By now, you have probably heard of or watched the newest series on Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious American serial killer.
There have been many think pieces written on Dahmer and his pathology. The show itself does not shy away from recognising that Dahmer’s attorney considered the “insanity” defence.
As a psychologist, but not Dahmer’s psychologist, I will refrain from making comments on his upbringing, personality, or behaviours. What has piqued my interest more than Dahmer is the cultural obsession I have witnessed surrounding Dahmer.
This is not the first, and certainly not the last time, where a serial killer has gripped people’s minds. Ted Bundy underwent a similar period of obsession when the Ted Bundy Tapes were released in 2019. But it doesn’t stop at the fascination with the life story of a serial killer. Both with Ted Bundy and now with Jeffrey Dahmer, there has been a particular kind of notoriety in finding them attractive and their presentation to be romantically appealing. What is going on here?
Loving the unloved
Dahmer, specifically in this Netflix series, has been showcased as a person genuinely wanting love and belongingness; a “tragic figure” needing attachment and affection, longing for and never quite getting the companionship he desires. Coupled with the “charming” personality and sense of humour he was both said to have and demonstrated in the Netflix show, it isn’t hard to see why the general public would not relate to him. After all, who doesn’t know what it feels like to long for companionship and understanding?
This is not all. We live in the age of mental health; there are countless online forums discussing anxiety, depression, traumatic childhoods, emotionally or physically abusive caretakers growing up, bullying, and the list goes on. Dahmer’s childhood, as explored in this series, appeals to the growing, collective awareness around what leads people to develop mental disabilities. These are all current pain points in the cultural zeitgeist, and Netflix hit these points straight home. Choosing beloved actors to play the role and portraying a complex, interesting personality is another way to pull viewers in.
This is what causes the cultural obsession with humanising an individual whose acts were repugnant, regardless of what caused them to be actioned.
Watching Self-Bias and Gender Roles
The Halo effect refers to the tendency for positive impressions of a person’s qualities in one area influencing one’s judgement of their capacity in other areas.
In other words, we associate beauty with honesty, kindness, safety and ugliness with the opposite. Seeing a serial killer portrayed as good-looking, funny, humourous, interesting can bias us towards thinking that they are a “good person”. The Dahmer show plays on this bias.
This phenomenon is not only observed in the younger generation. Dahmer, along with other serial killers, received swaths of fan mail from loving fans. It is also interesting that these fans tend to overwhelmingly be women. Just like women consume a majority of true crime podcasts. Why do female viewers and listeners empathise with killers who would have most likely made them victims? There are hypotheses that consider gender roles, and the potential reward of a loyal partner; women may feel the expectation of being understanding, forgiving, and nurturing, along with absorbing messages that it is their responsibility to “take care of” culpable men. Notable that it could also be reversed. Dahmer particularly did not make victims out of women; which creates an illusion of safety for women which can lead to them finding him attractive.