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The Dismissal of Ethics in Biographical Crime Dramas

The promotional release poster for “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” The show, which discusses the life of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, has been accused of glorifying Dahmer’s crimes. (Netflix)

Biographical crime thrillers are currently more popular than ever. Netflix’s “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” has been a massive hit on the popular streaming service since its release on Sept. 21, 2022, reaching over 701 million hours worth of streams. 

“Dahmer” recounts the horrors of the infamous serial killer known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal,” who was convicted in 1992 of brutally murdering 17 gay men and people of color. Evan Peters, Primetime Emmy Award winner and best known for his role in American Horror Story, stars as Jeffrey Dahmer. The series tells Dahmer’s story from several perspectives, including those of his victims, witnesses of his crimes and his own point of view. 

With a recent surge of movies and series such as “Dahmer,” the ethics about releasing such representations of these stories remains largely overlooked. Is it right to take real human tragedy and turn it into profitable content? The morality of making money off of someone else’s trauma and death needs to be questioned. 

To be perfectly honest, when I first watched Netflix’s drama like the other 56 million households that have, I didn’t have a single thought about whether the show was ethical. I was watching it to learn about the story and provide myself with entertainment. It was only when I saw a Twitter post which shared that the family of one of Dahmer’s victims was unhappy with Netflix’s release of the series that I began to contemplate the morality behind its creation. 

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The unhappy family member is Shirley Hughes, mother of victim Tony Hughes, who was deaf and mute and is a prominent figure in the series. She blames Netflix for enabling people to become “fans” of Dahmer and glorifying his crimes. “[The murder] didn’t happen like that,” Shirley Hughes told the Guardian. “I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff like that out there.”

A viral tweet points out that people have even made “romance Tiktok edits” between Tony Hughes and Dahmer. In episode six of the series, Tony Hughes and Dahmer’s romance is expanded upon, depicting their relationship as heartwarming and entirely sincere on Dahmer’s end. Dahmer would later drug and dismember Tony Hughes, keeping his skull in his apartment until it was later uncovered by police.

Eric Perry, cousin of victim Errol Lindsey, took to Twitter to tell people that the victims’ families weren’t notified about the making of the series, never mind receiving any percentage of the profits. “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what?” Perry said. “How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

Having seen the pain the victims’ families have had to endure for decades alongside mourning their losses, I’ve realized we, as viewers, need to be more sensitive towards biographical crime dramas such as “Dahmer.” It’s important to remember that these events were real and happened only 44 years ago. Many people lost a family member, a friend or someone they loved in a horrific way. Dahmer was a mentally ill man whose actions absolutely cannot be excused and especially should not be glorified. 

Since “Dahmer’s” release, many people have publicly romanticized and fantasized about Dahmer. Similarly, past media representations of other notorious serial killers, such as Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, have influenced the way people perceive those individuals. 

In the case of Netflix’s “Dahmer,” many people online have expressed how they sympathize for his neglectful childhood. “I felt sorry for him. He was clearly failed by everyone who was supposed to help him,” a user commented on TikTok. “So glad I’m not the only one who thought this.” 

Additionally, many known heartthrobs and attractive men have portrayed these roles, such as Zac Efron as Bundy and Peters as Dahmer, contributing to the romanticization of these killers. 

Viewers need to remind themselves that serial killers are not fictional characters; they were horrible people who did horrible things to real people. But most of all, the media needs to be more sensitive to how they portray serial killers. 

Of course, serial killers’ actions were often influenced by their trauma, but most people with similar trauma do not become serial killers. It is important to show the nature of these killers, but in the process of doing so, it is important to show how they killed people of their own volition. 

I believe Netflix’s “Dahmer” failed to do so by showing Dahmer’s recurring guilt for killing. Although it could be true that Dahmer was regretful, it should not be emphasized to the extent that people may sympathize for him. Any sense of sympathy felt should be with the victims. So, the next time you watch a biographical crime drama, remember to be sensitive to the fact that these stories are not fiction. 

By Sophia Jones

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About the Contributor
Sophia Jones, Arts Editor
Hi, I’m Sophia and I am currently a senior and the Arts Editor for Dateline. I began writing for Dateline sophomore year, and I currently write about a wide range of topics revolving around the arts; including movies/series, music, etc. Outside of Dateline I enjoy playing sports and creative writing.

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