from their very existence.

Serial killers are not horror characters, nor are their victims. In order to learn from them and improve as a society, we need to understand what they represent. “Dahmer” doesn’t take the time to properly unpack the systemic homophobia and racism that enabled Dahmer to commit murder, nor does it address the severity of the murders themselves — it only capitalizes on shock value.

If we idolize Dahmer, we send the message that what he did was somehow okay — and as a result, some people glorify serial killers because the concept has been aestheticized, as horrifying as that development is. The more this occurs, the more people will ignore the suffering of Dahmer’s victims and feed into society’s perverse obsession with the perpetrator of those families’ trauma. As a result, those same people learn nothing from Netflix’s Dahmer-centric program, and the cycle of negligence continues. 

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