Dying to Know Why – Why Do People Romanticize Serial Killers?

     As I watched Jeffery Dahmer brutally stab someone on my lap-top screen in front of me, the last thing on my mind was how hot I thought he was.

     Throughout my whole life, I have always been fascinated with horror, whether it’s fictitious or true. The thing I have found the most fascinating though, is serial killers: the psychology behind what makes them commit their crimes, their backstories—every-thing. As I got older, I realized that there were many who liked these horror stories for the same reason. However, some have begun to find these serial killers attractive and sympathize with them for different reasons.

     The biggest thing I have noticed in movies made about these stories are the actors. In my opinion, I loved seeing some of my favorite actors play these dark roles. This really stood out to me when I watched the show Dahmer–Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix which retold Dahmer’s story. This show starred Evan Peters as Dahmer. Peters had originally gained fame in his role as Tate, as well as other characters in another popular horror show, American Horror Story, so I felt this dark and eerie role would suit him well. What stood out to others though, was how attractive people thought Jeffery Dahmer was because of Peter’s role. The biggest thing was video edits highlighting how attractive people found Peter’s as Dahmer.

     I was incredibly taken aback by this. As I thought more and more about this, digging into what people thought, I realized this wasn’t the first time this had happened. A couple years ago, another TV show was made about Ted Bundy titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron took on the role and played it well. While this wasn’t a show I watched, I still remember people glorifying Ted Bundy and his crimes just because of the actor who played him.

     Another example of this was when Ross Lynch played Jeffery Dahmer in the film, My Friend Dahmer. Now, Lynch has been a celebrity crush of mine since the early days of Austin and Ally. When I watched this movie though, I wasn’t attracted to Dahmer because he was played by Lynch. I feared the character he had played. That was hard for me to differentiate too at the time because you want to associate your favorite actors with their characters, but doing that with him, even thinking about it made me feel…icky.

     This really stuck with me when I was watching this. It felt disrespectful and honestly, just kind of gross, and I wasn’t alone. I had put a poll on Instagram posing the question: are serial killers romanticized in the media? Sixty-three people answered this, 54 people (86%) agreed with what I was thinking, while nine people (14%) didn’t see exactly what I was seeing.

     Why are these shows so romanticized? I wondered the same thing. Emily MacPherson (‘23) shared her thoughts with me, saying, “I think the serial killer shows are stupid because it’s such a romanticization of everything that happened and there’s a lot of added drama…I feel like they really try to get you to sympathize with the character.”

     I agreed. When watching the Jeffery Dahmer show, there were certainly parts where I started to feel bad for the hard life of Dahmer, but MacPherson got me thinking about how much of that was truthful, or just to add pizzaz to the show. I felt a similar way when I watched a film about Aileen Wuornos starring another conventionally attractive actress, Peyton List. They glorified the abuse that Wuornos had faced at a young age and the hard life she lived.

     Another big aspect that people used to defend specifically Dahmer was his sexual orientation. Bailey Barth-Malone (‘23) had noticed this, saying, “[I feel] like people are really trying to be like, ‘oh poor Jeffery Dahmer, he was gay, and people didn’t like him because he was gay.’ He was a serial killer. This doesn’t mean poor him, plenty of people are gay and don’t kill people.”

     While this did make me chuckle a little, it’s the truth. There was a lot of hate that people faced at that time for being homosexual, but Dahmer himself targeted people of color and gay men. He was not hated for liking men; he was hated for killing and eating people.

     During this, I also thought a lot about the victims and their families. What if they saw these videos of people romanticizing their killers? The victims are barely focused on in these shows and it’s all about the backstory of the killer. Johnathan Thorn (‘23) thought the same thing. “I don’t have an issue with the documentaries, but frankly speaking, [the tv shows] aren’t documentaries. They’re TV shows with a real person and real events that actually happened. [Producers] take those events and all the trauma from them and turn it into a soap opera.”

     So why, at the end of the day, do we still watch these shows and even worse, defend and romanticize the characters? Sabrina Golden (‘23) may have the answer. She had responded to my poll about romanticizing these characters saying, “no one wants to root against Zac Efron.” While she was partially joking, she’s also very right.

     An article was written in October 2022 by Christine Kinori titled, “Is Hollywood Romanticizing Serial Killers?” This article talks about how recently, a lot of attractive actors have been playing these characters because they have a large fan base. If people are seeing their favorite attractive actors in these shows, they’ll be more likely to watch it. However, this didn’t happen. In the article, Kinori says, “these filmmakers have ended up promoting the notion that serial killers are handsome men deserving of human empathy. Adding to the bad boy narrative that Hollywood has advanced for years, casting handsome famous actors plays into the trope that manipulation, violence, and abuse are traits that can be adored and romanticized.”

     These shows also don’t do any good for the victims or the families of the victims involved. An article also written in October 2022 by Katie Mather titled “‘Dahmer’ Netflix: The reactions have been weird”, the author talks about how the families have felt about the Dahmer show. “His victims’ families have publicly questioned the series’ need to ‘dramatize’ and ‘humanize’ Dahmer. Eric Perry, a cousin of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims, tweeted, ‘it’s re-traumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many mov-ies/shows/documentaries do we need?’”

      Writing this has put a bit of a damper on my love of these types of shows, and maybe that’s a good thing to some extent. I will always love horror, and the dark side of the world, but I will never romanticize a killer because of who plays them. This article is not meant to be a true crime take down, but more of a reminder. These stories are interesting and always will be, but there are proper ways to listen and learn without it getting out of hand.

      To everyone out there who loves true crime as much as me, make sure to remember what these people did and how much it hurt others. One thing that I loved about the Dahmer show was a specific episode they did on the back story of one of the victims, Tony Hughes. They showed Tony’s family and his life growing up before the unfortunate fate he met when meeting Dahmer.

     There are healthy ways to love true crime and enjoy the thrill it gives. Doing what was done for Tony Hughs is just one example. Another important reminder is to make sure you don’t fall into a dark spot with it. True crime will always hold a special place in my heart, but after this, I plan on being more cautious with how I enjoy it, and I hope you do too.

– Tess Brown

Image Courtesy of Netflix