As a true crime fan, I was extremely excited to see the premier of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story starring Evan Peters. I immediately knew Peters would be perfect for the role of Jeffrey Dahmer, given his range of horror roles in American Horror Story. And as far as entertainment value goes, this series gets 5/5 stars from me.
However, it’s understandable that the series, created by Ryan Murphy, is getting backlash from the families of Dahmer’s victims and the gay community in Milwaukee, where the majority of Dahmer’s murders were committed. And while most of the murder details are accurate, the show brings an uncomfortable feeling of sympathy toward the murderer.
The focus put on Dahmer’s apartment neighbor Glenda Cleveland, played by Niecy Nash, does bring to light the amount of effort she put into trying to get the police to investigate and arrest Dahmer. However, in doing so, this highlights the lack of care or respect from the officers who responded to her calls.
Did Netflix put in the effort to make sure the series was approved by the families of the victims and take care to portray their characters with respect? The criticism from Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, who was killed by Dahmer, indicates a hard no. Seeing herself portrayed on the show has brought back the trauma she endured during Dahmer’s trial.
In a comment to Insider, Isbell stated, “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.”
Not asking has not only shows a level of disrespect for the victims’ families but also indicates that Netflix is relying on the show as a cash and attention grab; it’s no secret that the streaming giant has capitalized on true crime subjects in the past, most notably with the Ted Bundy focused movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. However, that film was praised for its focus on the effect Bundy’s actions had on his fiancee, Liz, and gave her perspective.
Backlash for Monster goes in a much different direction. While I do believe Murphy was trying to focus on explaining the actual crimes and show how Dahmer’s childhood could have affected his later need to kill, the show seems to be humanizing Dahmer. And this seems like a direct contradiction, considering the show’s title literally contains the word “monster.” Furthermore, in showing the childhood trauma that Dahmer discussed while he was in custody, the show displays the serial killer in an almost sympathized light; a child whose illness as a child may have affected his brain, whose mother abused various pills during and after pregnancy, whose parents both neglected him and so forth is always going to garner sympathy. And there’s no way the showrunners and writers could say they hadn’t considered this.
So why choose this route for the series? Dahmer is one of the most notorious and disgusting serial killers in American history. Why paint him in a sad light rather than focus on the victims whose families are still in mourning? Dahmer, having been caught in 1991 and sentenced in 1992, this story is shockingly only 20 years old; it seems in poor taste for Netflix to completely disregard those families. This horror isn’t a story from before most of our times – the wounds left by Dahmer are still fresh. While the entertainment value is there, the timing was extremely poor.
And then there’s the issue of adding the LGBTQ tag to the show. Dahmer, who knew he was gay and sought out gay men to murder, is not an accepted member of the queer community, especially in Milwaukee, where the majority of the murders were executed. To make this connection between the murderer and the community he targeted is to show the world that gays can, and perhaps will, be connected to murders or becoming a murderer. Queer communities are already marginalized and demonized by non-queer people and groups. Adding the LGBTQ tag to this series gives those groups more reason to continue doing so. After much criticism, Netflix removed that tag from its streaming platform.
Despite all of the general pushback on the show, it should be noted that the episode Silenced was a well-done depiction of Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s victims. Hughes was Black, deaf and gay, and seeing an entire episode dedicated to him was a major win for the series. Not only does it give a voice to someone whose identity has been history silenced and metaphorically swept under the rug, it is huge. Not only was it great to see Tony’s story being told, but the creative direction of the episode showcased a focus on how he saw the world versus how Dahmer saw him. The stylistic choice to remove all audio from scenes where Tony and his friends were signing to each other and the silence in a club scene focused on Tony’s perspective brought attention to Tony’s life and gave life to his character. Ironically, the episode greatly humanized Tony while doing the same for Dahmer, who struggled with romantic feelings for Tony.
And that’s where the issue lies. While the effort was made to focus on some of Dahmer’s victims, doing so also tried to explain Dahmer’s rationalization and cultivated a sense of understanding and sympathy. If Dahmer struggled with romantic feelings, doesn’t that give him a level of compassion? Is compassion not a redeeming quality? It’s only fair to assume that in giving an explanation for Dahmer’s actions, the show also tries to redeem him at some level. It may not be intentional, but it does beg the question of whether Murphy and Netflix have wanted to appeal to viewers on an emotional level to capitalize on the true crime genre.
All in all, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is an exceptional entertainment story. But the series’s timing, the blatant disregard for respecting the victims’ families, and its effect on the queer community have upset viewers. These issues remind us to consider which lens we’re looking through when it comes to true crime shows and subjects and to try looking through another lens to understand how forms of media can show the tragedy and trauma can have on others.