Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

Fictionalized adaptations of real-life serial killers should not exist

As announced earlier this month, Netflix has extended its new Monster anthology series past its first installment, The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which was released on Sept. 21. With at least two more projects in the works, the creators hope to follow the stories of “other monstrous figures who have impacted society. 

The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, coming from the minds of Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, has emerged as one of Netflix’s most commercially successful TV shows. Within 28 days of its release, it became the streaming platform’s second-most-watched English-language series of all time. The fictional re-enactment explores the psyche of American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters), who committed numerous horrific murders between 1978 and 1991—all of the victims were men and adolescent boys, most of whom were people of colour. 

Despite its high viewership, its release was riddled with controversy. From initially being categorized under the LGBTQ+ tag on Netflix to more general criticism regarding the show’s quality, the show has been under continuous scrutiny. Yet, perhaps the largest cloud hanging above its conception is the outrage expressed by the families of Dahmer’s victims.  

Rita Isabell, sister of victim Errol Lindsey, wrote a personal essay for Insider to express her anger regarding her portrayal in one of its episodes despite the show’s producers never having contacted her. She describes the experience of watching the events of her life occur on TV, writing that “it felt like reliving it all over again.” She goes on to denounce the lack of compensation provided to the victims’ families, stating that “it’s sad they’re making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.” In the adaptation of this history, Netflix asserts its ownership of the victims’ experiences. 

Two more seasons, with two more serial killers, will bring about two more groups of people directly impacted by real-life events and potentially retraumatized by a television portrayal. Whether Netflix plans to ask permission or provide compensation is still unclear. But even if they do, the re-creation of serial killers to be consumed as entertainment presents a multitude of ethical concerns. 

Following the release of Monster, there was an increased romanticization on social media of Dahmer himself, as viewers sympathized with Peters’ troubled character and conflated Murphy’s creative interpretation with reality. Not only that, but the trend of dressing up as Jeffrey Dahmer for Halloween circulated online. Costumes relating to him were eventually banned from various sites, such as eBay, due to subsequent backlash. Several Milwaukee bars, where Dahmer met many of his victims, announced that they would deny entrance to those dressing up as him on Halloween night. 

The danger of portraying serial killers on-screen is the inability to resist the inherent creative urge to immerse the viewers into their minds. It will inspire the viewers to create motive, to charitably explain their actions, and ultimately glorify their image. The moment they are presented under the guise of fiction, and especially when played by familiar, attractive actors, they enter the realm of pop culture—a space that, in most instances, cannot take itself seriously and cannot escape a profit-oriented mindset. Even calling it a Story reduces its materiality—it’s a story that is not to be told by just anyone. While there may be many factors contributing to the commercial success of such adaptations, one cannot argue against the morbid fascination viewers may have with such dark stories—a fascination Netflix is well aware of and seems intent on exploiting.

As the next two seasons’ production of Netflix’s Monster anthology series begins, viewers should keep in mind what is at stake: Those who are not compensated, those who are retraumatized, and those who are glorified.

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