Since the release of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix show, ‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’, viewers have been creating fan edits of the serial killer on TikTok
Since its release, audiences have been lapping up Ryan Murphy’s latest offering: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. At present, it occupies the top spot on the Netflix TV charts.
From the get-go, though, Murphy always insisted that this wasn’t going to be your usual, trauma porn-y true crime show. It promised to “showcase the points of view of Dahmer’s victims,” and Evan Peters reportedly told Murphy that he would only work on the film if it was not told from Dahmer’s point of view. “As an audience, you‘re not really sympathising with him [...] You’re more sort of watching it, you know, from the outside,” Peters said in an interview prior to the show’s release.
This might have been Murphy’s intention with the series, but it seems to have missed the mark. The narrative often flashes back to Dahmer’s childhood, showing the audience how he was ostracised in both elementary school and high school, and struggled to come to terms with his parents’ divorce – and as most people have experienced feelings of loneliness or abandonment, the series unwittingly lures us into empathising with him.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since premiering, Peters’ Dahmer has racked up a sizable fan following on social media. There are TikTok fan edits that make Dahmer appear mysterious and alluring. There’s also an abundance of gifs of the new series on Tumblr, which make the series seem more like a kitschy Wes Anderson film than a series about a real-life serial killer: think contextless clips of Peters tipping pills into his palm or eternally spinning vinyl records. Most disturbingly, some viewers explicitly say the series made them feel sorry for Dahmer – the real Dahmer – and there are countless tweets thirsting over Dahmer’s actual mugshot on Twitter.
This isn’t a problem unique to Monster. It’s an issue that recurs within the true crime genre, with predominantly young women lapsing into thirsting over evil men. Many lusted over Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (and there’s even an active community of fans of Bundy himself on Twitter), and there are also countless TikTok fancams of David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des. Research has shown that we instinctively trust people we deem to be attractive – so it’s difficult to watch a show like Monster or Extremely Wicked and not feel instinctively inclined to be on Dahmer or Bundy’s side, when men like Peters and Efron are portraying them.
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“By depicting serial killers as complex, intelligent and interesting, and choosing attractive actors to play them gives them a sense of appeal,” says Dr Melanie Haughton, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby. But according to Melissa Hamilton, professor of law and criminal justice at Surrey University, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. “It does convey that some of these killers were really able to draw others to them, they had some magnetic qualities – though they were also quite manipulative,” she explains, adding that using attractive and engaging actors can help convey how mass murderers are able to draw innocent people in. “It can also be a lesson – note what your biases are,” she continues. “We tend to associate beauty and handsomeness with honesty, friendliness, safety, and ugliness with the opposite attribute.”
It’s neither novel nor groundbreaking to say that romanticising and glamourising serial killers is bad. But this phenomenon still begs the question – why do so many women feel this way? This isn’t a trend unique to Gen Z, true crime fans and social media users either – in real life, murderers such as Dahmer and Bundy received swathes of fanmail from female admirers. Perhaps most famously, while incarcerated, serial killer Richard Ramirez married a woman called Doreen Lioy who wrote him nearly 75 letters during his time in prison.
It’s worth noting that often, most of these ‘serial killer fans’ are young women, and that true crime is predominantly consumed by women – one recent study found that the true crime podcast audience is 73 per cent female. Hamilton explains that this phenomenon, where female viewers feel sympathetic towards cold-blooded killers, can also be partly attributed to gender roles. “Girls are often expected to be the empathetic, helpful, nurturing, forgiving ones,” she explains. “Girls often absorb the message that it is up to us to tame and civilise errant men, and will be rewarded for doing so with a loyal partner.”
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It’s well-established, too, that audiences love an ‘anti-hero’; this is, after all, the reason why so many books, films, TV shows about bad people are so popular. You hear out Humbert Humbert’s lyrical defence of paedophilia in Lolita; you cheer for Tony as he sprints through the snow to evade the FBI in The Sopranos; you hope and pray that Joe Goldberg gets away with poisoning his wife in You. It makes sense – most of us aren’t closely connected to mobsters or murderers, so it tracks that we’re intrigued by characters who invite us into a world unlike anything in our real lives.
But the crucial difference is that fiction exists solely within the pages of a book or the four corners of a TV screen, whereas true crime stories have real victims. And by blurring the lines between the character, the actor, and the real criminal, it’s easy for viewers to forget this and dishonour the memory of the people killed by murderers like Dahmer in the process. “The media business is meant to glamourise and sensationalise,” Hamilton says. “I don’t see how that will change in a capitalistic society, as it makes money.”
Many view the young women who want to understand serial killers as obtuse, sick, or both. And while true crime fans should attempt to recognise when their curiosity verges on unhealthy obsession – out of respect to victims more than anything – perhaps we’d be better off directing a larger share of our frustration towards the true crime industry itself. Because whichever way you slice it, making entertainment out of real criminal cases will never be ethical: it’s disingenuous to suggest that the genre has the power to ‘warn’ or ‘educate’ vulnerable people, and victims’ families are often the genre’s most vocal critics. It would be moralistic (and unrealistic) to suggest that the millions of true crime fans simply stop engaging with the genre overnight – akin to asking everyone to suddenly stop eating sausages or buying fast fashion. But we should at least think critically about our consumption of true crime – and resist the urge to empathise with violent men who never had an ounce of empathy for their victims or their families.