(Credit: Netflix)

Editor's Choice

Assessing the damage: Has our obsession with serial killers gone too far?

Serial killers are now big business in the entertainment world. We have been obsessed with true crime for years now, but recently it has it reached a peak. When people were drawn towards the record-breaking Netflix series DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story because of reports that people were physically nauseated by the gruesome depictions of murders that played out for real only a few decades ago, the question came to mind: should we really be making entertainment about murderers?

Since DAHMER – Monster first aired, various people connected with the tragedies have condemned the show. Rita Isbell, whose brother, Errol Lindsey, was murdered by Dahmer in 1991, came forward and said: “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.” The damning conceit of this was that the streaming giant was “just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed,” she concluded. 

Eric Perry, another relative of a victim, said that the series was “retraumatising over and over again, and for what?” The rebuke of the series is that they are helping to illuminate how prejudice perpetuated the problem and systemic bias let Dahmer get away with his crimes for so long. Their argument is that the show proves informative and helps to hold law enforcement accountable. 

However, do we really need a TV series to do this? Is that the main point that people garner from the series? Is the retraumatising impact on those connected really worth it? Is it highlighting any issues that weren’t already being addressed outside of the world of entertainment? Does the dangerous potential for misguided fetishization supersede the apparent ‘illuminating’ angle of the show? The answer to all these questions is damning. When push comes to shove, I think you’d struggle to sincerely argue any counter other than millions of people have found it ‘entertaining’.

Thus, the question boils down to this: is entertainment enough to justify it? Our obsession with serial killers is a natural one. They are responsible for less than 1% of murders in the US each year, and Scott Bonn, a sociologist at Drew University, estimates there are less than two dozen active at any given time. Yet, our fascination with this tiny, grisly asterisk to society endures, often dwarfing far larger problems, which he puts down to a “kind of cultural hysteria”. That hysteria has reached a fever point. 

There are masses, in fact, the majority of people, who would happily accept that DAHMER and other similar series are damaging but continue to engage in them. This is observed without judgement—it’s not like most of the world’s population have a condemnable perversion. These shows are a way for many of us to unwind and escape the daily grind of modern society. Scientifically, they jolt a visceral reaction in us that allows for much-needed escapism. Besides, the cases are well documented and important pieces of public knowledge, delving into them with a cuppa after work hardly is recapitulating the actual crimes.

However, this bypasses the gritty issue of empathy that is often disregarded. It is not cast aside callously; it is simply that the crimes are often so heinous and detached from our own lives that they almost seem like an alternate reality. However, imagine, if you will, having gone through the unimaginable trauma of losing a loved one, having to endure the horrors of a trial and all the media coverage thereafter, only to attempt to get on with your life and make your reconciliations with society, and then years later have to suffer the retraumatising experience of being reminded of the catastrophe. Imagine seeing your loved one cast in a fictitious depiction of events while Netflix makes millions, and Dahmer’s fame grows. 

Can you name one of the victim’s family members? Can you cite one of the many who have tirelessly campaigned for justice in true crime cases? Could you identify a picture of Ian Brady before you identified Marie McCourt, the campaigner who vied to enact ‘Helen’s Law’ which prevents parole for killers and paedophiles upholding information about their victims following the murder of her daughter? These are the disturbing realities that we often turn a blind eye to because it doesn’t affect us directly and we can happily claim that true crime is informative and reproachful. The fact of the matter is, a full disclosed report is far more informative but it’s just not as entertaining as seeing the wonderful Evan Peters do a cracking job of re-enacting unspeakable horrors.

This is not necessarily always the case with true crime (whether fictional or documentary based). Often victims’ families are contacted and work closely with producers to tell their side of the story. Their tales are told with approval and the angle is one geared towards raising awareness. Psychologists and law enforcement experts can show how our society is complicit with the crimes and examine how such incidents come to pass. This is true of countless true crime shows and they may well elucidate societal problems. 

Moreover, some shows have even brought important new evidence to light. Questioning in this regard is vitally important. For instance, psychological experts claim that authorities are beset by the problem of confirmation bias and a mind-blowing 1-5% of American prisoners have been wrongly convicted. Even the lowest estimate would suggest that 20,000 prisoners are innocent. If true crime can exonerate even one of them then surely that is a victory?

However, the question still remains about whether even these judicious shows that consult families and shed new evidence should be receiving so much airtime. That might sound counterintuitive given that they can have a positive impact, but many experts think our obsession with crime is going too far and having a damaging impact. As crime psychologist Emma Kenny asserts: “Life is best spent around good people doing good things, exposing yourself to the best things in the world that you can expose yourself to… we should never be desensitized to the horror.” What does that say when so many of us are curling up with non-fiction tales of killers?

It has been shown that the consumption of true crime makes us more fearful of encountering such incidents despite actual crime rates around us. In other words, you could be living in a utopia but if you’re continually consuming true crime you will perceive a greater everyday threat. This is partly why we enjoy them in the first place. Enjoyment of mysteries (even solved ones) is evolutionarily hardwired in our DNA because it serves our survival well to solve them. However, overexposure increases anxiety, depression and other mental stresses. Thus, even if you dismiss the ethical issues, the genuine entertainment value of serial killer dramas is also questionable once the thrills have subsided. 

We can’t escape our own interests. True crime won’t go away. Perhaps it shouldn’t. It can, after all, be a very illuminating form of engagement. However, we must be careful that it is created ethically and with a pertinent point in mind that goes beyond simply telling an interesting story for macabre kicks. Finally, we need to ensure that we aren’t overindulging in it for the benefit of our shared conscience as a scoiety.