If you exited the Tube at Tottenham Court Road station in central London this week and looked up, you might have come face to face with a serial killer. On the side of the Outernet building, on a giant LED screen, Jeffrey Dahmer – as portrayed by the actor Evan Peters in the current Netflix series about his crimes – looms over the street, impossible to look away from, 100 times larger than life-sized. His portrait is coloured with a warm lustre, set between metallic gold panels. Dahmer – who murdered and dismembered 17 men between 1978 and 1991 – has, quite literally, been exalted: raised high over the city in a gilded frame like a god.
This absurdly distasteful piece of advertising surely reveals that any social good enabled by the true crime genre is dwarfed by its real, grim purpose: to attract audiences through voyeurism, titillation and the perverse thrill of violence. In sanitised and self-justifying marketing, this particular series, Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, claims that it exists to “shine a spotlight on the as-yet untold stories of Dahmer’s victims, the people who tried to stop him, and the systemic failures that enabled him to continue his murderous spree for over a decade”. But it is Dahmer’s face that is beamed from the side of a five-storey building.
As part of the promotion for the series, the official Netflix Twitter account published a short clip captioned: “Can’t stop thinking about this disturbing scene from Dahmer where one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims finally manages to escape… and the police actually bring him back inside the apartment.” The “disturbing scene” in question dramatises the very real kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone, here reduced to an attention-grabbing and exhilaratingly uncomfortable event.
In fact, the show’s sheer compulsiveness is its appeal. We can pretend that audiences are tuning in to Dahmer in record-breaking numbers because of their interest in a defective criminal justice system, or to discover more about the once ordinary lives cut short by Dahmer. But really we know it appeals to the worst part of our psyche – the part that is entranced by the horror of sexual crimes, dismembered limbs and rotting bodies.
It is no coincidence that the true crime genre has experienced a kind of bacterial bloom in the age of the attention economy. The challenge for streaming services, apps and social platforms is to keep an audience transfixed, and so the type of content from which you “can’t look away” has thrived. True crime is a gift to these companies: it is gruesomely engrossing and endlessly recyclable, full of algorithm-friendly tropes and ready-made twists, drawing on real-world stories that can be mined for dramas and documentaries a seemingly limitless number of times. (Since 2019 five major, crass pieces of entertainment have been released about Ted Bundy, and three equally disturbing shows about Dennis Nilsen.) The genre is like a great purpling bruise – we cannot resist prodding it over and over again, and it swells and darkens in response.
There are rare pieces of work with an undeniable social purpose that overshadows the morbidity at their heart. Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark arguably laid the foundations for the discovery of the Golden State Killer. Several other works have led to arrests or releases. And we might hope that the genre as a whole would increase scrutiny of law enforcement and prison systems, amplify the voices of victims, or deepen our understanding of why people commit violent crimes and how to prevent them. But so far it has mostly given rise to a culture in which media companies compete to profit from historical violence with listicles such as “50+ True Crime Stories That Will Shock You To Your Core”.
It is pathetically self-serving to pretend that any of these media platforms care about the victims they exploit for content, or that we are engaging with righteous outrage and virtuous empathy when we tune in. We are indulging a ghoulish impulse that retraumatises those still affected by these crimes. We’d do better by them if we resisted, switched off, dared to look away.
[See also: How John Cleese became the hero of the right]