Sensationalizing true crime profits off of trauma


Sarah Abdelsalam

True crime consumers must be aware of the harmful effects of the media they are consuming.

William Tan, Editor-in-Chief

Bodies lie facedown in a pooling sea of red, surrounded by yellow tape. Gunshots and cackling laughter are silenced by the arrival of flashing red and blue lights. 

Revealing the stories behind serial killers, mass murderers, untimely deaths and unsolved mysteries, the true-crime genre is in greater demand than ever. Notably, the release of true-crime season “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” on Netflix attracted significant viewership and garnered both positive and negative attention for actor Evan Peters’s scarily accurate portrayal of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

Gory and gruesome yet entertaining in a twisted kind of way, “Dahmer” snagged a nomination for the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Bingeworthy Show. While the psychological thriller has enraptured audiences, it has faced equal criticism for its over-dramatization and glorification of human nature’s darkest depths. Series like “Dahmer,” “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” “Mindhunter,” “Tiger King” and many others have succeeded because of riveting narratives, but the sensationalization of the true crime genre is an exploitation of trauma with serious emotional and potentially dangerous costs.

Amanda Keeler, associate professor of digital media and performing arts at Marquette University, believes the root of the true crime phenomenon lies in the human desire to glimpse into the mind of someone so far removed from ourselves. 

“I know my students are really interested in the understanding of the psychology of what makes someone murder or do horrific acts,” she said in an interview with the Midway, “and so there’s definitely lots of different reasons why people watch those shows, but they’re hugely popular because of that.”

Still, Dr. Keeler bluntly reminded viewers that they are reveling and entertaining the most appalling of human characteristics.

“Hey, we’re deriving pleasure from the darkest moments of people’s lives,” she said. “I do think it’s important to remember that we are perhaps making light of these heavy crimes by fictionalizing them or sensationalizing them.”

This effect isn’t something to take lightly. Dr. Keeler referenced, “a bit of a correlation between people who watch a lot of, say, crime shows or even, like, the news, and their perceptions of how much violent crime exists in the world.”

Big studios and media networks are facilitating this double-edged pleasure by copy-pasting series after series detailing the life stories, crimes and punishments of some of the worst human beings in history into frighteningly captivating plotlines. 

I do think it’s important to remember that we are perhaps making light of these heavy crimes by fictionalizing them or sensationalizing them.

— Amanda Keeler

Even worse, each of these instances obsesses primarily about the criminal as a main character. Rarely are the victims or their families offered recognition or sensitivity for the trauma induced by the actions of the criminals; instead, studios make millions of dollars spreading this trauma to millions of screens. 

Dr. Keeler said, “There’s definitely been some writing lately on how families [of the victims] are affected by these shows, definitely having to relive the trauma that they’ve been through over and over and over.”

While there are definitely monetary and popularity-based incentives motivating the studios’ to engage in this form of skewed focus, the sensationalism of criminals and their inflicted trauma hurts all those who find connection to these stories.

Possibly more affected than the families of these series are the actors themselves. Mr. Peters, a veteran of taking roles in true-crime series such as “American Horror Story,” remarked in an interview with Netflix’s Tudum that he was wary of assuming the role of Dahmer due to the amount of time and headspace it would require while staying in character. Though he received therapy following the role, Peters practiced, for months, the exact dialect and lexicon of Dahmer, the gait of Dahmer, the mannerisms of Dahmer — he essentially embodied Dahmer. It’s not hard to see that fully emulating the exact personality of such a serial killer and cannibal could take a mental and physical toll on the actor.

True crime has come to remain as a genre of choice for our generation, simultaneously impressing and horrifying audiences with the harsh realities of human behavior and the depths of madness to which individuals can descend. Audiences must be cognizant when consuming this form of media, knowing that certain stories are being shared — or not being shared — in ways that can be potentially harmful.