True Crime vs. Horror: Can We Draw a Line?

Since the release of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story last September, viewers have taken opposing views about the portrayal of the prolific serial killer. Some viewers praise Evan Peters for his role as Dahmer, going so far as to romanticize him; others express extreme disgust at glorifying his heinous actions. But, one question permeates the viewership: where do we draw the line when portraying serial killers, whether actual like Dahmer or fictional like Jason Vorhees?

Society’s Draw To True Crime and Horror

True crime and horror fascinations predate our time. The first horror movie ever recorded came out in 1896. Before visual media, citizens attended public hangings and executions to satiate their interests.

True crime historian and host of the true crime show, Buried Bones, Kate Dawson, says,

“Crime is an excellent narrative. We know that. We have always been fascinated with true crime. That’s not new. What’s new [is] the amount of media that is available.”

With the emergence and saturation of podcasts and media portrayals of real-life crime, true crime fans can consume this media genre whenever they please. Due to this surge of constant consumerism, entertainers pull from material they know will, for lack of better terms, entertain.

“I think that there are killers in our history and now that certainly pique peoples’ interest that become… legendary is not the right word, but infamous, in a very bad way. I think that you have creators who look at infamous people as public domain,” Dawson elaborated, suggesting through creators’ embellishments of these stories, they entertain the masses and “sensationalize serial killers,” all while retraumatizing victims and families of victims.

Is There a Difference Between True Crime and Horror?

True crime series implement horror elements and vice versa, but where do the differences arise?

“Watching the Dahmer Netflix special was very disturbing to me because I think that it was so true to real life, and putting the viewers into a situation whereby they could very easily be one of the victims of Dahmer. In my opinion, that’s the moat. Horror movies are different because it's an exaggerated sense of horror, typically,” Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, and attorney shared.

Strohman founded The Digital Citizen Academy, a safe online platform that educates internet users on digital safety.

Throughout ‘spooky season,' horror fans trot around their neighborhoods decked out in merch depicting fictional serial killers. Teens wear jackets with Freddy Krueger sprawled on the front; horror fans throw on a Michael Myers mask for a Halloween costume. Maybe a neighbor decorates their lawn with an animatronic Hannibal Lecter, exchanging excited glances with passersby.

But, if one of these people switched out a Michael Myers mask for a John Wayne Gacy mask or bedecked their basement like Dahmer’s, would they receive the same compliments from fellow true crime fans? Is one better than the other? Or would their friends gasp at their decisions?

“I think the issue is when you’re taking a character theatrically created for entertainment versus an actual real-life event where real humans were injured,” Strohman suggests that for fictional killers like Krueger, audiences understand an actor plays a character who did not pursue actual murders.

“When you’re putting on a mask that’s representative of John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s almost like you're creating and putting yourself out there as somebody who actually enjoyed and put energy towards killing real humans. I think that’s very different from a psychology standpoint.”

David Tzall, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Brooklyn, NY, extended his professional insight about consuming horror and true crime as forms of entertainment.

“If you look at a Friday the 13th Movie, and someone gets hacked up, our brain doesn’t know the difference between that and what we see on the Dahmer show. We know [Dahmer’s] a real-life person and [Jason’s] fake, but our bodies and our minds don’t know the difference between them.

So we take it in all the same, and it’s filtered through a lens of entertainment,” Tzall said this differs from everyday activities we encounter on the street or trauma we experience because it is packaged in a safe and distanced manner.

Criminal Glorification and Idolization

The release of Dahmer did not introduce criminal idolization in any sense. However, with the release of Dahmer, some viewers expressed sympathy, care, and even romantic attraction toward Dahmer on social media. These responses received a similar backlash to the show for glorifying his gruesome actions.

“I think what you see in these kinds of fandom-like situations [are] people interested in human motives or what makes somebody tick, particularly when it’s so far outside of the norm that people wouldn’t do,” Strohman shared.

In terms of using social media to speak about Dahmer, for instance, referring to him as a sexy killer, Tzall says some viewers might post for shock value, views, or engagement. Even if someone claims they are a fan of Dahmer and receives backlash, that is a form of engagement.

“Social media’s not real life. Who knows if these individuals even have that particular mindset or belief, or they’re just doing it because they’re jumping on? It gets views. Or it’s a form of monetization for them,” he said. “I think that what they’re looking for is to be somewhat incendiary and create this engagement rather than looking and dissecting what it really is.”

In October, department stores and costume warehouses sold Dahmer merchandise on the same shelves as horror merch. But why? Tzall claims a massive part of this societal drive to collect memorabilia dedicated to Dahmer follows a cultural zeitgeist. One that treats this real-life serial killer with as much adoration as fictional ones.

“Most of the people, when these individuals were out doing their deeds, they weren’t alive. They might not have been around for any of the news,” Tzall said. “Wearing, let’s say, a Jason hoodie or a Jason mask feels fake, and you know, you can say, well, he’s not a real character. I think, in some way, people want to believe that about Dahmer as well.”

This mindset circles back to how people view Nazi memorabilia as a transcendent item we can try and make sense of, according to Tzall.

Among these ‘transcendent items’ is Dahmer’s distinctive Aviator glasses. An article on daily dot reported Lionel Dahmer’s (Jeffrey Dahmer’s father) previous housekeeper owns Dahmer’s glasses and priced them at $150,000 at auction.

