A growing number of American adults are watching true crime dramas, based on theft, kidnappings, or serial murders, on a regular basis. In recent years there has been a rapid increase in production and consumption of the true crime genre.
Most recently, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a true crime drama revolving around notorious cannibal and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, became Netflix’s second biggest show debut, with 196 million hours of viewership during its opening week.
Dahmer is not alone in its popularity. The Girl from Plainville on Hulu, The Staircase on HBO Max, and Dr. Death on Peacock, are all true murder chronicles released this year that were acclaimed by both audiences and critics.
In the same way drivers morbidly observe car crashes safely from behind their window, Americans may be becoming apathetic towards violence that is displayed on a screen.
The interest in true crime may not be a product of curiosity, but rather an opportunity to disassociate crime from justice issues in the present. Looking at the crash through our car window allows us to separate from a destructive reality, and feel comfortable in a bubble of safety.
In an era where constant visual reports of crimes flood our social media feeds, violence has become a ubiquitous, unavoidable reality. The influx of violent crime reporting, and feelings of mistrust towards the criminal justice system, have led to an increased interest in true crime series. Instead of allowing viewers to develop empathy for victims and disgust for criminals, these shows sensationalize violence without mobilizing change.
The Beginnings of the True Crime Genre
The sensationalization of violence isn’t new. Crime pamphlets were all the rage in sixteenth century England. These were mostly circulated amongst the upper class, who were out of touch with the masses and the justice system. These pamphlets acted as narrative stories and ballads, filled with emotional, explicit descriptions of violence and witness testimonies. They often ended with a form of divine justice, where good overcomes evil, and criminals pay for their crimes.
Despite the crime pamphlets’ notorious accounts, audiences began to take particular interest in the criminals. They did not seem to care about the brutality of the crime or the consequences the criminals received, they were interested in their motivations, social life, and emotions, or lack thereof.
Having the time to think from a criminal perspective was a luxury the illiterate lower class could not afford, yet most of the ballads were derived from the struggles of the poor and marginalized. While the masses grieved the loss of a loved one, or walked to their workplace in fear of their life, upper class crime connoisseurs discussed different reports, press, and witness accounts while posing as amateur detectives.
The true crime fascination amongst the elite pulled attention away from the human element of the justice system, and instead created imprecise political discourse around the aptitude of the law enforcement and the effectiveness of trials.
True Crime Creates A False Sense of Safety Justice
There is no harm in watching true crime shows. In fact, some can even be informational, and they can help provide self-defense techniques and increase people’s chances of survival.
The issue with true crime arises when viewers ignore news about crime in their city, state, and country, though will watch hours of brutal murders and trials on their devices. Unlike local news, viewers feel safer when they watch true crime.
Wow, I’m glad that isn’t me.
People feel a false sense of safety. The victim on their television could very well be them in the future, yet the narrative style makes the situation seem far away. The truth is, Dahmer is not set in Gotham City or Atlantis; all the events in the series took place in Wisconsin. These murders happened to real people in a real city, on a real street, in someone’s neighborhood.
Wow, the police are so inefficient, why did it take them so long?
When an incident is narrated, it isolates the characters and institutions in a single moment, place, and situation. The police force depicted in one true crime show could very well be the same as the audience’s local station. With this voyeuristic mentality, people forget to associate and critique the institutions they see on screen because they seem distant from them.
True crime like Dahmer may try to highlight the racism and homophobia that is historically rooted within United States law enforcement, but the narrative style of the reenactment creates an emphasis on the crime instead of the justice. Until true crime shows foreground justice over violence, and help viewers acknowledge the continuation of police violence within their own communities, these shows will not have an impact on a justice system that remains negligent towards vulnerable communities.
Narrative True Crime is Harmful
Just as it began, the true crime genre remains a form of entertainment for the upper class, an inefficient critique of the justice system, and a narrative style that exploits marginalized communities.
The viewers are not the issue. In a world of streaming platforms and digital media, audiences will consume new content every hour, and forget about it just as quickly. The creators, who wrote, shot, and released the show without the victims’ consent, are using America’s broken criminal justice system as a plot device, and the LGBTQ community as clickbait.
In exchange for monetary gain, true crime creators have bred national apathy towards violent crime, to a point where eBay had to ban the sale of serial killer halloween costumes. Aviator glasses and blonde wigs, which were dubbed Jeffrey Dahmer halloween costumes, violated eBay’s policy, which condemned the promotion or glorification of violent acts. The fact that a multinational e-commerce giant had to stop Americans from dressing their children as cannibalistic serial killers speaks to the extent of damage true crime shows have made.
The Halloween costumes are just a single product in a line of exploitative Dahmer side effects. Most recently, a Texas pizzeria’s “Jeffrey Dahmer Special,” a pizza covered in fake blood, edible eyeballs, and ramen noodles, has received backlash for its insensitivity.
Audiences keep creators accountable. The complaints, criticisms, and backlash are hopeful signs for a brighter, less violent future. When victims voice their opinions on social media, or when viewers turn their attention to political subplots, they help reform the genre. Once true crime becomes less insensitive and more insightful, it can help eliminate apathy and mobilize change that finally benefits the communities that the genre exploits.