What ‘DAHMER’ Did Well, by Rachel Foley
With Halloween rapidly approaching, streaming services release more horror-related content, and there are more true crime documentaries for everyone to enjoy. While I’m a fan of them all year, my recent favorite has been DAHMER — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a documentary about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
DAHMER’s intense subject matter, themes of race and sexuality, and the glorification of a serial killer have resulted in backlash from critics. If Netflix didn’t have an educated and well thought-out plan to address the controversy behind the show, the backlash would be brutal for good reason. However, I think the show handles these issues very well. The controversial nature of these themes almost forces the series to handle them properly, and DAHMER shouldn’t be counted out for tackling them.
DAHMER addresses prevalent issues of the time period. Being a gay man in the 1980s was a very difficult position to be in at the height of the AIDS epidemic. With little education about AIDS available and ignorance piled on top, the police did not intervene in Dahmer’s belongings because they “didn’t want to catch anything,” which allowed for possible witnesses to be ignored.
It’s impossible to dismiss how society ignored Dahmer’s crimes because of racism and homophobia. Creating a show like this was definitely a bold but purposeful choice for both Netflix and the director, Ryan Murphy. It was necessary to discuss the prejudice of Dahmer's crimes in a way that hadn’t really been done before; Murphy highlighted the way the crimes weren’t investigated due to the identity of Dahmer and his victims.
DAHMER has also received criticism for glorifying serial killers and violent crime. These claims are partially true, especially because Evan Peters, an attractive actor, is cast as the title character. The real glorification, however, comes from the people who praise the character’s actions and create Dahmer fan edits online.
Many people on TikTok have created “thirst traps” for Peters as Dahmer without realizing the damage they’re doing. To be frank, Jeffrey Dahmer was a murderer who preyed on young queer Black men, and there’s nothing less attractive than that.
Another thing to consider is that Netflix really has no control over people making edits like this. People are going to make Dahmer thirst traps if they want, and while this doesn’t make it okay, sometimes we just have to keep scrolling by.
That being said, praise for Peters’ acting shouldn’t be avoided. He plays into Dahmer’s anti-social and manipulative tendencies well, and the emotional scenes are very believable.
The character’s attitudes are never positive toward Dahmer, except for the people who send him letters in prison. This show itself doesn’t glorify serial killers, but the concept of creating TV shows about serial killers does. If there wasn’t an audience for these documentaries, they wouldn’t be made.
So why is everyone so obsessed with serial killer documentaries? The answer is simple: tribe mentality. It’s us vs. them. By creating these shows and revealing the killer’s motive, writers establish distinct traits that lead to violent behavior.
Serial killers aren’t like “the rest of us,” and having this realization while watching these shows can be comforting. It’s very easy for our troubles to seem small and for us to feel like we fit in while watching DAHMER. He was always labeled a “weird kid,” and he was a gay man in the 1980s, which was one of the “worst” identities to have at the time. What’s more, he had a lot of traits from a young age that could have led him to be a serial killer and that most of us don’t have, such as antisocial behavior and a fondness for violence.
It’s no secret that Dahmer’s victims were mostly young, queer Black men, and the show confronts this issue head-on. Due to a lack of money, Dahmer lived in a low-income, predominantly Black area when he committed the most murders. In the episodes about his trial, when Dahmer is asked about the race of his victims, he says that he was killing Black men simply because there were more Black men around him than white men. While this claim is viable, there’s no doubt Dahmer used his own identity as a gay man to deter the police. There’s also no doubt that Dahmer could have recognized that the police were ignoring the murders due to the victims’ race, and he used that to his advantage.
Many of the minority voices have no platform in the series because they were silenced by death; for a lot of the victims, their purpose in the show is to be a victim, not to have a platform for minority voices. The show does specifically give a voice to Dahmer’s neighbor, though, who was ignored by the police and the mayor. While it’s definitely a major plot point that the victims and witnesses were ignored due to their minority status, that doesn’t fix anything. It is an issue that goes beyond a plot point — it happens in real life, which is the reason why DAHMER needed to address this so badly.
In short, Netflix’s DAHMER has received both praise and criticism. While depictions of queer people and people of color are necessary in media, the racial and LGBTQ+ themes in DAHMER aren’t really what we look for in terms of representation.
Although, the representation of people of color and queer people in the series isn’t perfect, and the internet really ran wild with the fan edits of Peters, we can’t deny that DAHMER addresses these themes in a way that highlights the true horror of Dahmer’s crimes: how easily the police ignored minority voices and continue, in many cases, to do so today. Despite all the controversy, I really enjoyed watching this documentary, and I would recommend it to anyone who can stomach the violence and themes.