True Crime: An Ethical Dilemma

By Katina Handrinos

Nowadays, every streaming platform is swimming with true crime shows and movies. Whether it’s Netflix’s Dahmer and Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile or Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven and The Patient, you can get your fill of horrifying, mostly truthful stories anytime, anywhere. But when does entertainment take it too far? When is the production and profit off of victims’ tragedies unethical? In this Hot Take of the Issue, we’ll dive into the ethics of the recent boom in true crime media and whether you should think the next time you click play. 

This year on September 21, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story came out on Netflix, and for the next few weeks, it was all anyone could talk about. We can look at Dahmer as an example of how true crime content can go wrong. The Netflix series by Ryan Murphy details the life and murders committed by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Emmy-winning actor Evan Peters. Dahmer killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 young men of the gay community in Milwaukee between 1978 and 1991. The show was advertised as a tribute to Dahmer’s victims and supposedly aimed to highlight their lives. 

However, after the show’s release, members of the victims’ families came forward to reveal that neither Netflix nor the show’s producers contacted them prior to making the series, and they did not consent to their family members’ deaths being dramatized in this way. Rita Isbell, whose brother, Errol Lindsey, was murdered at age 19 by Dahmer, spoke to the effect the series had on her. In Dahmer, Isbell is portrayed in a court scene where she gave an emotional victim impact statement. She said, “When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself…it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then” (Jackie Strause for The Hollywood Reporter). 

Additionally, the show has been criticized for depicting the disturbing behavior and activities of Dahmer instead of the victims’ lives. Out of 10 episodes, only one is truly centered around one of the people Dahmer killed; the sixth episode is about Tony Hughes, a deaf gay black victim. 

Furthermore, some people on social media have taken to making jokes about Dahmer and the victims; people have made TikToks dressing up as Dahmer, editing scenes from the show, or saying that Dahmer is attractive. When asked about their perspective on true crime, Aimy Huynh ’24 said, “I personally think that more often than not, these types of shows romanticize murderers to a point where they become a ‘character’ instead of an actual human who committed horrible crimes. [True crime shows] have been turned into a form of entertainment and people detach themselves from the reality and severity of real events.”

In addition, Cleo Jackson ’23 said, “There are shows like Dahmer which are disrespectful to the families of the victims and do a lot to romanticize murderers, but there are also shows or movies that are much more documentary-like that provide the victims with respect and avoid humanizing characters…some people who create or consume true crime ‘content’ speak about really tragic horrible events in a way that feels really disrespectful and minimizing.”
In my opinion, true crime content can be a slippery slope, and in most cases, it’s best to look into true crime documentaries rather than dramatizations that are made for entertainment purposes. It is easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of learning more about these people that commit brutal acts, but it’s imperative to consider who we want to support: the companies that profit from painful events or those that honor the names of the victims?