Ryan Murphy's 'Monster' is the latest retelling of the life of the notorious serial killer—but its attempt to center minority voices falls flat in the face of trauma porn

In 1993, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer was released. In 2001, Serial Killers: The Real Life Hannibal Lecters followed. Then there was Raising Jeffrey Dahmer in 2006; Dahmer vs. Gacy in 2010; The Jeffrey Dahmer Files in 2012. Twenty years following the serial killer’s case in ’91, he’s still spotlighted in a mainstream eyeview, and in crime enthusiast subcultures. These movies were produced to shed light on Jeffrey Dahmer’s story—to circle the one question we will never be able to answer: Why would he do it?

Over the course of these many films, multiple perspectives are captured from the periphery of Dahmer’s life—from school friends to the killer’s father, Lionel Dahmer. These various proprietors try to find their footing, to discuss Dahmer’s 17 murders of predominantly Black and Latino men. Just a week and a half ago, Netflix released Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story—the latest attempt to sculpt a narrative around Dahmer’s childhood, his inner world, and his crimes.

On an entertainment level, it’s not that Monster doesn’t include enthralling performances. But these events didn’t happen so that actors could receive Emmy nominations. They didn’t happen for any reason at all. Dahmer’s victims were real, and their losses affected many. Throughout the series’s 10 episodes, viewers experience an unsettling level of discomfort. The first episode opens with Dahmer’s regular routine: picking up a Black man from a bar, bringing him back to his fourth-floor apartment, and making moves to kill him. Tracy Edwards is the chosen man in this opening episode, and we can feel his struggle. He quivers at the sinking realization that he may be murdered, as Dahmer dreamily alludes to eating his heart. Even though, thankfully, Edwards is able to use his last ounce of will to escape, many others didn’t share his fate.

No matter how much Monster orbits around this idea, the show never deliberately discusses how Dahmer’s crimes were allowed to continue because of white supremacy.”

The portrayals of Steven Tuomi’s, Tony Hughes’s, and Konerak Sinthasomphone’s deaths are not moments to be re-lived. The second-hand trauma Dahmer’s neighbor Glenda Cleveland endured—having to sleep a wall away from him, listening to hushed screams, with the decaying smell of corpses seeping into her apartment—aren’t experiences to be watched on Netflix from the comfort of your couch. These scenes present as recurring nightmares.

They also don’t represent honest filmmaking—in fact, these scenes aren’t scenes at all. Monster is more of a timeline, cherry-picking events to maximize on-screen trauma. From Cleveland and her daughter to the victims’ families, the traumas that Dahmer inflicted are never-ending. It must be difficult to find peace when the murders of your loved ones are commercialized on screen.

Monster received major backlash for its marketing rollout, and the exposure of its largest ugly truth: Though the project aimed to shed light on those who were wronged by Dahmer, the victims’ families weren’t compensated for the pain they’d have to live through once again. They were barred from the production, and forced to sit back as viewers. Ironically, the last episodes of the series sympathized with the victims’ lawyers, who expressed the belief that it was only right for victims’ families to receive reparations for what they were put through; when Lionel Dahmer planned a novel in association with the case, they demanded that its profits go directly to the victims’ families. In the show’s final episode, the Hughes family intended to reopen their lawsuit after seeing a despicable comic called “Dahmer v. Jesus.” It depicted the killer as a heroic and even supernatural figure, projecting his crimes to be more powerful than acts of Jesus. This brought the family rage, seeing that there were people confidently producing work—propaganda—that would hyperbolize Dahmer’s offenses. They as victims were erased, while Dahmer’s crimes were being immortalized before their eyes.

