From mass shooters to serial killers, Americans’ media digest is turning monsters into celebrities. It’s even in the title of Netflix’s shiny new hit “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” which premiered Sept. 21. It became Netflix’s second most-watched English series ever, and sits in the No. 1 spot. Evan Peters plays Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer and cannibal who murdered 17 men and boys from the years 1978-1991.
The show has sparked a renewed interest in the serial killer, leaving individuals on social media fantasizing romantically about him. The same thing occurred after a Ted Bundy movie was released on Netflix in 2019 with heartthrob Zac Efron cast as Bundy, the rapist and murderer who killed at least 36 women, including a 12-year-old girl, before his capture.
There have been at least 10 documentaries and movies made on Dahmer and at least 11 on Bundy. Obsession with true crime isn’t new, nor is the media’s willingness to capitalize on it. But what is a more recent phenomenon is the effort to glamorize people like Dahmer as victims of systems that created them.
Blaming Systems for Killers’ Deeds
Just look at one headline from The Washington Post: “Racism and homophobia enabled Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes.” The corporate media and Hollywood will use any opportunity to blame the systems they say are inherently American. The Post claims it was “long histories of anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ violence [that] created an environment where Dahmer could murder 15 Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino men and boys who were LGBTQ or ‘in the life’ in a span of four years.”
Because most of Dahmer’s victims were black and LGBT men, the Hollywood-media complex paints a narrative that, had racist and homophobic systems never existed, then Dahmer (who was gay himself) wouldn’t have had reason to go on a killing spree. They blame his “conservative” Christian parents for suppressing his sexuality, causing him to lash out in violent ways.
This isn’t just the case for prolific serial killers but also after mass shootings or other publicized acts of violence. Rolling Stone attempted to blame systems and garner sympathy for the Boston Marathon bomber by putting him on the cover of its magazine mere months after the bombing with the headline “The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”
Copycats and Admirers
If media are keen to blame systems for creating killers, then their glamorization of those same killers fosters a system that only incentivizes more of them. When crimes are splashed across television and social media, they inspire others to do similar acts, hoping for the same fame — and this kind of “fame” is desirable to men who feel like losers, are narcissistic, or have violent thoughts and tendencies.
While the number of serial killers drastically decreased from more than 700 per year in the 1980s to fewer than 100 today, mass shootings have tragically been on the rise. It isn’t far-fetched to assume that men who might have been serial killers 30 years ago are turning to mass murder instead.
Perhaps the first school shooting to receive widespread media attention was Columbine High School, which CNN devoted more airtime to than Princess Diana’s death.
Many praised the shooters’ actions and expressed a desire to be like them online. Before the shooting, the shooters discussed which famous director would make a movie about them. It became clear after Columbine that serial killers have to wait years for fame while mass murder is the quick path to the attention psychopaths crave.
A 2015 study found mass media coverage increases the likelihood there will be another shooting within 13 days of the first. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, there were 638 school threats reported over the next two weeks.
The media and Hollywood turn criminals into heroes while alleging that systems, not the person, are to blame for acts of violence. Real heroes are given little to no recognition. Aaron Feis, the coach who lost his life saving students during the Parkland shooting, is relatively unknown. The shooter was talked about constantly, and Feis’s name was barely mentioned.
True crime groupies and the media constantly highlight killers, and Hollywood makes movie after movie, leading to unhealthy obsessions while lessening the gravity of evil deeds. Rather than grapple with the depravity of sin, they grasp for systemic explanations. But they are only giving evil men what they wanted in the first place — their names on the big screen to be remembered for years to come.