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Are True Crime Dramatizations Ethical?

As true crime dramatizations become increasingly popular, people question whether we’ve crossed the line from education to exploitation.

Credit: Joca_PH/Shutterstock

Following the release of Netflix’s new true crime series ‘Dahmer’, people are again calling the ethics of true crime dramatizations into question.

The 10-episode series starring Evan Peters reenacts the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer. one of the most notorious serial killers and sex offenders in history. Raking in 196 million hours of viewing time in its first week, it remains the number-one Netflix TV show in over 60 countries. Yet many, including those directly affected by the crimes, have been speaking out against the series and the wider true crime genre.

While the BBC wrote an article titled, ‘Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem?’ New Statesman published the more direct ‘Abolish true crime’, with a subheading including, “the genre is morally indefensible.”

Why Do We Even Like True Crime?

First, it’s important to note that the fascination with true crime is completely natural, even healthy. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, wildly popular and highly acclaimed literature popularized true crime long before documentaries and drama series. There are various sociological, psychological, and even biological reasons true crime is so appealing to the masses – here are 7:

  1. Evil fascinates us: True crime provides insight into the minds of people who have acted on what Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse” – murder.
  2. We can’t look away from the trainwreck. Scott Bonn, criminology professor and author of Why We Love Serial Killers writes, “The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
  3. 24/7 news cycle: This is a bit of a chicken-egg point. Our fascination with murder and crime promotes these kinds of news stories. That then unravels in neverending media loops, perpetuating fear and fascination with murder and crime.
  4. Evolutionary benefit & feeling prepared. Humans are naturally wired to pay attention to potentially dangerous things so we can know how to avoid them. Women are particularly drawn to true crime because we use it to gain useful insight into how not to be murdered/assaulted. One study supporting this found women were more likely than men to buy books including self-defense tips, explanations of a killer’s motives, and female victims.
  5. We’re relieved we’re not the victim – or the perpetrator. We primarily enjoy watching other people’s misfortune mostly because we’re relieved it’s not happening to us. Similarly, we have a twisted empathy toward perpetrators. Everyone has that moment of rage where you think, “I could kill them,” but almost none of us ever will. When you see someone who actually acted on that impulse, you think, “someone had to kill someone; thank goodness it wasn’t me.”
  6. We like controlled fear. Like children enjoy monster movies, adults enjoy the fear that comes with true crime. It’s a controlled fear and sense of adrenaline that’s not actually putting you in harm’s way.
  7. Good and comforting storytelling: The enjoyment of storytelling has been a fundamental tenet of our species since the hunter-gatherer era. Crime stories also reassuringly affirm our worldviews in constantly shifting societies, such as that of the justice system.

So, if engagement with true crime is such a natural impulse, why has there been so much backlash?

Credit: UMD Special Collections/Flickr, Jelena990/Shutterstock

The Case Against True Crime

Exploiting Trauma

Swallowed up by the entertainment, people often forget these are real-life events that actually happened to people. We forget these violent crimes continue to affect traumatized families and communities. The Capilano University’s independent journal notes,

The way we consume true crime cases should be repeatedly called into question due to the inherent exploitative nature of reporting gruesome events and profiting off them… The continual exploitation through overexposure of victims must stop in order for true crime to be a morally defensible genre.

Capilano Courier

Victim’s Families

On top of this, just to rub ethical violation into the wound, the victim’s family members sometimes aren’t even notified that the tragic death of their loved one is about to become a Netflix special. Take Dahmer. Rita Isbell, whose brother was one of Dahmer’s victims, said about the recreation of her emotional courtroom speech,

When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then. I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.


Effect on Viewers

An article in Wired states,

Research has shown that consumption of crime news can lead to outsize fears of becoming a victim, and for those who are survivors of violence, the glut of content can be a lot to take.


The article goes on to argue that in some cases, true-crime media has played a role in the justice system” (like Adnan Syed’s conviction as a result of Serial). However, too often, it negatively impacts mental health or wastes police time.


As in most things, however, there is balance. True crime can be a platform for people’s stories and the systematic societal issues that often accompany this. Some argue that Dahmer gives sufficient attention and care to the stories of each victim. It also highlights how rampant racism and homophobia amongst police stopped them from doing their jobs and victims from being taken seriously.

But this doesn’t change the fact that we’re dredging up real pain for entertainment value and monetary gain. The new film ‘Blonde’, loosely based on Marilyn Monroe’s life, is highlighting similar issues. Namely, continuing to exploit the pain of a woman who was plenty exploited when she was alive.

Personally, I love true crime, and I don’t think or hope the genre will go anywhere anytime soon. There is a power as undeniable as gravity in hearing real-world tragedies and connecting to them. But we seriously need to reevaluate whether we’re honoring the real people behind these stories. The goal should always be to educate the audience and approach the process with respect.

Because nobody deserves to have the death of a loved one unknowingly immortalized in a shallow Netflix mini-series.

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