Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Netflix)
Just as Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy contentiously stole the hearts of thousands of warped fans around the world, a TV show based on a serial killer has made people empathetic for a murderer yet again. I’m talking about Netflix’s latest series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story – a shiny, Hollywood retelling of the gruesome and vile serial murders Jeffrey Dahmer committed over a decade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Our obsession with true crime has boomed in recent years, alongside a swell of depictions of serial murderers in podcasts, TV shows and movies. Books, high-budget films (ZODIAC) and even documentaries have been produced for decades on the subject – but the introduction of “serial murder” as a topic for the digital generation to sink its teeth into has introduced more complicated relationships with characters who, both alive and dead, are probably not worthy of the idolatry they receive.
The Dahmer series is just the most recent instalment in a run of adaptations that has reignited the discussion on how we characterise killers.
In haphazard fashion, The Jeffrey Dahmer Story documents the upbringing, trauma, murders, trial and death of the Milwaukie killer. We meet his father, absent through much of his childhood, his mother, who during his gestation was addicted to prescription medicine and who struggled with her mental health, and his high school bullies, who tormented him. From his interactions we learn that he develops an unhealthy attachment style - a part of his personality that underscores the motive for his killings. He’s “lonely”, “misunderstood”, trying to fill the void of absent parents through murdering victims so that they never leave.
I mean, shit, at points I’d catch myself feeling sorry for him. But that’s the problem.
A few days ago, a TikTok video, racking up tens of thousands of views, perfectly captured this uncomfortable, stage-managed reality: “Why do I feel sorry [for] Jeffrey?”
“I think that he’s crazy, I know he’s crazy and in my mind I think you’re fucked,” a girl says to camera. “But in my heart, I feel really sorry for you –that you’re that lonely that this is the lengths that you go to want to feel close to somebody.”
She then added that he might be autistic which “breaks her heart even more.”
The comments weren’t any better.
“Jeff was a good man and that’s why he gave the men quick deaths, he didn’t want to hurt them. I cried when he died,” read one.
“Me too, wish he was still alive, I’d defo write to him,” said another.
“No, because it really made me so upset that he was so ignored. This all could have been avoided if someone had just one deep conversation with him,” said a third.
It is, of course, not isolated to one video. If you search “Jeffrey Dahmer” on TikTok, it reveals a rolodex of videos from people – mostly young women – empathising with a man who literally kept the heads and bones of the men he killed in his apartment.
Though many comments cemented their distaste, others pointed to the fact that the sympathy stemmed from seeing one of their favourite actors, Evan Peters (a known heart throb), portraying the role.
Of course, all of this reaction to the Netflix exclusive was predicted. Just as it was released, people almost desperately begged others to avoid romanticising Dahmer.
“It’s okay to praise Evan Peters for his performance, he is a brilliant actor. BUT DO NOT ROMANTICIZE HIM IN THE ROLE AS JEFFREY DAHMER,” said one particularly desperate post on Twitter.
While shows like these dive into the personal circumstances of the killers, they could also be seen to humanise their actions. In explaining empathetic failures and mental ailments, they almost make excuses for their vile murders.
One memorable episode, in which Dahmer and deaf victim Tony Hughes interact in a loving relationship before Dahmer murders him, depicts the murderer as capable of love. When Hughes tries to leave him, however – a known scar from childhood – he transgresses back into “Jeffrey Dahmer, Murderer ™. It’s scenes like these that separate evil from black and white, a trend that TV shows based on killers have fallen into. It says: “If he had just received love, he may not have done what he did”.
But that’s a fallacy; a trick to make their characters more approachable. By placing the murderer’s story centre stage, the victims become bystanders, nothing but plot points that aid the character arc of a killer.
Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan said in a press release that their motive was to, "showcase the points of view of Dahmer's victims,” but there really is no evidence of that in the final show. In fact, various family members have been quoted saying that they were neither briefed or told that the series was to go ahead.
Rita Isbell, who delivered a powerful speech during Dahmer’s hearing, detailing her disgust for the man who murdered her brother Errol Lindsey, said on Insider: “I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
“It's sad that they're just making money off of this tragedy. That's just greed. The episode with me was the only part I saw. I didn't watch the whole show. I don't need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened.”
While those that feel sorry for serial killers in overblown Hollywood productions may only make up a small part of the population, the continued choice of portrayal is partly to blame, alongside our true crime obsession. It is a fact that we live in a hyper-driven, internet-first culture now. Things move quickly, obsessions are sparked out of nothing, and everything is hard to control.
While most report disgust towards the show, for others he’s just another Hollywood hottie.