The question plaguing many people’s minds when Ryan Murphy announced his latest project Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was simply: Why? Why another fictionalized piece about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the third in the last 20 years? Why another show about Dahmer when Netflix released a documentary of conversations with him on October 7? Why such a lengthy, cumbersome title?
The frequency of media around Jeffrey Dahmer reflects a larger true crime consumption pattern in recent years. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Zodiac Killer – there’s a long list of Netflix documentaries and fictionalized stories on serial killers, now joined by two (!) Dahmer depictions and the unique, morbid nature of his crimes.
Due to the frequency, commonness and nuance of Dahmer’s media representation, he serves as the perfect case study to examine the broader phenomenon of true crime documentaries and biopics, and the best and worst aspects true crime media has to offer. Here are three recent portrayals that exemplify the victories, controversies and complexities surrounding the use of horrific crime stories for financial gain.
My Friend Dahmer
Directed by: Mark Myers; Year: 2017
My Friend Dahmer is a fictionalized version of Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) in his high school years. It’s based on a 2012 graphic memoir by John Backderf about his adolescent friendship with Dahmer. Looking at Dahmer’s early years as a standard 1970s/1980s bullied outcast teen, the tone invites you to sympathize with him. Of course, there are hints and signs that there is something deeply wrong with Dahmer, but the film is guilty of the number-one issue true crime critics have with films like this: sympathizing with a killer.
In its focus on Dahmer’s origin story, the film (like many biopics) feels more like a justification than an explanation for the crimes Dahmer goes on to commit. The emphasis on his unpleasant youth paints a picture of a tortured young soul who resorts to violence for what little control he has in his own life. This issue can come up when filmmakers search for “the moment” in which a normal person becomes a killer. There is often emphasis on abuse, social ostracization, mental illness or other traumatic events in childhood, with even more drama for effect.
My Friend Dahmer is an exaggerated version of everything wrong with true crime media. It pulls attention away from the victims, attempts to elicit sympathy for a criminal and isn’t based on fact. In general, this biopic feels more concerned with entertainment than information or respecting the real people involved.
Dahmer on Dahmer: A Serial Killer Speaks
Directed by: Nancy Glass; Year: 2017
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and from the same year, Dahmer on Dahmer: A Serial Killer Speaks is a two-part documentary from renowned video and radio journalist Nancy Glass. Glass uses a mixture of her exclusive 1992 interview with Jeffrey Dahmer, clips from local news reports, interviews with his family, neighbors and victims and brief reenacted shots to compile as many perspectives about him as possible. The culmination of these perspectives is a complex picture that best reflects unbiased, factual reality.
Critics of true crime media often argue that profit from real violence of this nature is exploitative and often retraumatizing. However, documentary is a genre that finds itself positioned better than fiction or biopics because it is all rooted in pure fact with the intention to inform. This documentary does not sensationalize Dahmer’s violence quite like biopics about him because it cannot; the nature of documentary means the film is composed of news reports and interviews, not of dramatized or sensationalized reenactments. While this method does not, by any means, eliminate the effects of retraumatization, there is something more honorable in a documentarian attempt than a fictionalized one. It is not as graphic, to say the least.
As a true crime documentary fan myself, it’s difficult to admit that this documentary is not without fault in its contributions to the true crime problem. In its attempts to stick to unbiased fact, true crime documentary as a genre often fails to recognize patterns and systemic issues. Dahmer on Dahmer describes Jeffrey as “virtually undetected” or “right under our noses,” which is simply inaccurate. Dahmer had the cops called on him multiple times and was found suspicious by multiple neighbors, but police either didn’t take reports seriously because they were from Black people or failed to thoroughly investigate due to contemporary stigmas surrounding homosexuality.
While documentaries can provide perhaps the most comprehensive and complex depiction of serial killers, it rarely grasps the societal issues that permit such crimes to occur unperturbed. Glass’s documentary does not specifically examine how Dahmer preyed on society’s most vulnerable populations in his later years: low income, sometimes disabled, Brown or Black, gay men. As a documentary, it is much stronger than a fictionalized film like My Friend Dahmer, but it still contributes to the large (and growing) media on serial killers and fails to recognize social problems at the risk of sounding biased.
Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
Directed by: Ryan Murphy; Year: 2022
Of course, at the center of all chatter and controversy, is the most recent representation in Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Like many biopics, it was riddled with problematic aspects, but it also had something unique to it. While the first half of the series is dedicated to Dahmer himself and the crimes he commits, the second half of the series focuses on the victims, neighbors, families and systemic failures in the aftermath of Dahmer’s arrest.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the biopic is episode six, “Silenced,” in which almost the entire episode is dedicated to Anthony Hughes, a victim of Dahmer who was deaf and mute, and the details of his life. The buildup and character development make it that much more devastating to know his inevitable fate, and when it does come, it delivers the emotional impact it should. True crime consumption can lead to desensitization in the face of murder, but this episode was a reminder that every victim of a killer was a real person with ambitions, friends, family and a personality.
The biopic’s greatest strength is its approach to exposing the systemic issues of racism, homophobia and police negligence which allow Dahmer to continue his spree. As mentioned before, biopics have a nasty habit of trying to make excuses for people who commit horrible crimes, but Dahmer works to differentiate itself.
The main problem with Dahmer, however, is its very existence. As the latest in a long history of movies and shows about the serial killer, it becomes a repetitive and haunting reminder for the families and friends who knew the people that Dahmer killed. Repeated true crime media, like the multiple films and documentaries about Ted Bundy for example, strip survivors of their ability to move on from a traumatic event by constantly reminding them of the occurrence. Most true crime media these days are not about Jack the Ripper – the people affected by these serial killers are still alive today.
The nature of biopic as a genre will forever frame serial killers as someone to be understood, thereby eliciting some form of undeserved empathy from the audience. The ultimate problem with serial killer media is that its very existence glamorizes criminals by giving them fame, even in the form of notoriety. By attempting to understand the psyche of a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer, the media inherently gives the public reasons to justify his actions.
Jeffrey Dahmer states it himself in his 1992 interview with Nancy Glass, saying, “The person to blame is sitting right across from you. It's the only person. Not parents, not society, not pornography. I mean, those are just excuses.”
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Baffo/Netflix.