With true crime shows on the horizon, Netflix is not one to let a money-grab go by. Known for their top streaming “Conversations with a Killer” series and the recent explosion of crime docuseries, it comes at no surprise that Ryan Murphy’s “Dahmer– Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” took first prize as Netflix’s top streaming show, surpassed by Murphy’s other successful show, “The Watcher” in early October. “Dahmer”, whose intention may seem progressive, has been collectively called out for “exploitative” and “retraumatizing” subject matter. Intended to make a political statement about police neglect and leniency towards white men in the judicial system, some audience members are disturbed by the central focus of the series—Dahmer himself.
According to the show’s co-producer, Ian Brennan, Murphy allegedly consulted several sources about the message of racial disparity in the series, including the Color of Change movement president, Rashad Robinson. Despite the attempt to amplify issues, however, these messages fall flat for some people, who are instead, distracted by Dahmer’s own portrayal. Played by Evan Peters, a main cast member of the American Horror Story anthology series, the hit show draws in fans of American Horror Story and true crime enthusiasts alike. The danger, however, may lie in Peters’ casting, whose history of acting roles consist of mass murderers and convicted killers. It is safe to assume that Peters serves as a symbol of attraction among audiences. And his portrayal of murderers does not hinder his appeal. Several are blaming Murphy for this intentional casting, questioning whether the show aims to confront issues or lure in audiences with sex appeal. In one particular scene, as the infamous serial killer is accused and entering jail, Peters strips naked and his backside is revealed. This tiny detail set the internet ablaze, reposted by TikTok and other major platforms. A YouTube video plays Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” while scenes of Peters are displayed and edited variously. This response only adds to the phenomenon of “romanticizing serial killers.” But, is the response another form of “fangirl” hysteria or is the media responsible as well?
“Dahmer” is not the first to cast an A-List actor in such a controversial role. Take Zac Efron’s Bundy, for example, in the fellow Netflix drama, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” And, Ross Lynch’s role as a high school aged一Dahmer in the 2017 biographical film, “My Friend, Dahmer.” Psychologist F. Diane Barth weighs in on this issue and shares her analysis of why: “…in some cases,” Barth reveals, “viewers may start to confuse the actor with the character.” This comes as no surprise, given that actors like Peters and Efron are romanticized outside their roles. But, Peters’ history of playing “deranged” roles may amplify the attraction.
In 2021, sex offender and serial murderer, Richard Ramirez was trending on TikTok in response to Netflix’s release of “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.” Ramirez, a Los Angeles killer who terrorized Angelinos in the 1980s, received his own fanbase and TikTok edits. Ramirez was constantly labeled “attractive” and even appeared in “thirst trap” edits, despite the nature of his crimes, and also confusingly, his poor dental hygiene. Ramirez, who was portrayed in American Horror Story’s ninth season, “1984”, did not garner such a wide response with this portrayal, which leads one to think if serial killer glamorization does lie within the audience. Ramirez, did receive countless marriage proposals in prison and in fact, married one of his “fangirls.” The Menendez brothers, a duo of killers who gruesomely slaughtered their parents, are an addition to the list. Shockingly, the Columbine High School shooters also have a whole fandom labeled “columbiners” dedicated to their worship and sympathy. Barthes acknowledges this phenomenon may lie outside the boundaries of media as she continues observing; “You might be, for example, trying to convince yourself that bad people have good qualities…Similarly, the attraction can be related to a woman’s own angry, rebellious, hateful, and violent feelings. ‘If he feels this way and I think, still underneath it all, a good guy, then maybe I’m good even though I feel this way too’.” Barth also attributes attraction to the “bad boy” phenomena that women are attracted to. But, should women be solely blamed for this issue?
As we saw, Ryan Murphy’s hit show is not the only show under fire for its portrayal of “misunderstood bad boys.” Efron’s show was criticized as well, in addition to Lynch’s portryal of Dahmer. So, where does this issue lie? The answer may lie in how we even hear about these serial killers in the first place. Detailing brutal crimes and unjust situations may contribute to a “non-physical infatuation” to serial killers. When any of their crimes are mentioned, we harbor a deep, id-contributed interest that may add to serial killers receiving “notoriety” or “fame”, in which the killer’s crimes become the sole focus of media sources. And that is the disturbing part. Instead of focusing on the stories of the victims, we are caught up by the horrendous acts of these killers-spawning countless shows and documentaries because their narratives are entertainingーdisregarding the victims entirely. This is the issue some victims’ families struggle with. Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, a promising young man, who was taken too soon by the famous Dahmer, had choice words about the portrayal of a real-life courtroom scene that involved herself. The scene is heartbreaking, as Isbell’s actress shouts at Peters, a replica of the real Isbell who emotionally confronted Dahmer himself in the courtroom. “When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” Isbell recounts. “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.” Isbell’s testimony is just one of many who are feeling betrayed by the insensitivity that comes with true crime portrayals. Hopefully, there will be more services and acknowledgment of the victim’s stories. Regardless, Netflix will keep producing these shows as long as they remain “relevant” to the public.
Image Courtesy of Netflix