Tzall chalks up society’s desire to worship serial killers through physical objects as a drive to understand the inexplicable. A way to deal with fear.

“Rather than be scared of it, we embrace it by taking it. Then if we take it, it’s almost like a phobia. It doesn't have power over us, and we can learn sort of to make fun of it and own it simply because we’re feeling uncomfortable, we’re scared.”

Strohman’s psychological standpoint suggests the fascination lies with crossing a line most people would never cross and seeing why someone would.

“You get this kind of empathy like they’re kind of empathized with, and that turns into kind of an idealization for some of those trends that they’re doing,” Strohman shared. “Trying to find that line as a human. What’s the fascination with making someone cross that boundary that would never, for most people, ever occur to us?”

Mastery Over The Mystical

“Cases where it's like the Menendez brothers, Dahmer, Manson, people like that, I think it draws a certain person in. I think the reason we devour this so much and the reason it entices us is because it really just mystifies us. We don’t know how to deal with it, so I think in some way we’re looking for a mastery over the subject.

There’s a belief that if we consume a lot of this information, we’ll be able to understand it and how someone can act in potentially malevolent or (in) odd and eccentric ways,” Tzall explained. “And a lot of these stories, again, Dahmer and such, they’re sort of so fantastical that we don’t know how to make sense of them.”

This fascination with the nefarious rivals a particular obsession with horror movies. Take the Terrifier franchise. The cult classic film Terrifier dropped in 2016 after receiving a generous donation, and several Indiegogo backers donated to the film’s production budget of $35,000.

The beloved cult character, Art the Clown, beats, butchers and batters women without ever speaking a word throughout the Terrifier films. The first movie received mixed reviews, but the director pushed for a second film on the same crowdfunding website, and the budget raised exceeded the $50,000 original ask by 430%.

Production values increased, and Terrifier 2 slashed into theaters with a limited weekend release over the weekend of October 6. The campy slasher homage to brutal 80s horror films earned $805,000, leading to a second successful week at the box office while revenue continued to soar. Terrifier 2 has amassed more than $7 million at the box office by doing the same thing as the first film, battering, beating, and butchering not just women but also men.

And the public ate it up.

Terrifier 2 avails grotesque and disgusting gore, implementing some of the most impressive special effects since Avatar. The most horrifying part of this film is the realistic props used when Art executes harrowing violence on innocent victims. We know these murders are fictitious, and we know Art is fictional, but Dahmer does the same thing. And we react the same way.

Dramatized Dread

Dahmer is the second most streamed English language TV show on Netflix, behind season four of Stranger Things, and there is a reason for that. Tzall broke down the consumerist mindset behind the show. Yes, Dahmer focuses on a factual recount of a person, but everything portrayed in the show is not set in stone.

“It’s true crime, but it’s very dramatized. In almost all these situations, no one knows what they said or what they did or their intentions or motivation, and it captivates us because the label Jeffrey Dahmer is on it. But if that wasn’t Dahmer and that was just a regular crime show, it probably wouldn’t get as much play. Someone wrote a script, and that’s all Hollywood, and that’s all entertainment,” Tzall said.

While some entertainment abstains from exposing innocent families and retraumatizing victims, Dahmer will never be that kind of show.

The Google description of the series claims to alternate storytelling “largely through the victims’ eyes,” but, as most film and writing students know if the title of a project includes a character’s name, the storytelling revolves around the titular character. Although Evan Peters carried the role and stepped into the killer’s territory, was it the right way to tell the story?

Is there a right way to tell this story without retraumatizing victims, triggering families, and misinforming millions?

Dahmer faces heavy backlash for glorifying his actions and refusing to give proceeds to the victims’ families. While Dahmer scales ranking charts and Ryan Murphy and Evan Peters add to their evergrowing net worths, the families of Dahmer’s victims receive zero compensation and gave zero consent for creators to proceed with production.

Strohman claims, “This is an ethical, moral line that we have to look out for when we’re starting to capture these moments and again. Do we need to bring back something from 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, over and over again, when we know that that actually does influence society? That it does create obvious issues with people who want to be fans or follow in those footsteps. Just to make themselves seen? That’s my fear. That we’re missing that moral/ethical line today, where we used to be, I feel like, a little bit better about not sharing that information.”

Strohman said grueling depictions of true crime lays out how-to guides for potential criminals to commit similar acts.

“My personal opinion is that if you’re going to talk about some of these events, maybe shift over from media perspective from a victim’s viewpoint, or a vantage point and honoring some of their legacies. Should be balanced in that respect. People will be curious, but that doesn’t mean we have to make all of them all of the time,” she said.

Can Society Curb Human Interest

Even if society did want to halt the production of depictions of heinous acts with fewer rollouts of true crime media, we’d seek out true crime through a different avenue. Our reality revolves around a piqued interest in the wicked. Hypothetically, we could shift from an obsession with true crime to an obsession with fictional, odious criminals and killers, who will shine in the eyes of moviegoers by becoming misunderstood icons and legends much like Chuckee, Jason, Michael, and most recently, Pearl.

And aren’t we already in too deep?

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


Gabrielle Reeder is a freelance journalist from St. Petersburg, Florida. She enjoys horror movies, indie music, and all things Rubik’s cubes.

When she’s not writing she can be found at a concert or on the beach.

LinkedIn: Gabrielle Reeder