Is True Crime a True Crime?

Exploring the ethical boundaries of true crime entertainment

Note: There are mentions of sensitive topics and details surrounding Jeffrey Dahmer’s murders. Please consider reading this with a trusted adult. 


When Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story premiered on September 21, 2022, it quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular series ever, passing one billion hours viewed which set it adjacent to season four of Stranger Things and Squid Game. However, the Dahmer show is spurring discussions about how true-crime commercialization frequently capitalizes on shock value, victim exploitation, and perpetrator glorification and romanticization. 

You will find true crime content everywhere: turn on the TV, open up Spotify, and scroll through social media. In its simplest terms, the true crime genre is a recounting or retelling of any crime that has happened in real life. Considering the fact that much of this entertainment genre captures gruesome and tragic subjects, a question begs to be asked: is there a problem with watching true crime genre? 

It’s hard for anyone to try and discredit an entire genre as bad. However, the real responsibility of the creators is to be empathetic toward the victims and their loved ones; additionally, they should be careful with conveying information to avoid misguided witch hunts and harassment.  

This true crime phenomenon didn’t start with the explosion of Making a Murderer in late 2015 through early 2016; in fact, according to Joyce Carol Oates’ 1999 New York Review of Books, true crime has a long history that dates back to the late 1800s. Whether it was serial essays published in magazines and books to now online streaming sites and the film industry, people have never gotten tired of real-life crime coverage no matter the medium. 

However, with the Serial podcast launching in 2014 and even Saturday Night Live’s “Murder Show” skit in 2021, it’s clear this fast-growing entertainment genre had an especially explosive popularity throughout the 2010s, spilling over into the past couple of years. 

Psychologically, the viewers’ fascination with true crime content is multifaceted and complex. As Time magazine cites, this obsession could be a result of thrill-seeking, an urge to play armchair detective or even simply not being able to look away. “True crime is like ‘this could happen to me,’ so you get super in-the-moment,” noted Novalyne Petreikis (‘23). One of our most potent emotions, fear, may be the main reason we are drawn to true crime — we have a chance to experience this simultaneously basic and complicated emotion in a controlled setting when we are consuming this genre. “When we read about crime, we’re thinking about how would we handle [it] if we were [the] victim,” said Dr. Michael Mantell, a clinical and corporate psychologist from the San Diego Police Department on NPR.

One true crime example demonstrative of a positive impact surrounds the overturned murder conviction of Adnan Syed. The Serial podcast, a spinoff of NPR’s “This American Life” and an instant hit, enabled host Sarah Koenig to investigate Syed’s first-degree murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. Serial raised questions about the evidence against Syed and spurred the internet into conversations about justice and a broken legal system. In September of 2022, 23 years after his conviction, Syed was granted release from prison. 

Throughout the entire season one, which discussed Syed’s case, Koenig makes a sustained and noticeable effort to maintain ethical and empathetic storytelling methods. She acknowledges when she is speculating, attempts to mitigate any harm to the people she talks about, and adheres to an unspoken but present standard. However, though the podcast did help vacate Syed’s conviction alongside other podcasts and forums that also have positively impacted the justice system, the amount of caution within the act of relaying triggering information should be emphasized.

Despite Monster not being anything particularly new compared to the number of dramatizations of Dahmer’s life — such as The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993), Dahmer (2002), and Raising Jeffrey Dahmer (2006) — many were stunned by the graphic portrayal of violence, shot-for-shot recreation of court videos, and the victim-focused episodes. Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered 17 young men — mostly Black, Latino, and Asian men — by luring them into his home and strangling them. In 1991, he was tried and sentenced to 16 life terms; in 1994, he was beaten to death by another inmate. 

According to Netflix, Creator Ryan Murphy hoped that the series would unravel “the notorious serial killer’s past, while simultaneously exposing the systemic racism, homophobia, white privilege, and institutional failures that allowed him to continue his killing spree for more than a decade.” However, as the show climbs the ladders of popularity, so have the references to Dahmer’s murders, which can be demonstrated by the 19.3 billion views of “#Dahmer” on TikTok as of February 2 — fangirling over actor Evan Peters’ looks as Dahmer, analyzing side-by-side portrayals of the series and reality, and even expressions of sympathy for the serial killer. 

Furthermore, certain victims’ families spoke out against the ethicality of the show. Because of Monster’s many uncannily similar scenes especially in the courtroom, many family members felt triggered and re-traumatized. “If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me,” said Rita Isbell, whose brother was one of the many victims,  in an Insider article. “That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.” 

Murphy claims that over the course of the three and a half years working on filming plans, the Monster team reached out to around 20 of the victims’ families and friends “to get input.” But “not a single person responded to us in that process.” And he continued on in the creation of the show without the approval of those at the center of the subject. In their process of “uncover[ing] the truth of these people,” they forced the victims’ families to relive their trauma through a TV show that closely focuses on the killer, despite attempting to weave in victim narratives. Shirley Hughes, the mother of victim Tony Hughes, expressed, “It’s a shame that people can take our tragedy and make money. The victims never saw a cent. We go through these emotions every day.” 

When making true crime, it is the creators’ responsibility to be empathetic toward the victims and their loved ones. The massive popularity of many true crime giants such as the Dahmer Netflix series is inescapable; even if you try to turn it off or avoid its mentions, you are hearing and seeing it everywhere online. Imagine how the victims’ families feel on a daily basis — there is a line when true crime becomes blatant exploitation, as it’s generating massive profit for companies while exploiting real-life tragedies. 

Though true crime is just offered like any other book, TV, or movie genre for its viewers, it does especially put showrunners into tricky situations. Next time, when you pick up that TV remote, click on Netflix, or open up Spotify, be mindful of the entertainment that you consume.