When killers become icons: the romanization of crime in modern media
Updated: Mar 31
Co-written by Isa Taranto
TRIGGER WARNING: The following article contains material that may be harmful or traumatizing to some audiences. Please proceed with caution.
The Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, depicting the atrocities committed by infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, has taken the world up by a storm, despite the streaming giant’s attempts at keeping this series as discreet as possible: there was no premiere, no interviews, and the trailer only dropped five days prior to the release. Dahmer is one of the most famous killers in the world, having murdered, mutilated, and even consumed his victims. The vile nature of a human being surely intrigues and confuses a lot of people, which is why entertainment content made about them can attract so many - this specific series received a lot of attention at the time of launching and topped the most watched list on Netflix in several countries. What is dangerous about all of this attention - and not only on Dahmer but in this trend as a whole -, however, is the extent to which criminals can be glorified and sexualized in the media. People, long before the internet, have romanticized murderers - social media merely highlighted it. There can be menacing consequences of creating a project revolving around such gruesome individuals, and it's vital that directors be extra careful in how they're depicting them.
Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
The series about the Milwaukee Cannibal starts off with Dahmer attempting to kill what would've been his last victim. Tracy Edwards was his name, and he was able to courageously escape and go to the police to denounce him - which, surprisingly, the officers believed. Surprisingly because the justice system in this city is shown to be incompetent at best. If there is one thing gratifying about this series, it's how they clearly illustrate the racism and homophobia embedded in their society. Most of Dahmer's victims were young gay men who were either black or immigrants since the killer lived in a predominantly black neighborhood.
Evan Peters, the actor who plays Jeffrey Dahmer, stated in an interview how they wanted to make a series primarily revolving around the victims - not Dahmer. If they succeeded in doing so, however, is another story. Rather than following the narrative through the eyes of the victims, journalists, or officers, we see it through Dahmer - he is the main character of the show, where, if they actually didn't want to focus on him, he wouldn't have been. The project delves into his troubling past, which, while important to help the audience understand the root of the killer's problem, creates room for viewers to empathize with him. It appears as if every action Dahmer makes is rooted back to his past - almost as if they wanted to create a comic-like villain origin story.
As to make matters worse, the actor, who is considered to be conventionally attractive, is shown working out several times in the series. There has been a disturbing amount of fan edits made of such scenes, thus glorifying the vile character. The series actually touches upon the romanization of Dahmer. The cannibal was shown to receive various letters with money and complementary messages from 'fans'. It then creates a juxtaposition with the family's victims receiving death threats and hate messages. One would think our society has evolved since then - unfortunately one would think incorrectly.
Apart from all the tasteless fan edits and memes made about Dahmer, he has apparently become a figure in pop culture, with those even dressing up as him. Alan Mósena, from Manaus, is a businessman who was involved in a controversy for dressing up as Jeffrey Dahmer for a Halloween party. He was heavily criticized for taking part of this new wave of serial killer romanization and his photo was quickly taken away. Additionally, when it was reported that the family's victims were uncomfortable with the show, there were several comments of people undermining their pain, with many saying - "just don't watch it". It comes to show how, while society has apparently developed and learned to be more accepting, the traces of the past still linger predominantly.
It's a show that is tonally consistent, has spectacular acting accompanied by a chilling cinematography. It encapsulates the idea of 'show not tell' by not bluntly exposing gore, but rather implying that it occurred, making it all the more horrifying. All of these great elements present in the series are dismantled by how much light is shined into Dahmer. We don't know much about the victims - who, to make it abundantly clear, were real life people; and it is these very victims who are reduced as mere props for the sake of advancing the plot. If all of the episodes followed the structure of the 6th episode, Silenced, the series would be spectacular.
Silenced is the best episode in the series because it focuses on the correct person - the victim. It is a story about Anthony "Tony'' Hughes, a 31-year-old black man who was mute, deaf, and most importantly, had dreams. He aspired to become a model so he moved to Madison to encounter job offers to help skyrocket his career. Instead, he encountered the worst imaginable thing: Jeffrey Dahmer. It's an incredibly emotional episode because you become invested in Tony's stories, you see him as a human being with aspirations, not just as another victim. The constant reminder that his death will be inevitable is what makes this the most heart-wrenching and soul-stirring part of the entire project. It still, however, has its problems, with the mother of Hughes, finding that it lacked principle and execution. The reaction of the family's victims will be detailed further on.
Who were the people that Jeffrey Dahmer murdered?
The victims, rather, the people who Jeffrey Dahmer killed, were humans. While it may sound obvious, many people seem to overlook this very important detail. Here is the list of the young men who had their lives ended in such a lamentable way:
Steven Hicks: Described as deeply caring, he had just recently graduated from high school.
