Netflix will showcase plenty of big-name stars in the weeks ahead as the streaming service begins its buildup toward awards season. But its current leading man, its MVP for the month, is Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer who died in 1994.
“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is currently Netflix’s most-watched title, according to its self-reported data released September 27, amassing more than 196 million viewing hours in the past week. And in case that hasn’t satisfied interest in all things Dahmer, that will be followed Oct. 7 by “Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes,” the latest installment in that docuseries franchise, which in the past has featured Ted Bundy and most recently John Wayne Gacy.
Obviously, there’s an enduring fascination with serial killers that has fueled interest in a certain strata of the most prolific and heinous of them – what criminologist Scott A. Bonn called “celebrity monsters” in a 2017 piece for Psychology Today – so the audience is hardly an innocent bystander in this rather sordid equation.
Yet the renewed fascination with Dahmer again raises questions about whether these Hollywood productions starring charismatic actors – here, Evan Peters, while Bundy has been played by Mark Harmon and in the last few years Zac Efron, Chad Michael Murray and Luke Kirby – can’t help but romanticize them in a media-obsessed age. (In an interview last year, Kirby admitted to having to overcome “an ‘ick’ factor” before taking the Bundy role in “No Man of God.”)
The producers of “Monster,” Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, were clearly aware of those concerns, seeking to place more emphasis on Dahmer’s 17 victims, and a justice system that allowed him to get away with murder as long as he did.
Nevertheless, there’s an unsettling quality to the way the program – with the benefit of 10 episodes to tell the story – prolongs some of those encounters and depicts the grisly evidence of Dahmer’s crimes.
Netflix opted not to make the series available for review in advance of its debut, which didn’t harm a commercial performance that ranks among the top tier of its dramas, such as “Stranger Things” and “Bridgerton.” That strategy also might have sidestepped some of the controversy that has subsequently emerged about the production’s impact on the families of those Dahmer murdered.
In a first-person account for Insider, for example, Rita Isbell, the sister of Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, said of having been featured in 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.”
As noted, the interest in “celebrity monsters” is nothing new, and Dahmer’s current resurgence isn’t the first and won’t be the last we see of him, whether in documentary or dramatized fashion. In a crowded media landscape, serial killers have acquired their own kind of currency.
What the genre’s popularity doesn’t address, though, is, as Kirby put it, the “ick” factor. While “Monster” might have sought to anticipate certain criticisms, that’s one that Netflix – and indeed, the entertainment industry – hasn’t resolved.
“Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is currently playing on Netflix, and “Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes” will premiere Oct. 7.