Vathanakul: How the Media Presents Murder as Entertainment

As a fan of BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime— a comedic web series exploring unsolved crimes and supernatural horror narratives — since 2016, I’ve taken the next step to join the popular wave of many crime TV shows and documentaries.

But after watching the new Netflix limited series DAHMER – Monsters: The Story of Jeffrey DahmerI began to question the factual accuracy, or lack thereof, of popular media genres.

DAHMER is the second most-watched show in English since its release on September 21. The show roots in Dahmer’s past trauma and childhood, and encourages semblance of justification for his actions.

The series glorifies Dahmer (Evan Peters), the notorious serial killer, cannibal and necrophile.

When viewers see a slice of humanity from Dahmer, they may feel compelled to sympathize with the killer, while others sympathize with the victims’ families and resent the direction of this series.

The media have heavily criticized DAHMER‘s portrayal of the victims, given the lack of consultation with the victims’ families prior to the series’ release and how their stories are exploited.

The eighth episode tells the emotional and complicated story of Tony Hughes, one of Dahmer’s victims, but according to his mother, it does not correspond to true life events and is an invasion of privacy.

“I don’t understand how they can use our names and put stuff like that out there,” Shirley Hughes said in an interview with The guard.

The biographical film by Ted Bundy is similarly titled Extremely evil, shockingly evil and hideous cast former Disney heartthrob Zac Efron as the notorious killer. Casting played a role in romanticizing serial killers like Bundy and drawing large audiences with the star power of many crime shows.

After finishing DAHMER, I question the true crime media’s portrayal of both murderers and victims. I wonder how the entertainment industry continues to captivate viewers while portraying a romanticized picture of killers and their crimes while misrepresenting the victims’ stories.

It doesn’t feel right to watch a show just for entertainment while knowing that the victims’ families are reliving their trauma.

Of course, I’m not against all movies and series about serial killers. The film zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., for example, takes an entertaining yet informative twist on the Zodiac Killer. Part of the success and amazing reviews is that the case is still unsolved.

The Zodiac Killer’s lack of a concrete identity makes his or her crimes less personal and intimate. This may have allowed producers more freedom in reproducing his crimes without the weight of ethical pressure.

True crime documentaries are more compelling to me when they are committed to truthfulness.

Netflix’s three-part documentary series Conversations with a Murderer delves into the lives of three serial killers: Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. The series shares unheard tapes of their interrogations and in-depth interviews with the perpetrators’ close associates, making it closer to the truth than many shows in its genre.

One of the most notable serial killer documentaries is Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a nail-biting limited series on the Richard Ramirez case. It follows a similar structure as Conversations with a Murdererbut the viewers travel along with the two detectives on the case.

I prefer the documentary format of the detectives’ step-by-step analysis and investigation to dramatic recreations of the brutal aftermath of murders. As I watched, I was fascinated by the meticulous details of Ramirez’s case and attempted to solve the crime on the side.

I believe that the stories of serial killers and true crime events should not be put to rest to prevent unheard stories from the victims from being made into history. But the production of such TV shows and films often manipulates their stories, which detracts from the ethical path of sharing victims’ stories.

So instead of halfheartedly watching the romanticized version of true crime shows, I’m questioning every show I watch with a detective hat on.

A commitment to precision and accuracy, I would say, makes true crime a complete and robust form of entertainment.


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