Steven Tuomi, 24: A creative and quiet cook in a Milwaukee restaurant.
Jamie Doxtator, 14: While he would get into trouble at school, he was an independent, outgoing and misunderstood boy.
Richard Guerrero, 25: Came from a family of Mexican descent and would often babysit his sister's child.
Curtis Straughter, 18: A nursing assistant who planned on getting a high school equivalence certificate, while attending modeling school. Like many of Dahmer's victims, Straughter had big dreams to become a professional model.
Anthony Sears, 26, Oliver Lacy, 23, and Edward W. Smith, 28 were all young men who also aspired to enter the modeling world.
Errol Lindsey, 19: In a chilling trial stand, Errol's sister, Rita Isabell, confronted the killer, calling him "Satan". She burst out, calling Jeffrey out for all the pain he had caused on her family. Hauntingly, the killer just sat there, seemingly unaffected by her anger.
Like Lindsey, Raymond Smith (Ricky Beeks), 33, David Thomas, 23, Oliver Lacy, 23, and Joseph Bradehoft (Dahmer's last victim), 25, left behind sons, daughters, and their family.
Ernest Miller 22: A talented young man who was heading to college to become a professional dancer.
Anthony Huges, 31: As mentioned previously, an outgoing and friendly young man who had aspirations in becoming a model.
Matt Turner, 20: A bright and articulate young man lived in a halfway house before his death. He was known to be a good kid.
Jeremiah Weinberger 23: Born in Puerto Rico, he had a love for art and worked as a service rep at a video store.
Konerak Sinthasomphone, 14: A young boy who was just a freshman in college actually managed to escape from Dahmer. When Jeffrey's neighbors found him they were concerned, not knowing why there was blood in his head - they called the police. Dahmer found the boy with the cops and managed to convince them that Konerak was his boyfriend. The 14 year old boy, being drugged, wasn't able to fully understand what was going on or communicate properly. The neighbors insisted on the cops to check the boy's ID as he very clearly looked like a minor. The cops declined saying they had it all under control. The police brought the boy back to the cannibal's house, where Dahmer committed yet another heinous act.
Jeffrey Dahmer had 6 films made about him. Why?
Since 1993, 6 projects were made depicting the macabre life of the serial killer (this not to mention the multiple documentaries made about him): The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer (1993), Dahmer (2002), Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (2006) (2008), The Jeffrey Dahmer files (2012), My Friend Dahmer (2017), and the most recent of them, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022). One has to note that all of the actors chosen to portray the killer were conventionally attractive, including hearthrob Ross Lynch, and, as put by many, "Horror Series equivalent of Tumblr", Evan Peters, causing what is known to be Hybristophilia in many viewers - this being the sexual attraction to those who commit extreme crimes. Hollywood's obsession with true crime has made many serial killer's stories saturated. Since many people are already familiar with the murderers, cinema has to to do what it does best: find a way to profit out of it. Rather than caring to tell a responsible analysis, they go for the easier, oftenly exploitative, and cash-grabbing route. As the myriad of films about Dahmer progresses, they become more psychologically intense as each one starts to delve into the childhood of the cannibal in greater depth. All projects are replenished with sensationalistic elements that extract the humane qualities of the true narrative. With the astounding success that these true-crime films have garnered, it is to be expected that more and more films of this sort will be created in the future.
How have victims’ families responded?
The cinematographic quality of Dahmer is astounding and unquestionable; the very fact it exists, however, has raised controversial questions as to the extent to which media should continue to portray crimes as haunting as those committed by the serial killer portrayed in the series. Victims' families' testimonials have recently arisen in condemning this production, claiming that Netflix did not attempt to contact them before the release to ask for permission or at least give warning that social media and the entertainment industry would be flooded, in the following weeks, with their tragic and private stories. Rita Isabell, for example, was portrayed in one of the series’ most notorious images: being the sister of a victim, she gave a passionate victim statement at Dahmer’s trial, in 1992, which turned into a very well-constructed and well-acted scene. She said, in an essay for Insider, that she was not warned about the production of Dahmer at all, and that she “...could even understand if they [Netflix] gave some of the money to the victims’ children [...] If the show benefited them in some way it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless”.
