Content warning: This piece contains mention of murder and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Humans' fascination with everything morbid and cruel is a part of life and is completely normal. Does that mean companies should be allowed to exploit such tragedies for money? In the eyes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's victims' families, opening up these wounds are still painful.
Dahmer's reign of terror has been rehashed time and time again in various television shows and movies. Five years after Ross Lynch embodied the serial killer in the film My Friend Dahmer and three years after Netflix struck gold with the Ted Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron, it became clear that true crime will always have an audience. The streaming platform is far from the first to do this, and multiple services have become home to in-depth documentaries and dramatic retellings of everything from teen murderers to child abuse, cults to serial killers.
Netflix's Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a recipe for a hit. Evan Peters' portrayal of the lanky, awkward killer is brilliant, capturing the subtle nuances in his manipulation and driving home how easy it was for him to get away with such terror for so long, but it's been done countless times already. That realization slowly shows itself, and both critics and audiences alike were concerned with yet another portrayal of a well-known story that we all know the ending to.
Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair said, "While the series respectfully mourns and inveighs all the loss that surrounds him, it also turns Dahmer into a hideously immortal thing: an icon." Jack King of them. similarly said, "Ryan Murphy's latest exploration of human monstrosity amounts to little more than sluggish torture porn." In the first episode alone, we see a subdued Dahmer go through his routine of cleaning up bloody knives before heading out into the night to prey on his next victim. The ensuing scenes are full of tension, featuring glimpses of preserved body parts and perverted polaroids.
It's easy to forget that the people being portrayed by Hollywood actors were once real. As the media frenzy explodes around the ethics and morals of producing such content, no one has to deal with it more than the victims' families themselves as they watch from the side as helpless bystanders to their deceased loved ones' commodification as nothing more than a one-night binge watch.
In an exclusive as-told-to essay published on Insider, Rita Isbell, the sister of Dahmer's victim Errol Lindsey, reacted to her powerful victim impact statement that was recreated thirty years later for the Netflix show. "When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said," Isbell recalled.
"If I didn't know any better, I would've thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That's why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then. I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should've asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn't ask me anything. They just did it."
Isbell further goes on to say that Netflix is "trying to get paid" and that she felt that her clip was the only thing she needed to see. "I didn't watch the whole show. I don't need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened." Isbell's cousin also chimed in on Twitter:
In light of a Dahmer walking tour in 2012, Janie Hagen, whose brother Richard Guerrero was killed by Dahmer, went on the news to express her outrage. “My mind is like a VCR,” Hagen said. “It just pauses and it rewinds and it always takes me back.”
Two soldiers who served with Dahmer in Germany came forward to discuss the unearthed trauma that came with seeing his name resurface as the morbid interest in his crimes grew. Preston Davis, a Black man, recalls being sexually assaulted by Dahmer while stationed. "I didn't find out about his death until years later,' said Davis. 'The only thing I can say is karma…. I don't consider myself a victim. I'm a survivor."
Billy Capshaw suffered similar abuse at the hands of Dahmer while serving in the military. "It was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Capshaw said. "I was in a room I was scared to come out of. I would steal Jeff's money thinking that if he didn't have any money, that he wouldn't drink anymore and therefore wouldn't hurt me anymore. He beat me so badly for that, and to stop me from screaming, he hit me harder."
All in all, Dahmer killed 17 men and young boys, most of whom were Black. His crimes were horrific, and the extensive preservation and documentation of most of these crimes immortalized his depravity. This information lingers in the minds of his victims' families, many of whom had no time to grieve as cameras followed them, requests for interviews poured in and the cruel murders of their loved ones were shot over and over again with a different cast and crew each time.
That's not to say that there isn't a place for the important discussion of these crimes. Dahmer's privilege as a white man is precisely why he got away with his crimes for so long, combined with the vulnerability of his Black victims. We see parallels in the world to this day as young women of color disappear and questions remain unanswered. Cops continue to get away with the murders of unarmed Black and Brown people. Dahmer is just one part of a larger analysis of the privilege of justice afforded to certain people.
In the chilling first episode of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Niecy Nash plays Dahmer's concerned neighbor Glenda Cleveland whose suspicion grows as the wretched stench of his crimes wafts into her apartment. When the cops take him out of the apartment, she screams, "I called y'all, and I told you over and over a million times that something was going on, and you know what you did? Y'all did nothing!"
Cleveland, who died in 2011, did not live next to Dahmer as the series portrayed. Nonetheless, if the police took her reports seriously, the notorious serial killer would've been apprehended a lot sooner. Cleveland witnessed 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone attempting to escape Dahmer, naked and afraid. The cops allowed Sinthasomphone to go back into the arms of Dahmer after he convinced them they were lovers engaged in a simple spat. That night, Dahmer murdered him.
Likewise, Tracy Edwards, who was depicted as the one to ultimately lead to Dahmer's arrest after he narrowly escaped the killer, was in and out of jail for years. Eventually, he became homeless and not much is known of him today. The immense trauma that could come from almost meeting his death with a notorious serial killer requires care and extensive resources, and he received none.
Instead of milking horrific tragedies for every last penny, let's start exploring how to discuss these stories in new ways to highlight systemic failures and provide closure. Plans should be put into place to provide proper compensation and consent from victims' families and their likelihoods even if everything is in the public domain. Or, let's find and develop new stories that don't have real-life repercussions that can traumatize the people affected all over again.
Dahmer's story has been told enough times. We all know how it ends.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
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