Olivia Shu / Daily Nexus

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery? From Agatha Christie to “Clue,” crime drama has been a popular genre of entertainment. Recently, this has taken the form of true crime podcasts and TV, which delve into some of the most horrific serial murders in history, asking, “Why did they do it?”

One of last year’s most popular true crime breakthroughs, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” reached over 1 billion hours of watchtime  within its first 60 days. It is now one of the most popular and controversial shows on Netflix. 

At their core, true crime shows, no matter how ethically made, profit off of the suffering of others. Some of the responses to the Dahmer series are indicative of the exploitative nature of the true crime genre and reveal extreme, widespread desensitization to violence, as a result of mass media culture and a disturbing lack of critical media consumption skills.

Demand for true crime media overall is at an all-time high. One in three Americans consume true crime media at least once per week. 

During the production of “Dahmer,” creator Ryan Murphy claimed that he wanted to center the victim’s stories, whenever possible. He allegedly attempted to contact 20 of the victims’ friends and family, but none responded. The vast majority of the show was based on three years of Murphy’s independent research.

Despite Murphy’s claim, Rita Isbell, sister of victim Errol Lindsey, says she was never contacted about the show. I find it hard to believe that all 20 people did not respond, unless producers were working off of a faulty phonebook or email list. 

Netflix has a history of not respecting the wishes of victims of crime and their families. Close friends and family of victim Robert Mast begged the streaming series not to release an episode of “I Am a Killer.” Netflix released the episode anyway, blindsiding and retraumatizing the friends and family. Mindy Pendleton, stepmother of Mast said, “We are the living victims.”

As the demand for true crime content continues to rise, there is little to no accountability for ethical production. Producers sensationalize stories and follow the money as exemplified by Murphy’s five-year contract with Netflix for a whopping $300 million, and “Monster” has been renewed for two more seasons. This money very rarely goes to the victims’ families. Evan Peters, who portrayed Jeffrey Dahmer in the show, recently won a Golden Globe for best actor. Murphy, the production team and Netflix are profiting off of the suffering of others. 

Lack of media literacy among avid consumers of true crime further exacerbates the dehumanizing of victims of crime. On TikTok, some people shared how they wished “Dahmer” had more gore and proudly said they were “unbothered” or “unfazed,” despite the show’s depictions of necrophilia and cannibalism. During the Halloween season, #jeffrey-dahmer-costume gained over 8 million views on TikTok, resulting in sites like eBay banning those costumes.

This widespread desensitization to violence — especially violence against women, the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color — is indicative of a growing lack of empathy and increased hyperindividualism. As Dahmer primarily attacked queer men of color, the show is only contributing to the overabundance of media depicting white men enacting violence against historically marginalized groups. We have to ask ourselves how much is for the sake of remembering history, and how much is just trauma porn against a group that has already been dehumanized and profited off of for centuries. 

By continuously consuming true crime and stories of trauma, consumers are feeding into this dehumanization and actively helping producers profit off of the suffering of others. These aren’t fictional characters in a show, these are real people and real deaths. 

By continuously consuming true crime and stories of trauma, consumers are feeding into this dehumanization and actively helping producers profit off of the suffering of others. These aren’t fictional characters in a show, these are real people and real deaths. 

However, true crime shows may provide deeper insight into the real-world policing and justice system that alternatives like fictional crime TV cannot provide.

Crime shows like “Law and Order,” “Criminal Minds,” and “CSI” tend to glorify the police force as a competent and unbiased organization trying their hardest to do good, whereas real cases may reveal quite the opposite. The Dahmer case and other true crime stories reveal how the police force can be pervaded with racism and homophobia, resulting in serial killers who end up killing way more people than they should have. 

One episode of “Dahmer” depicts 14-year-old Laotian boy Konerak Sinthasomphone, who managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment and sought the aid of two women on the street. Dahmer convinced two officers that Konerak was of age and his boyfriend, leading to the officers escorting Konerak back to Dahmer’s apartment despite the attempts at intervention by the two women. This gross negligence on the part of the police officers would unlikely be shown on a fictional crime show. If it wasn’t a true story, no one would believe it. The horror of the scene is that it really happened.

Nearly 75% of true-crime podcast listeners are women. Some psychologists say it’s because women may be drawn to true crime to see what they would’ve done differently, and learn how to avoid what the victims did. 

As an equally professional source (just declared my psychology major) I’d add that maybe so many women are drawn to true crime over crime shows because crime shows don’t reflect the experiences many women have had with the justice system. With violence against women being so pervasive and many cases remaining unsolved or police not believing them, it almost makes sense that women turn to true crime — a form of media that more accurately reflects their experiences with the law. 

Obviously, who am I to tell you whether or not to spend your Sunday night watching this show? If true crime is your thing, it’s your thing.  But I implore you to consume all media you watch with a critical lens, especially a genre as charged as true crime. Ask yourself: what about this speaks to me? Why am I watching it? And most importantly, who is affected by my consumption and support of this media?

Elizabeth Lee thinks we all need to consume our media a little more responsibly, especially if you fall asleep to the sound of bloody murder.