Depicting Dahmer: Why Are We So Obsessed with Serial Killers?

It is no secret that society has long been intrigued by the criminal mind– what irks it, what forms it, what constitutes it and why–but it is hard to ignore the surge of true crime media recently produced and consumed with a seemingly unprecedented fervor. 

“Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” made its Netflix debut Sept. 21, 2022. 

With the series having already reached over 56 million households, it begs the question: why are we so obsessed with serial killers? 

Seattle University Criminal Justice, Criminology and Forensics professor Carmen Rivera, commented on society’s infatuation with killer crimes.

“I think it’s always been a fascination of people. True crime–serial killers–I mean, Ted Bundy has had a fan club since his inception. It’s always been pervasive,” Rivera said. 

The Dahmer series has become a source of controversy as more people tune in. Internet taste-makers accuse the series of glorifying Dahmer and sensationalizing a series of real and horrific atrocities carried out during his lifetime. 

Rivera thinks film adaptations have an incentive to humanize serial killers to engage a larger audience and make more money.

“I mean, they were human. They were people. Even though they were psychopaths and missing a key trait that non-psychopaths have; the inability to connect and form real relationships and feel the emotions that you and I presumably feel,” Rivera said. 

Hope Henning, a second-year women, gender and sexuality studies major, also commented on the financial incentives of true crime media.

“You get a sense when you’re watching it that the purpose of it is entertainment, not to fulfill any sense of responsibility or justice. They will portray people in as much truth or fiction as it takes to get views,” Henning said.

The series incited backlash after audiences discovered the families of Dahmer’s victims were not consulted before or during the making of the show. Rivera appreciates the discourse surrounding the new series.

“I haven’t watched it, but from my understanding, the families of the victims were not consulted. From my perspective that was a huge error,” Rivera said. 

Rivera’s disappointment was echoed by Anabella Vucci, a second-year public affairs major who commented on the allegedly harmful nature of omitting the voices of victims in the act of storytelling. 

“To see the life of a serial killer is important, however, that is not more important than understanding the damage they did to the people they hurt,” Vucci said.“While I think that it is good to show what created this person who went on to harm other individuals, when a TV show is produced in a certain way that almost glorifies them, and is aimed at making people feel bad for them, I think there is a lack of empathy for the victims. If you are watching a movie or series that does not address the lives of the victims–you shouldn’t be watching that movie or series, that is within itself a glorification of serial killers.”

As people choose to continuously consume true crime media, Rivera adds that we should be mindful of the intent of a show or movie.

“There is a fine line between education and glorification,” Rivera said.

She adds that, in her line of work, it is common for her to encounter a lack of engagement with victim’s voices. 

“In my forensic psych class, and in my criminal profiling class I’ll ask people, ‘who is your favorite serial killer?’ And I’ll say ‘okay, name one of their victims.’ They never can. And it’s really sad to me.”