By now, you’ve probably heard about Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. You’ve probably gathered that it’s Netflix’s latest problematic true-crime retelling that stars Evan Peters in the role of the infamous serial killer. However, you may not realize just how deep this controversy goes.
‘Monster’ Has Had Quite The Rollout
Just to recap, Monster follows Jeffrey Dahmer in the years before, during, and after his reign of terror. It dramatizes the serial killer’s descent into a life of crime, as well as the many times he evaded capture. The show is executive produced by Ryan Murphy and stars Evan Peters in the lead role. It was viewed for 299.84 million hours, making it the most viewed series debut on record.
Yet, despite the fanfare, the series currently has a critic consensus of 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Family members of some of Dahmer’s victims spoke up, questioning the creators’ intentions. At the end of the day, critics recognized that Murphy did his best not to glamorize Dahmer. However, what purpose does the series serve if not to bolster the public fascination with the killer?
Yet, the nuances of these discussions are lost in the realm of social media. As disturbing as it seems, serial killers attract more than just innocent fascination. Just as the nation witnessed when Ted Bundy was captured, some people develop a bizarre attraction to these dangerous men when they’re safely confined in a TV screen. Monster has been no different. Despite its best efforts to dissuade the viewer, women are sharing clips from the show with disclaimers like, “I know he’s a serial killer, but…”
Far From Murphy’s First Offense
However, this trend didn’t start with Monster. To truly understand the scope of Monster‘s cultural significance, there are two points to hit: Ryan Murphy’s body of work and the true crime genre as a whole. If you were on social media in the 2010s, then you’ve seen the fanaticism that follows Murphy. It was a phenomenon that started with Glee but was solidified with American Horror Story.
In the very first season of AHS, Evan Peters played the role of homicidal teenager Tate Langdon. Fans watched Peters’ character commit unspeakable acts, and, despite the depravity, they collectively swooned. Teen girls wrote fanfiction and made fan edits of Peters’ murderous character with an alarming lack of restraint or self-awareness. The obsession with Peters as a criminal only grew from there. Over the course of multiple seasons, Murphy had Peters embody multiple depraved characters.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story isn’t an anomaly. It’s the culmination of themes Murphy has flirted with for over a decade now. The critic consensus on Rotten Tomatoes says it best: “While Monster is seemingly self-aware of the peril in glorifying Jeffrey Dahmer, creator Ryan Murphy’s salacious style nevertheless tilts this horror story into the realm of queasy exploitation.”
Is Ethical True Crime Possible?
However, there’s another prong to this problem. Once again, Murphy didn’t create serial killer fanaticism, he’s only the latest producer to tap into it. That brings us to this increasingly relevant question: Is it possible to contribute to the true crime genre in an ethical and productive manner? Or, more precisely, is it possible to talk about some of the most prolific criminals in the world without inherently glorifying them?
Of course, there isn’t a clear answer. However, there were some clear precautions that Murphy could have taken. Consulting the victims’ families would have been a good start. It doesn’t sit quite right when creators try to tell other people’s stories for them. It’s hard to accept Murphy’s claim that they’re telling the story of Jeffrey Dahmer through the victims’ points of view when they never actually contacted the surviving victims or their families.
Furthermore, there’s a clear financial aspect to this. Netflix, along with Murphy and his team, is sure to make a fortune from this series. Yet, according to the sister of one of Dahmer’s victims, no one actually affected by the crimes will see a cent. Lastly, why Dahmer? Did Dahmer’s story need another dramatization? Did Ted Bundy’s story need another when Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile hit the streaming service?
The answer is probably not. The real question is: Will people watch it? That answer is a resounding yes. After Monster, there’s no doubt about that anymore. While the criticisms were likely noted and filed away, there’s no way Netflix is going to be able to resist chasing that next payday. Monster may be a culmination of decades of problematic killer-worship, but it certainly won’t be the end of it.