On the 21st of September, Netflix released Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. It’s the latest output from the renowned producer Ryan Murphy, the creator of American Horror Story. Like the many seasons of AHS, Dahmer features Evan Peters in its leading role, this time playing Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer of the 1980s and 90s.
In a promotional audio clip for the show, Peters tells listeners that the main principle of the show’s creation was to ensure that the story “would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view”. He goes on to say that “as an audience, [we’re] not really sympathising with him, […] [we’re] more sort of watching it from the outside. […] It’s not just him and his backstory, it’s the repercussions […] it’s how society and the system failed to stop him multiple times, because of racism, homophobia … it’s a tragic story.”
On the one hand, I agree. The second half of the show in particular does its best to focus on the implications of Dahmer’s murders and on how they were allowed to occur over a thirteen-year span. And yet, despite Murphy’s best intentions, it does so little. Only one episode of the ten is focused on one of the victims, Anthony Hughes, while the rest of Dahmer’s seventeen victims are denied a backstory and a legacy, often remaining nameless during the show (until the credits of the final episode, where a collage of the faces and names of those killed is showed). The first few episodes especially are, more than anything, a constant procession of gore, horror, and “unwatchably queasy” footage, as a recent Guardian review put it. Most disturbingly is the dizzying blend of violence with sexual imagery; watching Peters’ character brutally lobotomising a fourteen-year-old boy, to masturbating over the organs of a dead fish, to working out, topless and sweaty — with plenty of close-up camera shots of his toned physique.
The glamourisation, and even sexualisation, of serial killers, is something that’s been happening in Hollywood for several years now. Everyone remembers Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in 2019, whose casting caused plenty of controversy at the time, or Darren Criss as the murderer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018). Alongside Evan Peters, these actors are regarded as heartthrobs, none more so than Efron, who won People’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ list in 2017, a feat which I doubt the real Ted Bundy could have achieved. The portrayal of these abhorrent villains by attractive, famous young men removes some of the stigmas against them; with every new true-crime show filmed in this way, some bizarre Twitter hashtag calling them hot, inevitably pops up, as demonstrated by a recent New York Post article, titled: ‘People are thirsting for Jeffrey Dahmer after Netflix show turns killer into sex symbol’.
As Dahmer remains number one on Netflix in seventy-five countries worldwide, I think it’s important that we think about the implications that fetishizing him, amongst other killers, will have. Worse than just creating modern-day fan clubs for serial killers, shows like Dahmer do not just portray these killers as sexy, misunderstood young men; more than that, they exploit the real-life victims and their families. A family member of Errol Lindsay, a victim of Jeffrey Dahmer, recently took to Twitter to condemn the show for “re-traumatising” his family, and essentially exploiting their devastation without really giving them, or the victims, a voice. Our desire to understand the psyche of these psychopaths is understandable; we all want to know why and how people can act in a such horrific ways. Yet, when it harms real people today, perhaps it’s finally time we stop glorifying serial killers, stop the disruption to the families of their victims, and turn to fiction instead.