Guest Opinion: Jeffrey Dahmer Series— Can’t not watch

Why you can’t keep yourself from watching the Netflix Jeffrey Dahmer series.

Princess Siafa, Guest Writer

I hate horror movies. I do not understand the act of subduing myself to an hour of terror in the form of entertainment, but when “Monster: The story of Jeffrey Dahmer” premiered on Netflix, I found myself excitedly grabbing a bowl of ice cream, as I began watching the first episode. The story is a troubling one.

On July 22, 1991, the arrest of the serial cannibal shook Wisconsin and Ohio. Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffery Dahmer murdered 17 men and kept the skeletons of some of his victims. In his apartment, the police found barrels of acid containing human remains. There were skeletons in the room, a head and human heart in the refrigerator and Polaroids documenting the dismemberment of his victims. The entire nation was shocked as the story continued to unfold. The tale of Jeffrey Dahmer has been told many times in newspaper articles, reports on television and radio, in podcasts and documentaries. The earliest documentary on the story of Dahmer was released in 1993, (two years after his arrest) and was appropriately titled, “The Secret life of Dahmer.” 

Given the amount of exposure and retelling that the story has received, it befuddles me how many times we would watch it. We remain fascinated at every reenactment, and the Netflix retelling produced by Ryan Murphy and starring Evan Peters as Dahmer, has generated much reaction, good and bad from audiences. Many viewers who have seen the series on Netflix have lauded the actors and producers. Fans of Dahmer praised the portrayal of Dahmer in the series as a troubled person. 

However, the families of the victims and the Dahmer’s were not so excited about the new series. In a tweet, a family member of one of the victims, Eric Perry, said, “I’m not telling anyone what to watch, and I know true crime media is huge right now, but if you are actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbell’s) is pissed about this show. It is traumatizing repeatedly, and for what. How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

Our fascination and obsession with true crime has often been linked to our desire to know. We are curious as to what event made a serial killer become a serial killer. We want to know about their childhood, the environment they grew up in, the school they went to and why they did what they did. We yearn for any information that would give us a satisfactory answer to the “why” question. Why did he do it? Why was he not caught sooner? Of course, we do not want to experience the same event, so watching a replay of the event allows us to examine the darker side of humanity from a safe distance.

In order to answer my own why, I spoke with Professor Peter Forster, who teaches media ethics at DePaul University. He remembered watching the news of Dahmer’s arrest when the story broke and how disturbing it was. When I asked if he had seen the new series on Netflix, his response was “no,” but he had seen the “Dahmer Tapes” on Netflix. Forster mentioned that we look at true crime content four different looks: amoral, responsive, entitled and vulnerable. 

The first step to answering the question of “why” and “how to watch” is to uncover our intent and the look we are using. Are we watching and feeling that we could make better choices than the victims could, or do we look lustfully at the scenes and sexualize the characters? Are we thinking of how viewing the series can make us a better person, or do we become overcharged with emotion and imagine our own situation. 

“Our intention before viewing true crime media, besides entertainment, should be learning more about the event and the people involved,” Forster said. “Before you view or consume any material  you owe a sense of duty and obligation to the victims first, and to yourself, to get the facts straight.” 

Knowing that the documentary is not the real event but a dramatization based loosely on true events helps us to divide the fact from the reality.

Phoebe Morton, a then-2021 final year undergraduate student at the University of Sussex reading Law and American Studies, now author of “WhatDoc”- a documentary review blog, recommends that the media be more open about the vices they use in producing true crime documentaries. In her paper published in the Media Practice and education journal titled, “Stylistic choices in true-crime documentaries: the duty of responsibility between filmmaker and audience,” Morton explains the use of emotion, dialogue, music and even the inclusion of crime footage can distort any audience’s perception of the truth of events. In the event we do not receive any clarification from the media on the use of these vices, we are responsible for how we consume and interpret media content.

“Monster: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer” includes many subjective vices that can influence our perception of the events if we do not know the truth of the event. The documentary is entertaining, full of nail-biting tension and jaw-dropping moments. If such a description gets you hooked, it is not just you. According to Variety, a total of 196.2 million people watched when the series was released. I am still watching the series, and I would urge everyone to do the same. It is gruesome, but it does provide another perspective to the events that transpired during 1978 and 1991. We must do due diligence to the families of the victims and ourselves by daring to know the truth behind the series.