“History” or “Cash-grab”: The media’s constant and controversial use of Jeffrey Dahmer

By Kiannah Wierzchowski, Staff Writer & Illustrator

Kiannah Wierzchowski

It has been more than 40 years since the horrific Jeffrey Dahmer murders occurred; yet, the dead assailant continues to haunt many to this day. Committing the crimes here in Wisconsin— in the nearby city of Milwaukee, no less, Dahmer seems to find “fame” long after his death. 

His skyrocketing popularity accredited his continuous media portrayals. Several documentaries, specials, shows, and movies have been made about the killer usually with good intentions. However, as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The baffling case has become historical. Dealing with the murders of 16 men and boys— ages 14 to 33. Many are familiar with his attempt to consume and zombify his victims–as well as the obvious racism associated with his crimes and going after queer members of the black community. 

Dahmer knew what he was doing, and to say it was scary is an understatement.

Telling the story and analyzing the murderer through documentaries, movies, and shows seems reasonable. People want to know the whys, and hows. Producers and directors bringing the story to life in a visible presentation to the viewer can make a large impact on a vast audience. The more the story is covered though, the more controversy seems to stir.

Since 1992, there have been more than 20 pieces of entertainment media made about Dahmer, in hopes to unsheath more information on the subject. This begs the question: are they helping to share more about the infamous killer and his 17 victims? It’s ultimately up for debate. 

The intention of the media coverage also is to give “closure” to the victim’s family, to illustrate what happened. Is constantly reliving that trauma “closure” though? It’s not hard to imagine that the traumatic experience of having lived through these murders which have been brought up and retold more than 20 times on television, across five decades, has done more harm than good to the families.

This leads into one of many huge controversies of the newest series, DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The Netflix series aims to retell the story of Dahmer through the perspective of his victims, neighbors, and the community around him. While this was a good take, and people do appreciate telling the story this way, it seems that the series wants us to sympathize with the antagonist. Through sharing Dahmer’s harsh backstory, some may learn to empathize with him. With this empathy, of course, there came admirers and fans of the murderer which sparked a big controversy. Even in the show, this is something they touch on. 

Adding this, though, doesn’t truly change the “fans” that have accumulated. More recently, people even chose to dress themselves or even their children up as Dahmer.

Additionally, Netflix had advertised the show under the “LGBTQ+” category, stirring up more dispute. Dahmer was gay, but one TikTok viewer had this to say: “This is not the representation we’re looking for…” Ultimately Netflix removed the tag since it is generally used for more upbeat shows or movies. With its removal, many felt it was an inapropriate decision for Netflix to advertise the story this way originally.

Finally, a huge discrepancy in the show relates to what was mentioned previously. The victims’ families had no say in the making of the show. Eric Perry, a family member of the victim, Errol Lindsey, has stated, “…if you’re actually curious about the victims, my family (the Isbells) are [upset] about this show. It’s retraumatizing [sic] over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”

On Twitter he explained, “My family found out when everyone else did. So when they say they’re doing this ‘with respect to the victims’ or ‘honoring the dignity of the families’, no one contacts them. My cousins wake up every few months at this point with a bunch of calls and messages and they know there’s another Dahmer show. It’s cruel.” 

No explanation is necessary, it’s an emotional topic for the victim’s family members, and they rightfully have emotional responses.

With another Dahmer show made, it seems more pain is caused. The story is tragic and gut-wrenching, but while the intention seeks to provide closure for the victim’s families and those around them, the supposed message is lost. Now more than ever, it seems like more “fans” of Dahmer are stirring up too, even going as far as dressing up and idolizing the actual murderer. 

These reactions lead many to wonder: is the never-ending Dahmer content truly meant to spread more awareness, information, and provide closure, or is it simply created to use the well-known tragedy for exploitive purposes?