Romanticising Serial Killers: the issue with true crime dramas
Antonia discusses the issues with true crime dramas and the romanticisation and glorification of serial killers and the consequences it's having on society.
With the most recent release of the new Jeffrey Dahmer series starring Evan Peters, there's no better time to have the discussion on true crime dramas and how the glorification and romanticisation of serial killers is becoming a real issue in society.
Before we dive in, I want to make the distinction between true crime documentaries and true crime dramas, such as anthology series and films like Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, The Serpent, the 2019 film on Ted Bundy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and how, in my opinion, they are wildly different. These dramas, while still based on true events, have the beauty of creative freedom and are made more for the purpose of entertainment. A team of people or a single person has written a script to elicit specific emotions from their audience, using established actors to depict their portrayal of real life events. Documentaries, though still entertaining, are made more for the purpose of informing, giving factual evidence, even sometimes analytical perspectives from professionals, and remain unbiased.
I can’t deny that these dramas are entertaining, especially around the time of Halloween when all I want to watch are thrillers and horrors, but I've noticed a shocking pattern in the way we respond to this type of media.
We detach ourselves from the reality
These serial killer dramas seem to do an interesting thing to our brains, where we almost detach from reality, and consume these programmes/films like any other fictional drama. Oftentimes I have to remind myself "holy shit - this happened in real life!" We become so engrossed in the narrative of the story and the lives of the main characters, in this case real-life murderers, that we almost seem to forget that these were very real, very horrific moments in people’s lives. Or In Dahmer, we're shown his upbringing, his isolation or his bullying, willing us to understand the hows and whys he became the person he was. They become humanised, and sometimes we end up finding ourselves sympathising or feeling bad for them.
Hottake, but I’d say serial killers and people who commit atrocities don’t deserve our empathy or sympathy, especially from viewers of new generations who weren't alive to feel the impact they had on society.
Killer heartthrobs playing actual killers
So, sometimes true crime dramas often take the angle of humanising the serial killers, and in the case of The Serpent and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, they're depicted as charismatic, charming individuals with a large sex appeal. Combine this with the actors who play them and we create a whole new issue.
"By casting actors we grew up loving, and crushing on, we almost get this sense of hybristophilia"
True crime audiences are largely comprised of women so it’s no secret that Hollywood are choosing well-established heartthrobs, with a dominating female fanbase, to play these roles; such as Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer and Tahar Rahim as Charles Sabraj. But there's a dangerous psychology surrounding this - the more attractive we find people, the easier it is to forgive them. So by casting actors we grew up loving, and crushing on, we almost get this sense of hybristophilia (a love of criminals).
This is where the "true crime girlies" meme and stan culture actually gets extremely problematic. I noticed, especially after the release of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, that some viewers, usually teenage girls, began obsessing, fangirling and crushing on serial killers like Ted Bundy, all over again.
I know it is not a particularly new phenomenon by any means. ‘Fan girls’ would send letters, money and sexual images of themselves to these men while they were in prison. But now, we recognise this behaviour differently with the existence of social media.
I don't know if people remember that TikTok trend when girls were pretending to be Ted Bundy's victims, using makeup to create fake blood, bruises and even bite marks on their bodies, but is this not a clear example of how depicting serial killers as sex symbols is changing our view of them in society? This is no fault to the actors, of course, they were simply doing their job. But there is a huge difference between complimenting the actors' craft or appreciating their performance, and complimenting how hot they look while attaching them to these roles. And this line is beginning to blur for some true crime 'stans'. I've seen a disturbingly large number of TikTok fan-edits and meme posts from girls from my generation romanticising and sexualising these actors while they're performing as serial killers, wishing they were alive when these killers were around so they could have had the chance to be one of their victims.
Audiences, especially within my generation, find it easy to obsess over new shows and create content like edits, fanfiction and memes for our own entertainment - that's what fandom culture is, harmless enjoyment and involvement. But what happens when the hot new trending topic or show is based on a serial killer, and we're still doing it?
The role of social media
Dahmer grew a wild fanbase while he was in prison, and with the production of true crime dramas, Hollywood has unknowingly brought in an entirely new fanbase. All you have to do is open social media.
"we detached ourselves from the reality, yet again"
Numerous audio clips of Evan Peters’ Dahmer have already taken over TikTok and the minds of Gen Z, resulting in thousands of memes and endless videos of people using the sounds "Relax, I just wanna take some pictures" and "We're gonna party. Party Hardy."
I won’t lie, I found most of them hilarious, and like any trending TikTok sound, have been joking about and quoting them myself. They had a lot of comedic potential. But it was when I saw the vast amount of Dahmer costumes at halloween this year, that I realised the wider issue. Somewhere in the hub of TikTok trends, creating memes and jokes, we'd detached ourselves from the reality and severity of the situation yet again, and somehow turned him into another iconic pop culture figure. Sure, they were only harmless memes, simply references to a tv show, but we need to be reminded of what his words represent. We altered the perception of these sounds, poking fun at what happened to very real, very innocent people. The intensity of media attention and saturation of content resulted in the glamourisation of his crimes and casted him in a flattering light.
The biggest issue here is that through true crime stan culture and social media, serial killers are being deified in the media all over again, by an entirely new generation. Now, not only do we have true crime dramas potentially glorifying and humanising these killers, but audiences are creating their own content and piling onto the narrative.
It would be naive of me to think that it ends with the Dahmer series. We're creating an endless cycle that resurfaces the pain and trauma of the victims' remaining family and victims of assault and abuse in general. Trying to heal from the horrors of what happened is heartbreaking enough without the media regurgitating the same stories and finding new ways to tell it from an entertaining perspective. But the industry will always continue to create true crime dramas as long as they keep being committed, and stan culture will always find a way to solidify them in our media.