As reality is detached from the sensationalism and Jeffrey Dahmer becomes a cultural icon first and the closest society knows to a monster second, parallels become clearer in the responses to this series from the public too. Some claimed the families were overreacting by rebutting the series; some, as stated previously, used the series as an opportunity for “edgy” Halloween costumes -- to me, the very idea of a person dedicating time to look like Jeffrey Dahmer is repulsive and seems dangerously close to worship. Some, even whilst reading this article, might be skeptical of why there is such fuss over a 10-episode limited series, which will have its temporary impact for a few months and then fall, semi-forgotten, in a corner of the audience’s consciousness, a place where their thoughts might return to from time to time, in a frightening remembrance of the terror emulated by the series. However, the problem is not Dahmer alone: its impacts are lasting on its own, and its participation in the larger trend of dehumanization of crime content seems to only reinforce an already concerning pattern.
Hollywood and serial killers
The debate of whether violent media prompts violence in real life is also already long-standing, and seems to accompany the one being analyzed in this article. Phycological research points to a correlation between violent media and aggressive behavior, especially in children, meaning that individuals who watch violent content tend to also have increased violent mannerisms. Violence in the media has also been proven by research to desensitize audiences to violence in the real world, to some even becoming enjoyable and no longer associated with the negative feelings expected by violence spectators. Now, add to that trend the fact that Hollywood has had a track record of employing attractive actors to represent serial killers -- such as, for example, in the movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”: Ted Bundy is played by none other than Zac Efron -- and society is left with a very big problem at hand. Of course quality of acting and resemblance to the original figure are especially important in biopics, to ensure accurate representation of facts, but research also suggests we are still instinctively attracted to beauty: according to Drs. James Schubcrt and Margaret Curran, people are still “unconsciously attracted to things that indicate good genes”. The social aspects that might come implicated with beauty, such as a sense of respect or admiration, may also lead to a view that romanticizes criminals if they are represented by these actors.
Even more specifically, the very fact that the brutal acts committed by Dahmer have received such a public platform can prove to be problematic, since it might find mentally ill individuals who take him as inspiration for their own crimes in the future. An example of a similar impact is known as the Columbine Effect, referring to, among other aspects, school shooters in America sickly drawing inspiration from 1999’s Columbine mass shooting, one of the most media-covered school shootings in US’ history. Ralph Larkin studied twelve major shootings in the US in the eight years following Columbine and concluded that, in eight of them, "the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold '', the perpetrators of this tragedy. He wrote that “Numerous post-Columbine rampage shooters referred directly to Columbine as their inspiration; others attempted to supersede the Columbine shootings in body count”, in a chilling testament to the power of media to not only represent but motivate crime.
In the broader sense, the lack of care for the stories of the victims’ families highlights an unfortunate trend in Hollywood: the story is worth more than humanity; this is, after all, showbusiness. The brutality with which this pattern has been carried out, however, seems to be ever-lasting, and the rise of social media has led to increased curiosity about true crime. The human inclination to the bizarre is heightened by the access to cases, documentaries, reports and pictures, all providing through increasingly democratized information the gruesome details of the most outrageous of human behaviors. We are all extremely, even if shamefully, attracted to these stories of individuals who deviate from societal norms to the point of becoming objects to satisfy the most primal of instincts; taking into consideration, then, the impact of retelling these stories endlessly becomes unfathomable. Throw money into the equation, and the dehumanization of some of the most devastating examples of how humanity can fail becomes merely material with which to work, fictionalized and built upon to construct productions that make no effort to remind its audience that these victims were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.
In wanting the entertaining aspect of these stories, we forget that they were once lived and experienced, that families and friends had to once see a blond and strikingly unemotional-looking man in a media circus, the face to the unbearing and justified hurt and anger they must have felt at the time.
Series, films, or any project depicting the story of a serial killer, while probably containing some fictional elements to add more "bliss", revolves around real-life people. It is not a Friday the 13th or a Freddy Krueger-type story - these killers actually mutilated, raped, and hurt people that were once roaming through life with goals and dreams. While it can be hard to feel as much empathy for the victims if directors don't care to flesh out them enough or even give an insight on their story, one must not, under any circumstance, glorify them. This includes dressing up as them for Halloween, posting memes, and creating fan edits. It's insensitive to the memories of those who were gruesomely killed, and is irreverent to the family who had to go through an egregious amount of pain only to see their loved ones lives being overshadowed by vile murderers. People must always remember the victims, the families, and think with more empathy and consciousness about what they choose to dress up for Halloween next year.
Let us be more conscious of the stories we choose to transform into entertainment and how we react to them. Dahmer has shown that we might not be there yet, but that does not mean that there has been no improvement -- the very fact that the series has received backlash for the way it portrayed some parts of this terrible story indicates that the public is becoming increasingly aware of its role of demanding accountability from producing companies. After all, Isabell concluded her statement with: “The episode with me was the only part I saw. I didn’t watch the whole show. I don’t need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened.”