Among the American public, there exists a hyperinfatuation with true crime stories and with serial killers themselves. We have seen this time and again with classic films like “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” the long-running show "Criminal Minds," Netflix’s "You," and now most recently in “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” But what drives such romanticization of these individuals, individuals who have committed atrocities against the innocent? Perhaps it is rooted in the same thrill-seeking that horror lovers search out. Or maybe it is the desire to attempt to understand their unimaginable crimes.
Fanning the true crime flames, Netflix released a 10-episode miniseries entitled “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” Sept. 21, depicting the life of the notorious Milwaukee Cannibal. The show begins with Dahmer’s capture and proceeds to go back in time as Dahmer confesses to each of his 17 murders. To call this show traumatizing would be an injustice to the range of emotions the audience will experience. While watching “Monster,” many viewers were not only disturbed by the brutality and gore, but also frustrated by the ineptitude of the police and devastated for the victims and their families. Nonetheless, upon finishing each episode, they, including myself, were eager to start the next, as evidenced by the wild popularity of the show. I tried my best to be introspective, to take a deep look to understand what this desire to unlock such traditionally negative emotions meant about my nature. But when I learned of real people spending hundreds of thousand of dollars to purchase Dahmer’s possessions — such as his iconic glasses — I came to the foregone conclusion that all humans are simply fucked up.
Worth noting, the show does an effective job at connecting Dahmer’s story to larger world issues. Although I was familiar with the name Jeffery Dahmer, admittedly from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” I was not at all aware of the heinous details of his crimes — more specifically, the role the police played in letting them happen.
There is one particularly upsetting scene — perhaps “enraging” would be the better word — where one of Dahmer’s victims, Konerak Sinthasomphone, stumbles out naked and barely conscious onto the street. Sinthasomphone, who was drugged by Dahmer, is met by two police officers that neglect all blatant indications that something is awfully wrong. Despite the insistence of Dahmer’s neighbor, Glenda Cleveland, that Dahmer is dangerous, the two officers accept Dahmer’s lies and ultimately send him back into the apartment. Shortly after, Sinthasomphone, only 14 years old, would never be heard from again.
Scenes like these, which show Dahmer repeatedly slipping through the cracks of the system, establish deep undertones on critical issues in society and ultimately make “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Show'' more than your typical crime thriller.
Central to true story reenactments is casting actors who not only take on the personality but physically resemble the character as well. In this regard, Evan Peters perfectly depicted Dahmer’s equal-parts shy, awkward and brutal nature. At times, it was almost too scary how real this show felt. Moreover, Richard Jenkins as Dahmer’s father did a terrific job demonstrating the complexity behind acknowledging your son is a “monster” and still loving him nonetheless.
Even still, I was left craving for more in-depth character development, as the analysis of Dahmer’s motives felt surface-level. Specifically, potential insight on why Dahmer was the way he was is neglected in favor of unneeded violent and gory details of his crimes.
In addition, following Dahmer’s arrest in episode eight, the last two episodes are devoted almost entirely to advocating for better policing and justice for the Black and LGBTQ community. While these episodes were insightful and the message powerful, I wish such analysis had been sprinkled throughout the show rather than dumped all at once at the very end. Consequently, I was left feeling as if these last two episodes were forced and even questioned if such episodes would be included at all if it was, say, 2010 and not 2022.
It is clear that “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” has been extremely divisive. On one hand, as of Oct. 5, the show was 660% more popular than Netflix's most similar program. In its second week, the show had 288.84 million hours viewed, making it the second most watched English-language series in a week behind the fourth season of “Stranger Things”.
At the same time, numerous trends across TikTok and Twitter have creators depicting Dahmer as a “sex symbol,” expressing lust and even sympathy for him. This has led to widespread backlash and concern that this romanticization of Dahmer’s character has taken away from the lives of the victims and the grief of their families. Such family members have even taken to social media to speak out, including Eric Perry, the cousin of Dahmer’s victim Errol Lindsey. “My family (the Isbell’s) [sic] are pissed about this show,” Perry wrote in a Sept. 22 tweet.”It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”
Lindsey is right. There have already been five films produced about Dahmer’s life, and Netflix just went ahead and released “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes” following the massive success of “Monster.” But even though Lindsey’s frustration is sound, the unfortunate truth is that as long as the public craves more true crime television, streaming services like Netflix will continue to deliver — even at the expense of the ones Dahmer hurt the most.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.