Media Romanticization of Serial Killers


In September, Netflix released the biographical crime series “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Since then, it has become the second most watched English-language show on the platform, topped only by season 4 of “Stranger Things.” True crime has become the most watched documentary genre in the United States, according to Parrot Analytics, experiencing a 60% increase in consumption from 2020 to 2021. The rise in popularity of true crime, especially in regards to serial killers, is in large part a product of recent media portrayals. True crime entertainment brings up ethical dilemmas and should stop glorifying the murderers they depict, which only trivializes their harmful actions.

According to psychology teacher Warren Collier, human beings are drawn to criminals due to certain morbid curiosity. Extreme characters fascinate people because although they cannot comprehend killers, they feel the need to understand what makes them tick. Perhaps the driving factor is an innate need to survive—humans feel the urge to understand the behaviors of serial killers in order to better avoid them. Another reason for society’s interest in serial killers may be the thrill-seeking aspects of human psychology that seek to obtain adrenaline caused by fear, but from a healthy distance.

Collier also explains the idea of transference in relation to the serial killer craze, in which strong feelings on a certain topic can be redirected onto a person. In literature and cinema, the trope of heroes versus villains is ever present. In our actual lives, however, serial killers break real laws that cause real harm. As a result, they seem to be storybook villains brought to life, eliciting a greater emotional reaction. And according to Collier, people are drawn to criminals because they give people a good target to measure irregularity. Because humans have always appreciated stories of good and evil and prefer to have clear-cut, black-and-white boundaries, it’s easy for them to see serial killers as the most depraved and wicked that a human can get.

True crime adaptations, which play on this interest, take advantage of traumatized victims and their families. While those affected may choose not to watch, it’s still difficult to ignore the subjection of their trauma to commentary and evaluation online. Family members of Dahmer’s victims have questioned Netflix’s motives in creating the show without seeking explicit permission, especially in the portrayal of Dahmer’s trial. Eric Perry, whose cousin Errol Lindsey was one of the victims characterized in the series, commented on Twitter that Netflix failed to inform the families of victims when producing the show. “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what?” Perry tweeted. “How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

Exploiting these tragic events simply for the purpose of making a profit is bad enough as it is, but that’s not where the damage ends. Although “Monster”’s director Ryan Murphy may not have intended for viewers of the show to sympathize with Dahmer, the usage of flashbacks highlighting his traumatic past leads viewers to feel a sense of empathy.
True crime often inspires TV shows such as “Monster” or “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” another one of Netflix’s original films, which center on prolific serial killers who have committed heinous acts such as murder, kidnapping or rape. When viewers feel empathy, they fail to realize that it is not solely directed toward the fictionalized characters shown on screen, but also the real-life killers they represent.

With the topic of serial killers, it’s difficult to avoid its relationship with mental illness. For example, according to forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen M. Raffle, Dahmer was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and suffered from brief psychotic episodes. The portrayal of serial killers’ mental disorders in media feeds into the stigma about people who struggle with their mental health. Given the misconceptions and beliefs that have become associated with mental illness, these popular shows or movies feel like a step backward for those who want to fight the stigma around the subject.

A recurring issue with the depiction of serial killers within the true crime genre is the casting of conventionally attractive actors or those with large fanbases. The castings of Evan Peters or Ross Lynch as Dahmer and Zac Efron as Ted Bundy make the actions of their characters more palatable on screen and give them a sense of appeal. These castings bias viewers toward idealizing the portrayed killers. Indeed, serial killers are known for their charisma, a weapon of psychological manipulation used to lure victims in. But in films, these actors portray it as almost romantic, a trait that only adds to the charm of the leading figure on screen.

Choosing well-established actors for film projects is a logical train of thought, as enough star power draws a willing audience. Sure, for actors who have grown accustomed to a career of playing the protagonist or the heartthrob, perhaps a role playing a killer is an exciting challenge. But casting these actors perpetuates the idea that serial killers deserve to be glorified on-screen, and puts more of an emphasis on their sex appeal over the threat they pose to society.

On social media platforms Twitter and TikTok, users have further expressed that the new Netflix series has led them to feel pity for Dahmer and believe that those around him failed to prevent his development as a psychopath. The appeal of serial killers has even risen to the point where they’ve gained a dedicated fanbase of accounts devoted to obsessing over a person— often a celebrity, but in this case, a psychopath. On TikTok, individuals have taken to creating romantic edits of serial killers set to trending music. Some edits even try to depict a relationship between serial killers and their victims in a positive light. Comments under these videos have proclaimed to root for their happy ending. Social media has only exacerbated the impacts of true crime, allowing people to form unhealthy attachments to individuals who are clearly dangerous. These idealizations enable behavior that minimizes victims as just an aspect of a tragic story, rather than actual people.

This romanticization of and obsession with serial killers isn’t anything new. Criminals behind bars have historically attracted admirers and received fan mail, and some more notorious killers such as Richard Ramirez or the Menendez brothers have even married some of these fans, despite serving life sentences. However, this behavior is more dangerous now due to the widespread nature of modern media.

Besides the moral issues inherent in the true crime genre, people must also consider the negative repercussions that they face while consuming this content. With more information about serial killer available on the internet, there’s no way to filter out the disturbing imagery or graphic details for younger users. Being exposed to a high volume of such horrendous content is also often taxing, leading to a decline in emotional health. Consumers of true crime should be careful to view it in measured doses and take breaks from content that may be too heavy.

However, the effects of true crime have had some positive results. It has led to the renewed interest in fields such as forensic psychology, and media coverage has inspired some to turn their fascination from their own TVs to actual cases in the field. Watching true crime entertainment or listening to podcasts on the topic can sometimes bring catharsis, allowing people to confront their fears from the safety of their own homes.

Human psychology makes people naturally inclined to find serial killers fascinating. True crime media often exploit this curiosity for profit, causing detrimental consequences on real-life victims and their families. While interest in notorious murderers and their crimes may not be entirely unwarranted, it is imperative for media and viewers alike to refrain from romanticizing or sensationalizing serial killers. Otherwise, they run the risk of trivializing killers’ actions and glorifying the harm they inflicted upon innocent people.