There are thousands of things to watch on Netflix—but right now, two of the top ten shows on the platform are about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a drama series produced by Ryan Murphy, broke Netflix records in its opening week last month, according to the Los Angeles Times, and remains the platform’s most popular English language series. Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, a docuseries, debuted a week ago. Both portray one of the most gruesome serial killers in American history.
The popularity of these series is no surprise given the growth of true crime as an entertainment genre—everything from podcasts to narrative journalism to television series and films entrance audiences with storytelling, suspense, and a collective longing for justice.
But the popularity of these programs, especially those that reiterate the horrifying acts of serial killers, reveals a rotten reality about our society. Seeing Monster at the top of Netflix’s trending list should prick our consciences and drive us to consider how such shows affect us and the real-life people whose stories are flattened for our screens. The dark rise of serial killer true crime has moral weight for those who aim to reflect a God of light and life.
Monster dramatizes the horrific crimes of a man who brutally slaughtered and in some cases cannibalized 17 young men, many of whom were Black and gay, in Milwaukee between 1978 and 1991. Families of victims have spoken out against the show, confronting Netflix for not consulting them and challenging viewers to consider the real people still impacted by Dahmer’s despicable crimes. TV critics have needled the show’s failure to handle difficult issues.
“[Director Ryan] Murphy and his collaborators are obviously aware of how exploitative it can be when the stories of serial killers are sold to a murder-obsessed public and how hurtful it is when victims are diminished,” Jen Chaney writes for Vulture, “but the show never figures out a way to avoid committing the same crime.”
Eric Perry, a relative of victim Errol Lindsey, told the LA Times, “We’re all one traumatic event away from the worst day of your life being reduced to your neighbor’s favorite binge show.”
True crime entertainment has exploded in the years since Serial, the record-breaking 2014 podcast that investigated a murder case in Baltimore. Now, shows such as Crime Junkie, My Favorite Murder, and Morbid rank among the top 10 podcasts in the country. Streaming networks have launched dozens of docuseries, including the previous Netflix hit Making a Murderer.
The effects haven’t been all bad: Cold cases have been solved, and wrongful convictions have been overturned (Adnan Syed, the person at the heart of Serial, was recently cleared of all charges). Many true crime fans tune in to examine the flaws of the justice system and celebrate these victories.
But it’s much harder to defend the value of scripted productions like Monster, which harness the lurid details of killers’ crimes to turn reality into drama (Monster is classified as a thriller).
“By focusing on the larger-than-life media images of socially constructed ‘celebrity monsters,’ the public becomes captivated by the stylized presentation of the criminals rather than the reality of their crimes,” writes criminologist Scott Bonn in his book Why We Love Serial Killers.
Bonn lists three reasons why people are fascinated by these criminals:
- Fear and a need to understand the killer in order to reduce that fear
- Empathy or a drive to relate (which is connected to that need to understand)
- Visceral appeal—i.e., the adrenaline jolt that comes with being scared
But rather than driving understanding (and at some level, serial killers just aren’t understandable), our Netflix queue or podcast feed often makes it easier to lose sight of the fact that these are not just stories. Dahmer wasn’t just a character in a horror novel. He was a real person. And his victims were real people who endured the terrifying torture that sends shivers up our spines. Their surviving families face that trauma all over again when their real-life worst nightmare is usurped for our entertainment.
How can we participate in God’s kingdom of restoration that “binds up the brokenhearted” (Ps. 147:3) if our habits tear those bandages away? We’re called to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15), not to continue reopening wounds.
While we can cast blame on producers, writers, and directors, audiences demand this content. People want to watch movies and shows and documentaries and dramatizations of serial killers. (In the case of Monster, consumption was over 700 million hours in a week.)
The decision to engage with true crime may be a matter of discernment and Christian freedom. After all, different people possess different sensitivities. If I were to watch Monster, I’m sure I’d have nightmares for weeks—just researching the show for this piece turned my stomach—while another person wouldn’t even look over their shoulder on a dark street. As Jesus explained, we’re not defiled by what goes into us, but by what comes out of us (Mark 7:18–23). But we should still think carefully about why we’re drawn to this media and how specific shows impact ourselves and others.
The voyeuristic pleasure that comes with another serial killer story, or another version of a familiar killer’s story, is evidence of a gross fixation. If anything, the industry that produces such depictions of violence and profits from it enables the expression of what is already true: We’re fascinated with evil.
Human thrall with the gruesome has a long history. The Roman Colosseum drew crowds to cheer on gladiators fighting to the death. Hangings, beheadings, and other executions historically were a public affair that entire communities gathered to watch. Less than 100 years ago, white Americans assembled in town squares for lynchings of innocent Black men.
We look back and cringe at how others cheered death, their cruelty and heartlessness so stark in hindsight, but is the popularity of serial killer shows all that different?
To be people of light in the dark kingdom of this age, we need to take seriously Paul’s direction to think on what’s true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil. 4:8) and join the psalmist in his commitment to “not look with approval on anything that is vile” (Ps. 101:3).
I’m not saying we should turn our faces away from the difficult realities of life, to ignore a world plagued with theft, kidnappings, abuse, and murder. After all, the Christian walk is one that steps into suffering for the good of others.
But relishing another morbid account of another person possessed by the worst of urges is not how we love God and our neighbors well. And worse, by pressing play, we’re helping others profit off strangers’ pain and encouraging the production of more.
Meredith Sell is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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