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Atkinson: The true crime epidemic

A balance between humanization and idolization of violent criminals is necessary.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

Netflix released a new limited series on Sept. 21 about notorious serial killer and cannibal Jeffery Dahmer to extreme success. Even a month later, “Dahmer: Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” rests comfortably at the second-highest view count of a Netflix original, just under its new series “The Watcher,” another true crime mockumentary.

As a casual true crime fan myself, I have no delusions about the popularity of this genre. I have seen this phenomenon time and time again, from Youtube series to the endless slew of true crime podcasts to Netflix’s previous mainstream serial killer mockumentary “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” back in 2019.

So, what’s with the fascination with true crime? What is it that draws the everyday viewer or listener to media that extensively cover homicides, physical and sexual assaults and cannibalism?

Humanity has always seemed to have a bit of a draw to the macabre, to the things that are seen as abnormal and heinous. The works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft come to mind, two of the most prevalent pioneers of the horror genre. Or even that of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most popular “tortured artists” in history.

I can confidently say we have all had grotesque and immoral thoughts before, no matter how unwanted. The difference is when those thoughts become manifest in the real world. What leads a person to commit atrocities? Honestly, we may never know.

I cannot blame people for being somewhat morbidly curious about criminal activities. Sandy Bolton-Barrientos, a third-year Spanish student and prison abolitionist, said understanding the societal pressures that influence people to commit heinous crimes is crucial.

“People who commit violent crimes don’t commit crimes because they are inherently evil people,” Bolton-Barrientos said. “It’s these social conditions that lead them to make the choices they make.” They listed patriarchy, hatred and white supremacy as some examples of these conditions.

It is important to understand the people who commit violent crimes are still human beings. To take away their humanity or call them monsters creates a degree of separation between violent criminals and the everyday person. We have to acknowledge these horrible people are human beings, even if it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It should be an uncomfortable thing to think about because it is an uncomfortable reality. People who commit violent acts are people, and that is so much worse than a mythical monster doing such things instead.

The true crime genre provides a good opportunity to create this kind of understanding of violent criminals. Perhaps it does too good a job at doing so. It creates the opportunity for some people to begin to sympathize with these kinds of criminals. To pity them, or even romanticize and idolize them.

To me, this is where one of the biggest problems with true crime lies; where we humanize criminals so much that they begin to resemble tortured artists. Where we begin to justify the actions of violent criminals and remove the blame from them. Where we begin to feel more empathy for the criminals than the victims they have harmed.

Families of the victims of Jeffery Dahmer have stated time and time again how harmful the show has been to them. Rita Isbell, the sister of one of the men brutally murdered by Dahmer, Errol Lindsey, told Insider that Netflix provided no compensation to victims’ families and no warning this show was being created. There is nothing I can say that better covers how Isbell has been forced to live and relive such unspeakable atrocities than her as-told essay.

And yet, voices like Isbell’s are being silenced by fans who claim victims’ trauma does not matter. But it does, regardless of how much of this case was already public knowledge or how this show could provide some amount of “education.”

“Just because we understand what led someone to commit heinous acts doesn’t mean we let them off the hook,” Bolton-Barrientos said. “We can both hold that individual accountable and address those broader structures. You’ll find that in the process of holding those individuals accountable and repairing the harm that’s caused, those broader structures will be broken down as well.”

I have only one question left to ask: What kind of person must one be to idolize the trauma and torture of marginalized groups of people?

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