Major media conglomerate Netflix has once again dipped its toes into the profit well that is true crime content. Its newest Ryan Murphy offering, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, aims to give famed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer a dramatized origin story, but family members of Dahmer’s victims say the series capitalized on their trauma without telling them.
Rita Isbell, sister of Dahmer victim Errol Lindsey, told Insider that none of her family were contacted by the show’s creators and it bothered her to see herself depicted on screen.
“I was never contacted about the show,” she told the publication. “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. But I’m not money hungry, and that’s what this show is about, Netflix trying to get paid.”
Last week, another member of the Isbells went viral after quote-tweeting a video of the new series. Eric said the family was not contacted by the show’s creators and called the depiction “retraumatizing.”
“They don’t notify families when they do this. It’s all public record, so they don’t have to notify (or pay!) anyone. My family found out when everyone else did,” he tweeted. “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.”
Netflix and Ryan Murphy did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment.
Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story takes great pains to recreate the events of Dahmer’s life and eventual conviction, with some scenes, like the victim statements of family members, taking place almost shot for shot as they appeared in 1992. Netflix describes the show as “centered around the underserved victims and their communities impacted by the systemic racism and institutional failures of the police.” The show goes to great lengths to focus on the humanity of Dahmer’s victims and frames their deaths as unnecessary tragedies. But even without an outright glorification of its main character, critics say the series cannot escape the brutal reality of its subject matter or the larger ethical considerations of creating derivative work in an already crowded and exploitative field.
In the past 10 years, the rise of new media forms, like podcasts or TikTok accounts, have made true crime projects and content both increasingly popular and incredibly profitable for creators. Adam Golub, an American studies professor at Cal State Fullerton, tells Rolling Stone that interest in true crime-related stories has been present in American pop culture since the 1800s. However, the on-demand nature of true crime consumption means that many famed serial killers now exist in the zeitgeist as characters, rather than people who committed horrible crimes.
Fordham Law professor John Pfaff tells Rolling Stone while some true crime stories helpfully highlight potential issues of injustice, a larger majority over-prioritize classifications of innocent or guilty. These series, which often focus on individual and extremely rare cases, gain major followings but can fail to draw attention to large systematic issues where policy changes could help the most people.
“The less appreciated cost of all these shows is that by focusing on the rare things we tend to ignore the far more problematic, routine stuff that grinds on the background and probably has much higher human costs to it,” Pfaff tells Rolling Stone.
Golub adds that true crime popularity and the increasing demand for more means creators can make a lot of money by continually making stories about the same killers — even if it’s at the expense of the victims’ families.
“We live in an age of mashups and remix. So you can see the celebrity serial killer get reimagined, mashed up. Unfortunately, what I think is missing is the reckoning,” Golub tells Rolling Stone. “To what extent must family members and survivors [be] re-traumatized again and again, through seeing the killer of their loved one portrayed as a character in pop culture? And what crimes and transgressions are we not talking about because we’re so fascinated with this guy from 30 years ago?”