When Netflix produces a series centered around Dahmer’s inhumane crimes—presenting the belief that it’s only fair to pay his victims’ families reparations as a form of faint relief—it reads as performative that the streaming platform isn’t doing what it preaches. The victims’ families have to sit through mediatizations that shape Dahmer into someone otherworldly: a man of charm, high intellect, and a masterful actor. Interestingly, with so many different true crime depictions of Dahmer’s case, no series or film has ever concluded that the reasons why Jeffrey Dahmer was able to commit such crimes was not because he was intelligent or witty. In reality, he was just a white man who used racism and homophobia as his drilling tools. No matter how much Monster orbits around this idea, the show never deliberately discusses how Dahmer’s crimes were allowed to continue because of white supremacy.

Dahmer’s victims were not instantaneously charmed by his double personality; they were just men that trusted and loved openly.”

Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a perfect example of the false consciousness of white privilege: a way of thinking that kept the police, the government, and white horror buffs from seeing Dahmer’s viciousness. It’s also an example of misconstrued ideologies of intelligence; the reason that so many retellings of the stories of Dahmer, Gacy, and Bundy exist is based on an element of bewilderment: Dahmer’s inhumane acts could have been prevented if the police checked the bags in his car, or searched his apartment sooner, or arrested him for drugging multiple men, or believed Ron Flower’s claim that Dahmer drugged him, stole his jewelry, and was planning to kill him. Nor did they attempt to rationalize Glenda Cleveland’s multiple complaints of late-night disturbances and terrible smells. All of these instances were collectively based on the disbelief of Black and queer people. The ideology that the system would always be loyal to rested on demeaning the humanity of working-class people of color.

These weren’t Netflix’s only crimes. The streaming site used the LGBTQ+ hashtag to market the series. This was a performative and senseless act, alluding that queerness, fetishization, and murder are part of the same world—a hegemonic comparison. To present Monster as a beacon of LGBTQ+ representation is to be ignorant to the violent experiences the queer community has long endured, as many members have suffered at the hands of someone like Dahmer. Monster’s creator, Ryan Murphy, is well-aware of this fact; he showcased it in his other show, Pose, where a Black trans female character, Candy, is murdered.

On September 24, Netflix wrote on Twitter, “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. Now on Netflix.” With a statement like this, all for the sake of marketing, the platform’s jarring desensitization shines through. Netflix failed to refer to the victim by name. They “can’t stop thinking” about his trauma. The decision showcases a lack of care about the real boy who suffered. It’s caricatured as a scene that was conjured up, mere fiction, and not a real-life tragedy. In Dahmer’s case, the crimes that he committed weren’t seen as urgent, because of the police’s contentment in prioritizing white privilege over their civic duty.

“In Dahmer’s case, the crimes that he committed weren’t seen as urgent, because of the police’s contentment in prioritizing white privilege over their civic duty.”

Dahmer’s victims were not instantaneously charmed by his double personality; they were just men that trusted and loved openly. And they were taken advantage of—not just by Dahmer, but also by the police, the judges who thought of Dahmer as a grandson, the government that didn’t (and still doesn’t) protect minorities, and certainly by the media companies that exploit their stories. A web of systemic oppression rooted in racism and homophobia allowed Dahmer on the red carpet. And in the end, he made them money.

Is Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story the final series to come out of all this? How many times do his victims’ families and communities have to be reminded of the protection they don’t have? How many times should they have to think of the sick individuals who have been catered to? Coddled? Protected? There’s an evident problem when people like Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy are remembered as if they served a heroic principle. America’s awareness of their names, instead of the Black and Brown people who built this country, shows exactly what kind of land we’re living in.

In the end, Netflix was successful in creating a show that drew a huge audience. Its streams alone gamered 496 million viewing hours. But should the platform be satisfied with the content they created? Why is it so easy to produce stories driven by the blood of Black and Brown people? Trauma porn can only be successful when there’s a group of people who enjoy seeing this sort of pain inflicted. What does that say about our culture today? It’s clear that Dahmer’s crimes do not deserve a microphone. Instead of magnifying the prevailing existence of Black and Brown men, they turn their ears to bigotry.