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  • Writer's pictureMaria Kestane

OPINION: Media companies exploit societal curiosity about death

Curiosity about societal taboos is nothing new, but media companies like Netflix should focus on authentic storytelling rather than hyperbolizing tragedy.

Jeffrey L. Dahmer, left, talks with his attorney, Gerald Boyle, in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Thursday, July 25, 1991. Dahmer was charged with four counts of first degree intentional homicide after police found the remains of 11 men who had been dismembered. Photo by AP Photos.

Evan Peters, the actor that played Jeffrey Dahmer in Netflix’s Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story received a Golden Globe this year for his role in the dramatization of the real-life story.

His glory was Shirley Hughes heartfelt pain. The mother of one of Dahmer’s victims, Anthony "Tony" Hughes, was re-traumatized by the memory of her son being murdered in May 1991.

The two outcomes of the one show display the stark differences of what two people received from the same thing.

“There’s a lot of sick people around the world, and people winning acting roles from playing killers keeps the obsession going,” Hughes said.

The obsession she referred to points towards society’s ongoing desire to engage in media that dramatize the recounting of infamous serial killers and the victims they take along with them.

However, curiosity about societal taboos should be answered with authentic media forms that paint the real picture, not dramatized multi-part series that result in the sensationalism of a tragic event.

Jeffrey Dahmer was an American sex offender and serial killer that murdered 17 boys and men between 1978 and 1991.

He would often obtain his victims by sexually engaging with them, luring them back to his apartment in Milwaukee, drug them, kill them and then dismember them.

He would often store their body parts around his apartment, or burn them in an acid tank in his bedroom.

Or he would cook the body parts and eat them.

The Netflix show that dramatized Dahmer’s story had been watched for 196.2 million hours in its opening week, and stayed on Netflix’s Top 10 list for seven weeks after its release.

Although viewership is high, levels of curiosity are higher.

University of British Columbia's film professor, Ernest Mathijs, said it is curiosity that drives people to engage in media that represents the taboos of society, such as serial killers like Dahmer.

“It’s the same reason why we slow down when there’s a traffic accident on the other side of the road,” he said. “We’re curious about the danger of others.”

Mathijs said engaging in media about forbidden constructs of reality is done through a process called safe transgression.

“Media like this allows us to sort of touch on or come as near as possible to those things that we’re afraid of, knowing very well we don’t have to actually endure it,” he said.

However if Netflix was just trying to join in on the true-crime genre, then all they needed to do was create documentaries that capture real-life events with real-life victims.

Dramatizations with actors and hyperbolized events of some of the most traumatic, horrifying events in a victim’s life are unnecessary.

But alas, they are available.

And not only are they available, but they are watched. By millions.

Aside from releasing a dramatization of the Jeffrey Dahmer story, Netflix also released a docu-series version two weeks later.

Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes included interviews with the lawyers, journalists, experts and victims who were involved with the case in the early 90s.

It included real pictures, videos, court documents, and trial testimonies from the story.

However, according to the Netflix Top 10 list, viewership for its opening week was at 31.4 million hours viewed. The real story only received about one-sixth of what the dramatized version got.

Although it may be puzzling as to why the dramatized version of a story was more sought after than the authentic one, it's because society relishes sensationalism.

And Netflix relishes profits.

If it wasn’t Netflix, it would be Amazon Prime Video or Crave TV, said Toronto Metropolitan University criminology professor Ajay Sandhu.

Netflix isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s just adding to the market of sensationalism-based storytelling that audiences prefer to engage with due to its entertaining and phenomenal nature.

Viewers are left to decide between drinking the Kool-Aid or choosing a less entertaining, more serious version of a story.

Usually audiences choose the former, while the real-life victims of said stories are left with the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood production based on some of the darkest times in their lives.

Media companies such as Netflix owe it to their stakeholders, which include the victims of the tragedies they base their content on, to end to the dramatization of real-life stories. They need to invest more into their documentaries and docu-series so that a story isn't skewed by hyperbole, but rather told authentically.

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