Are serial killer true crime shows harmless entertainment?
- The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies relates that serial killing is the “rarest form of homicide, occurring when an individual has killed three or more people who were previously unknown to him or her, with a ‘cooling off’ period between each murder.”
- Variety reports that in 2022, Netflix’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story became the third series in the company’s history to rack up one billion viewer hours in a sixty-day window.
- Britannica lists the “most notorious serial killers the world has ever known” as Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Harold Shipman, John Wayne Gacy, H.H. Holmes, Pedro Lopez, and Ted Bundy.
- A 2022 Morning Consult survey found that “nearly two-thirds of US adults (62%) said they are fans of TV shows or movies about serial killers,” with the major reason for viewership being to understand “the psychology of the serial killer.”
True crime depictions of serial killers can be engaging and informative, but claiming that these shows are harmless entertainment is ill-informed for many reasons, one of which is that they negatively affect specific segments of the population. Most notably, such shows can romanticize the idea of being a serial killer to those facing difficult times and heavily negative emotions, as has been evidenced with the emergence of 'copycats' who commit heinous crimes after media coverage of such events.
Another aspect of these shows is that they may reveal important law enforcement tactics and insights that give criminals an edge, allowing them to stay one step ahead of the police. For example, criminals in the modern world are now keenly aware of the evidence-gathering procedures used by law enforcement, which, in turn, leads them to develop more elaborate criminal methods to evade the authorities successfully.
Yet another issue with such shows is that much of law enforcement remains highly undertrained, with some police officers taking their cues from what they may have seen on a crime show like Law & Order. This type of mimicry is dangerous if the production is 'Hollywood-ized' or if the laws and procedures differ in another jurisdiction.
Further, for the population in general, such shows can cause undue fear of serial killers--who are statistically very rare.
Most notably, however, true crime depictions of serial killers may inadvertently lionize or glorify perpetrators while simultaneously re-traumatizing victims and their families. For Hollywood to benefit from trauma is quite an ethical slippery slope, reinforcing that this genre is hardly harmless entertainment.
Despite much backlash and controversy, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is one of IMDb's 100 Most Popular TV Shows. While the obsession with true crime shows may appear twisted on the surface, it's not as harmful as most assume.
'It'll be a stretch to say that watching these shows can bend your personality a certain way,' points out Manali Arora, a practicing therapist.
On the other hand, these shows offer viewers several benefits—the first being comfort.
According to Lester Andrist, professor of Sociology and co-creator of The Sociological Cinema, 'In the typical true crime story, it's easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works.'
Therefore, people are comforted by the knowledge that the justice system still works. The same knowledge can also potentially discourage potential criminals and, ultimately, improve safety.
Speaking of safety, true crime shows offer the advantage of indulging in 'safety within fear.' People get to explore the dark sides of humanity at a safe distance. And when evil is punished, viewers who experienced any kind of trauma can get closure.
Moreover, women--who are more likely to watch these shows than men-- believe they can learn how to protect themselves. With the insight they gain from these shows, women feel more confident about escaping a terrifying situation or helping capture criminals.
That said, the best way to ensure true crime shows remain harmless is to remember that these are stories of real people. Therefore, viewers shouldn't grow compassionless or glorify the criminals and their crimes.