“MONSTER: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” was released this past Wednesday on Netflix. It’s the ninth Dahmer film/series to come out in the past two decades, so it’s safe to say the general public is more used to the fictionalized version of events rather than the actual case.
Content dedicated to the crimes of serial killers’ past presents a gray moral area. True crime deals in real life affairs. A gruesome “Dateline” murder acts as a cautionary tale to most, but to a select few, it’s a slice of history, a reminder of a friend or family member lost to senseless violence.
Viewing these stories on screens leaves our empathy clouded. It’s hard to imagine news so far away from our own experiences to be someone else’s reality.
While viewers should keep empathy alive, regardless of the emotional disconnect cinema offers, the ball truly lies in the court of true crime content creators to approach topics with respect.
Certain filmmaking decisions make it harder for us to recall the truth behind the fiction. Casting choices for serial killers, such as Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” remove the discomfort in watching a depraved presence on screen. Though Bundy may have been known for using his good looks to lure victims, implicitly casting a heartthrob to the role encourages glamorization of Bundy’s actions.
One tweet captions a gif of Zac Efron as Troy Bolton in “High School Music 2” staring into a pond to look at his reflection, stating “Ted Bundy as he tried to disguise himself from the authorities.” Immediately Bundy is likened to a character, just another Efron role for audiences to thirst after as they please.
Beyond this, true crime on social media platforms such as TikTok or Youtube have recently begun capitalizing on the tendency of Gen Zers to engage in multiple forms of media at once. Videos will feature creators doing their makeup as they recite true crime cases, or participating in Mukbangs, videos where a person eats a large quantity of food while recording.
Performing trivial tasks while discussing explicit murders removes the severity of the crime. Audiences can’t be asked to perceive these stories as anything other than entertainment when they are dealt with so casually.
These forms of media seem to boil down to capitalizing on the suffering of others. However, some true crime content has yielded actual results in cases, arguing the genre itself isn’t all bad.
“Serial,” a true crime podcast, examined the murder of American teen Hae Min Lee, and the conviction and jailing of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. The analysis effectively proved Syed’s court proceedings were unjust, ultimately leading to him being freed from prison after serving 23 years for the crime.
True crime is unavoidably disrespectful. If for nothing else, every case has two sides and one of those sides, for better or worse, will be impacted when the public decides where to lay its loyalty. While Syed might celebrate “Serial” for freeing him from an unfair conviction, Lee’s family may be without closure.
But still, at least with investigative journalism, facts are reported with hopefully little room for exaggeration. If narrative true crime content wants to maintain legitimacy as an artform, serial killer biopics should do the same — casting for accuracy versus star power, highlighting victims rather than villains.
The golden rule in capturing these cases is to maintain a balance between entertainment and journalism. The “truth” in true crime is often forgotten in exchange for whatever will get people watching. If creators seek to keep victims alive with their stories, the least they can do is keep themselves honest.