By Maia Venuti
There have always been debates about the ethics of the true crime genre, such as whether it is appropriate to talk about certain cases. Since the release of “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” on Netflix, this discussion has become much more widespread.
Some people argue that true crime in all forms is unethical. On the other hand, true crime enthusiasts support continued conversations around true crime cases and do not find it unethical.
A huge reason that this debate is entering the mainstream now is the new Netflix series about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which has quickly become the third most-watched show on the platform. With the show's release, audiences have become increasingly critical of the true crime industry as a whole.
The show sexualizes Dahmer by making him appear attractive to audiences. Producers did not ask permission from the victims’ families to use their stories. As a result, “Monster” received a lot of backlash for its insensitivity toward the lives lost in order to tell an interesting story.
People are arguing that this series is indicative of a larger issue at hand: that true crime dehumanizes victims by focusing on a murderer. By telling the story and making the main focus of attention the criminal, the true crime genre exploits the victims’ suffering.
This has become a very commonplace observation in the true crime world, especially when talking about dramatic recreations of true events. Non-documentary true crime shows or films, such as “Monster” or “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile” (2019) cast attractive actors like Evan Peters and Zac Efron, respectively, to appeal to viewers; however, these casting choices result in viewers developing a real attraction to these serial killers.
Casting an attractive actor to play a real-life serial killer will inevitably cause people to develop an infatuation with these murderers, a phenomenon called hybristophilia. For this reason, people consider true crime unethical in all its capacities.
On the other side of the same coin, just as many people argue in favor of true crime and consider it ethical. A large portion of the people on this side of the argument acknowledges the exploitative nature of certain true crime shows that take more creative liberties than is appropriate. Many advocate against watching these “based on a true story” shows and support documentaries instead.
True crime documentaries are incredibly important not only in the genre of true crime but in history. To have investigators, surviving victims, the family of the victims, legal representatives and others speaking of their involvement in a case is not only not exploitative, but very important. Having eyewitnesses and victims’ families come together to discuss the situation of their own volition resolves the issue of consent that faces the producers of dramatized true crime stories.
The debate on the ethics of true crime is one that has gone on for a while and will continue to go on in the future. Both sides to this argument are understandable, and there should be a compromise between the two. But as long as big production companies continue making money off of these shows, a compromise or reevaluation of true crime ethics is unlikely.