Arts, Column

Vathanakul: From DAHMER to Conservations with a Killer, How the Media Portrays Murder as Entertainment

Having been a fan of the BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime—a comedic web series exploring unsolved crimes and supernatural horror tellings—since 2016, I have taken the next step to join the popular surge of many crime TV shows and documentaries. 

But after watching the new Netflix limited series DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, I began to question the factual accuracy, or lack thereof, of the popular genre of media. 

DAHMER has become the second most–watched show in the English language since its release on Sept. 21. The show takes root in Dahmer’s past trauma and childhood, fostering an appearance of justification for his actions. 

The series glorifies Dahmer (Evan Peters), the infamous serial killer, cannibal, and necrophile. 

By seeing a piece of humanity from Dahmer, viewers may feel inclined to sympathize with the murderer, while others have come to empathize with the families of victims and are angered by the direction of this series. 

The media has heavily critiqued DAHMER’s portrayal of victims, considering the lack of consultation with the victims’ families prior to the release of the series and how it exploits their stories.

The eighth episode tells the emotional and intricate story of Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s victims, but, according to his mother, it is not truthful to real life events and is an invasion of privacy.

“I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff out like that out there,” Shirley Hughes said in an interview with The Guardian

Similarly, the biographical movie of Ted Bundy titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile cast former Disney heartthrob Zac Efron as the notorious killer. The casting played a role in the romanticization of serial killers like Bundy, attracting a large-scale audience with the star power of many crime series. 

After finishing DAHMER, I’m left questioning the representation of both killers and victims in true crime media. I wonder how the entertainment industry continues to hook viewers while portraying a romanticised image of murderers and their crimes while misrepresenting the victims’ stories. 

It doesn’t feel right to watch a show for pure entertainment while I know that the victims’ families are reliving their trauma.

Of course, I’m not against all movies and shows about serial killers. The film Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., for example, takes an entertaining yet informative spin on the Zodiac Killer. Part of the reason for its success and astounding reviews is because the case still remains unsolved. 

The lack of a concrete identity of the Zodiac Killer makes his or her crimes less personal and intimate. This may have allowed producers to have more liberty in reproducing his crimes without the weight of ethical pressure.

Watching true crime documentaries is more enticing for me when they have a commitment to truthfulness. 

Netflix’s three-part docuseries Conversations with a Killer delves into the lives of three serial killers: Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. The series shares unheard tapes from their interrogations and thorough interviews with the perpetrators’ close associates, making it feel closer to the truth than many series in its genre. 

One of the most notable serial killer documentaries is Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, a nail-biting limited series about the case of Richard Ramirez. It follows a similar structure as Conversations with a Killer, but viewers journey along with the two detectives on the case. 

I prefer the docuseries’ format of the detectives’ step-by-step analysis and investigation over dramatic recreations of brutal legacies of murder. While watching it, I became intrigued by the meticulous details of Ramirez’s case, and I found myself attempting to solve the crime along the way. 

I believe that the stories of serial killers and true crime events should not be put to rest to prevent unheard stories of the victims from being lost to history. But the production of such TV shows and films often manipulates their stories, which deters from the ethical path of sharing the victims’ stories. 

So, rather than half-heartedly watching the romanticized version of true crime shows, I come to interrogate every show I watch with a detective hat on.   

A commitment to precision and accuracy, I’d say, is what makes true crime a complete and robust form of entertainment.

October 30, 2022