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Netflix series “Dahmer” walks ethical boundaries

Image used with permission from Netflix
The newly released “Dahmer” series on Netflix has received buzz from critics. As the most recent of many films, books and documentaries chronicling Jeffrey Dahmer’s story in the 30 years since the murders occurred, one might wonder: did this story need to be re-told?

“Be too sweet and you’ll be a goner. Yep, I’ll pull a Jeffrey Dahmer.” Released in 2010, these lyrics from “Cannibal,” the hit Kesha song, contain the name of a man who captured the world’s attention for all the wrong reasons. But, who is Jeffrey Dahmer? The newly released Netflix series “Dahmer” tells his story. 

In 10 episodes, the series explores the life, crimes and eventual death of an infamous serial killer. I found the show an entertaining and immersive experience. However, I also questioned the moral and ethical boundaries crossed in the process of its creation. 

Dahmer was born in Wisconsin in 1960 and grew up to brutally kill, rape and eat 17 young men. With his youngest victim being only 14 years old, it is no wonder Jeffrey Dahmer became a household name. Since his imprisonment, Dahmer drew the public eye and kept the media enthralled for more than 30 years.

After its initial release, a growing fan base has surrounded the show. With Halloween right around the corner, we are likely to see an influx of Jeff Dahmer costumes. The show’s popularity has caused many to claim that “Dahmer” supports the violence shown on screen. 

I could not help but feel somewhat guilty for taking a continued interest in the show.

There is no question that the murders of the young men depicted in “Dahmer” are tragic, but the show does not endorse murder by simply depicting his actions. Although the grim content may seem appalling, each episode is so skillfully filmed that the viewer forgets each scene is based on true events, largely given aesthetic filmmaking and skillful acting.

A cohesive color palette of burgundy and other autumn tones is used throughout the series, present in both lighting and scenery. The color scheme creates a very pleasing visual experience, at least in the scenes where people are not getting murdered or eaten. The images on-screen are high-quality, well-edited and build suspense. 

Beyond the visual appeal, Evan Peters, who assumes the role of Jeffrey Dahmer, portrays an honest and haunting interpretation of Dahmer’s life. Regardless of the acting from Peters and the rest of the cast, one question still rose to the forefront of my mind: is it ethical to portray someone of such a violent and disturbing nature? 

Many have argued that somebody has to portray Dahmer if the story is going to be told. On the other hand, a distressing role such as that of Dahmer could be taxing to the mental health of the actor, and would likely bring back trauma for the individuals originally involved. If done correctly, an ethical portrayal of a dangerous character such as Dahmer is possible. While the series portrays Dahmer fairly well – through avoidance of glorifying his crimes and the attention to detail – the lasting impacts on the actors and impressions on the audience remain to be seen.

There is also the question of whether the series is ethical to watch. Given the disturbing content – human bones dissolving in acid, for instance – I could not help but feel somewhat guilty for taking a continued interest in the show. The events that transpire on-screen are off-putting, with monstrous seeming to be a more accurate term. So, it is hard to understand why we find entertainment in watching something so horrifying.

A staggering number of viewers watched Dahmer, yet instead of shying away, they returned to the show as they were thoroughly entertained. Whether due to a fascination with human nature or an interest in history, the fact remains that the series is enjoyed as a distraction. 

It is important to remember that, at its core, Dahmer is not a made-up narrative. Various family members of murder victims have claimed that they were not approached about the show’s creation and oppose the exploitation of their loved ones’ stories. Watching the show after knowing the victims’ families did not consent to these graphic depictions is uncomfortable. Real lives were destroyed and ended, lives that are now being portrayed and dramatized largely for monetary gain. 

Ultimately, many black citizens in the area raised suspicions that could have saved multiple lives, but entrenched racism enabled Dahmer to continue killing.

On the other hand, the show highlighted the pattern of Dahmer’s murders in the Black community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In doing so, it attempted to place emphasis on the social justice aspect of the murders that have been previously overlooked. 

The series sheds light on the systemic oppression and racism minorities face from both legal enforcement and society at large. Due to neglect on the part of the police force, these groups – namely the LGBTQ and Black communities – became far easier for Dahmer to target. For instance, Dahmer’s neighbor Glenda Cleveland repeatedly called and reported him to the police, but was ignored time and time again. Ultimately, many Black citizens in the area raised suspicions that could have saved multiple lives, but entrenched racism enabled Dahmer to continue killing.

“Dahmer” recounts an extremely tragic and difficult story. It is no surprise the ethics involved in this show seem complicated, but I believe the creators tried their best to tell the story respectfully. Unfortunately, they missed the mark by not consulting the victim’s families and bringing their trauma back into the public eye, as well as the mental health implications for actors involved in its creation.

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