The problems with true crime entertainment

Netflix’s new crime thriller series “Dahmer” disturbingly depicts the murders of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and, unsurprisingly, viewers are loving it. Although fictionalized reenactments of true crime never fail to attract fans, they also never fail to romanticize and trivialize real-life killers. 

“Dahmer” and another more recent crime drama movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” have something in common: the killer is played by a notorious heartthrob. In “Dahmer,” Evan Peters plays Jeffrey Dahmer and Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” Both actors have been dubbed “the Sexiest Actor Alive” in different editions of Glamour. 

Some argue that this casting choice is appropriate as the real Bundy and Dahmer were attractive and charming. However, I would argue that this casting choice was not to maintain accuracy but to promote viewership among young women who find these actors attractive.

On social media platforms, fans post video edits of Peters while he is acting as a convicted serial killer and sex offender. Commenters thirst over Peters’s portrayal, while others post response videos wearing pictures of Dahmer’s face as earrings.

Not only do true crime series and movies contribute to the romanticization of killers, but they also trivialize and dramatize these tragedies for the sake of entertainment. Anne E. Schwartz, a crime reporter who broke Dahmer’s story, told the Independent that the series has inaccuracies. For example, Glenda Cleveland is Dahmer’s neighbor in the show, but that is not true in the real case. 

Schwartz said herself, “I had trouble with buy-in because I knew that was not accurate. But people are not watching it that way, they’re watching it for entertainment.”

As someone who has been interested in true crime, I understand why viewers would be interested to learn about Dahmer. However, I question the ethics behind creating a show that exploits and dramatizes a real tragedy to make it more entertaining for viewers. The lack of attention to detail and accuracy may lead one to wonder where Netflix’s priorities are. For what purpose—besides to make money—would Netflix make an inaccurate series about the murders of young men and boys. It reads as insensitive and distasteful. 

To make matters worse, the victims’ families were not contacted about the show before its release. Many who knew victims claim the show is traumatizing them all over again. Rita Isbell, sister of victim Errol Lindsey, describes in an interview with Insider that watching an actress portray her impact statement at Dahmer’s sentencing was like reliving the moment.

“(Netflix) didn’t ask me anything. They just did it. But I’m not money hungry, and that’s what this show is about, Netflix trying to get paid,” Isbell said in the interview. 

Unfortunately, Netflix does not have to get permission from the family or provide compensation, so Netflix and other media companies will continue to profit off tragedy while the victims are left to suffer. 

Just over the past week, Lifetime released a film about Gabby Petito, a girl who was murdered by her fiancé while on a van trip. It has hardly been a year since she was killed, and her story is already being exploited. Unsurprisingly, her family did not approve of the film.

After the popularity of these depictions diminishes, there will be another true crime show or movie to retraumatize victims’ families. It is a cruel, never-ending cycle. Sure, true crime entertainment may be amusing, but entertainment is not worth the damage and pain that coincides.