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Editorial: Sensationalizing serial killers in media


When was the last time you saw media that outraged you?

Whether it be a political hot take posted on social media, a disturbing movie or a gory TV show, it often feels like much of today’s media is designed to provoke intrigue through outrage.

Entertainment seeking to shock and subvert has fared exceptionally well in recent years and seems more prominent now than ever. 

From the cultural giant “Game of Thrones” and its prequel “House of the Dragon” to the record-breaking “Squid Game,” we have been conditioned to expect the media we watch to surprise and disturb us in increasingly creative ways.

The success of this “shock value” creates a positive feedback loop of desensitization for viewers and profits for media companies: As we continue gravitating toward the most wild cinematic plotlines, producers are motivated to write even crazier ones. 

Still, with the notable exception of children, there doesn’t seem to be much of an inherent problem with increased levels of obscene content in television shows. If that’s what viewers want to see, why shouldn’t media companies keep giving them just that?

The issue arises, however, when the search for compelling content leads media companies to dramatize events and figures from the real world.

This phenomenon in itself is nothing new. 

Films about history and war have long contained grizzly details about the realities of combat, often showing overtly graphic depictions of deadly battles. 

For example, the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” opened with a hyper-realistic depiction of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day that was so disturbing it triggered PTSD in veterans and caused some viewers to walk out of the theater.

However, a more problematic trend is emerging: fictional television shows dramatizing the lives and killings of real serial killers. 

“Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” which was released on Sept. 21, is the most recent docudrama featuring a notorious serial killer.

As expected by the title, the show follows Dahmer through his time as an active killer. Yet, while the scenes are graphic, the show’s violent plot is not the point of contention.

The question is, why does this show even need to exist in the first place?

Violent TV-MA shows in and of themselves are not problematic, nor are shows that highlight fictional killers. The problem emerges when real serial killers with real victims and their families are dramatized in a pseudo-fictional series.

There is a difference between a documentary created for educational purposes with the consent of the victims’ families and a series that takes creative liberties to humanize a horrible person for entertainment purposes.

This show has been incredibly popular since its release, garnering almost half a billion hours watched and becoming Netflix’s ninth most-watched English language series.

We can likely all agree that our culture should not be glorifying a person like this. Even so, the success of blatantly shocking content in the past has cleared the way for projects like this to be increasingly acceptable.

Netflix sees a profit motive in greenlighting a show that is sure to stoke controversy and garner clicks. Ironically, with content like this editorial, we are giving them exactly what they want.

But the families of Dahmer’s victims should not have to deal with the attention that this show is giving them, and they are speaking out against the way the series is making them relive these horrible experiences.

In an age where whatever gets the most attention from consumers informs the next media paradigm, we have the power to stop shows like these from continuing. Though it’s human nature to be enticed by drama and lured by outrage, this cycle is for the most part in our hands. 

So until our own viewing habits change, we can only expect the content in the media to become even crazier.

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