Opinion | The ethics of ‘Dahmer’

A commentary on the ethics of true crime television adaptations


Emma Matzen | Oct. 31, 2022

Following crime cases has always been a huge phenomenon, such as in the trials of OJ Simpson and Ted Bundy, who both garnered over 100 million viewers on live television.

However, the rise of online true crime “content” – cases covered in podcasts or YouTube videos – blew up in 2014 with the release of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, which covered the murder of Hae Min Lee, and her convicted killer Adnan Syed, and whether or not he was truly guilty of the crime. 

After Serial accumulated wide-acclaim as the fastest podcast to ever achieve 5 million downloads, several other true crime podcasts followed suit in trying to get momentum on the Serial craze. With an uptick in media covering true crime – more specifically, violent crime, as it gains more of a following – one must wonder about the ethics of making and watching that kind of content. 

It’s understandable to have a morbid curiosity. Many have also claimed that listening to true crime cases has been helpful for knowing how to avoid dangerous situations. However, it doesn’t seem like all true crime fans consider the very real people who were hurt in many of these crimes. Netflix recently released a limited series on notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer titled Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story in September of this year. It was an instant hit. Not surprising, considering it stars famed horror actor Evan Peters, known primarily for his roles in hit television show American Horror Story – which was Netflix’s second most-watched English language series of all time following Stranger Things. 

Dahmer’s director Ryan Murphy claims that the show largely focuses on the crimes from the point of view of the victims, and doesn’t sympathize with Dahmer. However, many people have disputed these claims, as the show gives many “reasons” for Dahmer’s murders: child neglect and bullying, among other things. As for being from the point of view of the victims, while it could be a choice out of good merit, it doesn’t hold weight when none of the victims’ families were contacted about the show in the first place. Due to the nature of public records, the show didn’t need to get consent from the families of Dahmer’s victims, nor provide any financial compensation.

In fact, family members have spoken out about how the show has affected them. Eric Perry, cousin of victim Errol Lindsey said: “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” 

There have also been disturbing online trends following the release of Dahmer: “sexy” TikTok edits of Evan Peters’ portrayal of the killer, people dressing up their children as Dahmer for Halloween, and Dahmer’s real glasses being sold at auction for $150,000. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon when it comes to true crime.

For years, certain true crime fans have made weird comments about criminals online. There exists not only posts calling killers like Ted Bundy “hot,” but also fanfiction about the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, among a myriad of other strange posts and accounts online that not only glorify but also fantasize about serial killers. 

In truth, true crime content like Netflix’s Dahmer doesn’t serve a purpose except to use a real, horrifying case and turn it into entertainment for profit. It retraumatizes families of victims, and caused an influx of weirdos online to fetishize horrific events and people. While Dahmer is not the first show to have these issues, it is certainly the one that has had the most impact. 


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