Weekender: The Ethics of True Crime Television
Have you ever wondered what motivates a killer? Or what exactly happened behind the yellow warning tape? It’s natural; the unthinkable fascinates us. Hollywood knows this, because true crime has become one of the best-selling genres. Whether it’s documentaries or theatrical performances, true crime is meant to be educational. From educating victims to providing insight into a killer’s mind, the real crime seems to be relatively harmless. However, when these docudramas gain as much visibility as they do, what happens when the unthinkable becomes thinkable for a certain viewer? Can true crime deal sensitively with real tragedies?
There has been a curious phenomenon of serial killer biopics in recent years. They raised red flags for many reasons, including glorification of the killer, exploitation of victims’ deaths, leniency in violence, lack of precision, and lack of respect for victims’ families. There are many risks in the face of horrific real-life tragedies, challenging the ethics of creating this type of media. Moreover, producers cannot control the impact of media on audiences, especially on impressionable audiences.
Many of these harmful effects stem from the fact that Hollywood idols are the killers in question. This begs the question: is it really necessary? It can blur the line between appreciating the actor’s performance and simply glorifying the killer. More importantly, it overstates the viewer’s ability to differentiate their support for the actor or character.
This is more than just a theory; scientific studies show that it is a common psychological phenomenon. In Nurit Tal-Or and Yael Papirman’s article, “The fundamental attribution error in attributing characteristics of fictional characters to actors”, they found this struggle prevalent in media viewing. The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to think that people’s behavior is influenced by their disposition, not by the situation in which they find themselves. This means that an actor is likable because his character is, not because he acts.
A similar phenomenon is the halo effect, which allows positive or negative traits to spread from one area of life to another. A common prejudice derived from this trend is the idea that “beautiful is also good”. These are all well-documented psychological tendencies that most certainly influence the way we consume media and the world around us. It’s relatively harmless when bias deals with characters in light-hearted shows or movies, but what happens when the media deals with much heavier topics? How does the halo effect come into play when you’re dealing with an attractive actor playing a horrible person? If these are ingrained cognitive biases, how can we hope to overcome them when dealing with sensitive topics?
This issue makes a return with the new “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” (2022–) on Netflix. It’s the second Dahmer biopic to be released in the past five years, setting records as Netflix’s most-watched new series in its first week. The story follows Dahmer from his pursuit and murder of his 17 victims to his arrest and eventual prosecution. The show’s purpose, as professed by creator Ryan Murphy, was to shed light on the lives and stories of individual victims. Whether it succeeded is up for debate, as the show seemed to raise as much controversy as it did views.
Murphy praises the series for its educational goals, but its approach does not reflect a commitment to accuracy and respect for those involved in the tragedy. Many family members of Dahmer’s victims have spoken out against the series, calling out its inaccuracies. Shirley Hughes, mother of victim Tony Hughes, told the Guardian that ‘it didn’t happen that way’. She adds, “I don’t see how they can use our names and post stuff like that over there.” Rita Isbell, the sister of victim Errol Lindsey, told Insider that she was never contacted about making the show: “They didn’t ask me. They just did. For a show that claims to honor and praise the victims, the victims and their families clearly don’t feel very honored or praised.
Lindsey’s cousin Eric Perry shared similar sentiments and criticized the show for its lack of sensitivity in a Sept. 22 tweet. “It’s traumatic over and over again,” Perry tweeted, “and why? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?” Perry says it very well: for what? does anyone really need to know about this subject? The continued graphic depiction of these deaths at the expense of the victims’ families just beats a dead horse. Murphy would say it raises awareness of the victims’ stories, but only 2% of viewers have researched the victims after watching the series.
This calls into question the role of the public in the consumption of this medium. As discussed earlier, cognitive biases such as fundamental attribution error and the halo effect play an important role in how viewers interpret media. These biases are especially powerful in younger, more impressionable age groups. When Murphy was reviving this story for his series, one wonders if he was thinking about what kind of effect it would have on young viewers. Snippets of the show are being regurgitated on platforms like TikTok, glorifying the series in ways that deviate from its educational intent.
TikTok is a popular chatting platform among younger generations. It is therefore important to consider the type of conversations that will take place regarding real-life tragedies. Unsurprisingly, the series’ “educational” focus didn’t translate to the app. There have been countless videos on TikTok downplaying the seriousness of the murders, as creators joke about having a drink with Dahmer or dressing up as a serial killer in an effort to look attractive. Despite Murphy’s intention to shine a light on the victims’ stories, the reactions seem to sidestep this and remain impressed with the lead.
Casting sympathetic and attractive actors in murderous roles opens the door to this kind of reaction. This effect is seen in the other biopics that have been released in recent years, including “My Friend Dahmer” (2017) and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019). The first follows Dahmer’s origin story, and the second follows Ted Bundy and his murders. Ross Lynch and Zac Efron play the killers respectively. Both of these choices were interesting because they are two notable Disney icons. The two boys who characterized many people’s childhoods are now seen killing animals and brutally murdering women. More than tarnishing the look of the actors, it softens the look of the killers. Viewers have already connoted Efron and Lynch with the good memories, so they can’t fully connect with the evil depicted on screen.
Of course, attractive casts could be for historically accurate purposes. Ted Bundy, for example, has used his charm and seeks to lure women to death. Controversial artistic choices aren’t inherently bad, but they have to be made for a very good reason. Efron’s casting is nasty even if it’s accurate. Seeing likable actors play roles like these does more harm than good, especially since you’re dealing with real stories and individuals. Efron, Lynch, and Peters already have a fan base, and subsequently they bring in those roles, subconsciously training audiences to sympathize with the killers over their reputations.
Not to mention that most viewers haven’t experienced real-time killers. Studies reveal that the majority of people who watch true crime are under 34 years old. While the audience is mostly young people, most wouldn’t have been around when these killers were active. They missed the real-world impact and presence of these people. These killers end up becoming something of a legend, their stories distant myths. As the distance between the actual event and the dramatized representation grows, the role played by the actor will no longer have as much tragic weight as before. Thus, it becomes easier for the role to be glorified.
True crime is an undeniable guilty pleasure for many, and perpetually in demand. At best, it educates the general public and increases the visibility of the victims involved. At worst, and most common, it repackages and sensationalizes tragedy for exactly what it is: entertainment. As long as these tragedies are increasingly commodified, people will inevitably see them as such. Glorification not only fuels the serial killer’s desire for fame and recognition, but retraumatizes the victims and their families. If docudramas are to be made — and it looks like they will, given how profitable true crime is — the portrayal needs to be as respectful and grounded as possible.