True crime TV shows, movies, books and podcasts have skyrocketed in popularity. The new Netflix show DAHMER has joined the ever-growing list of extremely successful true crime series. The show is about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and on its debut it gained nearly 200 million hours watched. It is currently holding its place as the thirteenth most watched show in Netflix history. DAHMER is not the only true crime documentary to do this well on Netflix in its first few weeks. This is common with Netflix true crime documentaries and shows, for example Tiger King, which within ten days had gained nineteen million views. What is the appeal of crime shows? Well, they are provocative, gory and keep people engaged. For Netflix it is one of the best ways to make money. However, some have begun to question the ethics of producing these shows and wonder if it does more harm than good. DAHMER has reignited these debates, especially with the victims’ families having been so vocal about their problems with the show. Can there ever be a consensus on true crime dramas?
“In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, he provided interviews about the case and the media’s engagement made it extremely public.”
There are two sides to every story, so I will begin by considering the case in favour of true crime TV shows. There are two points about why true crime TV shows should be made. Firstly, true crime is a type of history. The population are usually exposed to big true crime cases through media coverage so that they become public history. In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, he provided interviews about the case and the media’s engagement made it extremely public. Alongside the televised court proceedings, it is a historical event and heavily documented. The case has gone beyond the influence of the people involved to the point that they can no longer entirely control the narrative. While this is unfair, it is part of popular history. Secondly, these shows are merely based on real life, they are actually not real life. They are not documentaries; shows like DAHMER are interpretations of the true story. They take the important points and fill the rest in so they can produce an engaging drama. These shows draw on real events but are not claiming to be accurate depictions of the cases. They are “based on a true story” and are using the story in an interpretive way to make an interesting TV show.
On the other side of the argument, there are three major points against true crime TV shows. The first difference in opinion is that they unfairly dramatise victim’s lives. In the case of true crime, these are the most horrible parts of people’s lives being produced for entertainment. Despite the moral issue with this as it stands, it becomes even worse when the families of the victims are not involved. In many cases, including DAHMER, the victims’ families have requested that these shows not be produced. These families have gone through such hardship and they should not have to be exposed to those wounds through a popular documentation of their experiences. It is also questionable how accurate these shows really are considering the families non-involvement in the production of the show. Secondly, there is the question of how much shows will glorify the events. The more popular true crime becomes, the more production companies will try to make it palatable for a wider audience. This could lead to an omission of details that allows the wider audience to have a distorted view of events. This contributes to the view that these true crime shows are not beneficial to telling an accurate account of events. Finally, the monetary gains that production companies make from true crime shows is ethically ambiguous. To profit from a story such as Jeffrey Dahmer’s horrendous crimes is problematic. Considering that DAHMER was not made for educational purposes, but for entertainment, it feels wrong for people to be making such huge amounts of money off the horrific events of the case, especially since none of the money made from these shows goes to the victims’ families or to charity.
“When there has been an obvious victim, they should have a say in how their lives are being portrayed considering how much control they have already lost in their lives and especially when it comes to the delicate subjects discussed in true crime documentaries.”
The problem about true crime seems to be on a case by case basis and centering around the views of victims involved in the story. When the victims or those related are involved there is a level of engagement that makes the telling of the story legitimate. To give another example besides DAHMER, the Disney+ show Pam and Tommy gained lots of press this year surrounding the same issue. While this is not a true crime drama, Pamela Anderson was incredibly vocal about her distaste for the show. The show was made anyway, and made Disney+ lots of money in the process. In cases like these, where the people involved are so obviously upset by the adaptation, the show should probably not be made. When there has been an obvious victim, they should have a say in how their lives are being portrayed considering how much control they have already lost in their lives and especially when it comes to the delicate subjects discussed in true crime documentaries. Some of these true crime events are historical so it makes sense that people would be interested in these stories and want to learn about them, like any other part of history. However, there is a big difference in tone and purpose between a documentary and a dramatised TV show. It ultimately comes down to the content of the show and with what purpose that content is being conveyed to the audience.
It is unlikely that these true crime shows will cease to be popular. The money that true crime is making for production companies, streaming services and the actors involved is enough to ignore any ethical problems they might encounter. True crime documentaries are near impossible to stop but it is important as consumers to be aware of the content you are engaging with. The debate around the morality of these shows should continue and pressure should be put on production companies to give monetary or further compensation for telling the stories of the victims involved.