Recently, Netflix released a ten-part TV series on serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, with Evan Peters playing the real-life murderer. Each episode goes over Dahmer’s dark history of murder, assault, and the cannibalism of his various victims (some of whom were young as 14) in excruciating detail.
Some audiences claimed to have “switched off” due to the sheer brutality of the series, but if you head over to Netflix’s homepage, the streamer states that the drama series is No.1 in their Top 10 most-watched shows, as the trailer, showing Dahmer with one of his victims, autoplays with smooth, stylish, R&B synth-pop in the background.
This is far from the streaming service‘s first foray into true crime. Netflix documentaries like ‘Making a Murderer, ‘Don’t F**k With Cats’, and ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes’ ended up not just exploding in popularity but also making killers like Ted Bundy akin to a household name: with ‘fans’ lamenting across Twitter about how ‘hot’ he was.
The argument that you shouldn’t go around calling serial killers ‘hot’ has circulated more times than a carousel in recent years. It’s wrong because it centres on the killer. It’s wrong because it detracts from their actions. It’s wrong because it trivializes the suffering of their victims.
Some things are so objectively messed up and in poor taste that they shouldn’t even need saying, and yet we keep finding ourselves here: time and time again, begging people not to put some of the most heinous people in human history on a pedestal. So why does this keep happening?
Some may argue that we can blame Netflix — their official Twitter, for instance, promotes the show with the same language as a teenage fangirl, saying they “can’t stop thinking about” one particularly disturbing scene from the show.
Instead of calling out audience members for treating the case as an object of frivolous obsession — as Penn Badgley did after viewers started ‘thirsting’ over his monstrous character Joe in the Netflix series You — it feels like they’re trying to hype up this kind of attention around the show, furthering enabling their audience in the process.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that on TikTok, dozens of K-pop ‘fancam’ style edits and ‘thirst traps’ of Dahmer are already popping up along with tweets swooning over them. Ever emboldened, some small-time designers have even taken the opportunity to create unofficial merchandise dedicated to Dahmer, with one viral video showing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Choke me like Bundy and eat me like Dahmer.”
Although this latest Dahmer series has garnered praise for showing more about the victims than the killer, the argument of ‘raising awareness’ only goes so far. Dahmer is long dead and captured, and one of the families of Dahmer’s victims have spoken out to say that this latest televised iteration of his death isn’t just counter-productive but actively harmful for them.
“It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what?” a family member of one of Dahmer’s victims asked on Twitter. “How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” In total, there have been fourteen TV show episodes/dramatizations/documentaries focused on Dahmer along with five feature-length documentaries and drama movies.
When it gets to a point where 21 independently-produced pieces of media have been created around one killer, you have to ask yourself whether any pre-existing good intentions are left, or if they’ve become warped and caught up in the spectacle and potential entertainment value of it all.
Yet, at the same time, it would be disingenuous to say that the production companies, streamers, showrunners, and directors are the only ones to blame. All businesses, after all, work on a basis of supply and demand. If there wasn’t demand for trendy drama series or biopics, then these businesses wouldn’t supply it.
We can try and make ourselves feel better — saying we are more interested in the victims and remembering them — but data from Google Trends shows that interest in Jeffery Dahmer has shot up to an average of 1.2 million searches a month.
Meanwhile, the number of people searching for Dahmer’s victims is just 27,100 — just over 2% of the above figure. Of the minuscule fraction of people who care enough to find out more about them, they’re only known by their association with Dahmer. They’re remembered as perpetual, two-dimensional victims as opposed to well-rounded individuals who had their lives tragically cut short. Is this their legacy? Is this the consequence of a series like this?
That isn’t to say millions of us are serial killer sympathisers. Maybe we fancy ourselves armchair psychologists, desperate to understand what it is that makes people like that tick. But let’s be real for a second — that’s just arrogance on our part. The vast majority of us are not criminal psychologists, or Dr. Harleen Quinzel in the depths of Arkham Asylum, and we shouldn’t be using real-life tragedies to live out our own vain, navel-gazing fantasies. Consuming content like this, irrespective of the intention, makes us part of the problem.
Furthermore, no matter how we try to justify it, even a lot of us moralizers have no leg to stand on. Even our earnest (and sometimes performative) tweets and TikToks about how consuming this kind of content is wrong can have the adverse effect, with the virility of this content in and of itself serving to give the likes of Dahmer the thing they ultimately crave more than anything else: attention.
When it comes to policing ideas and creativity, it’s a fine tightrope to walk, but in cases like these we need to remember that if we immortalise a serial killer, we’re playing right into their hands. We’re giving them the one thing they always wanted. So, out of respect for the victims and the greatest possible disrespect for Dahmer, we should allow him to fade into obscurity.