Dahmer & The Addiction of Tragedy
(Above: "Dahmer" Netflix series poster)
In July of 1991, Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer confessed to killing (and eating) seventeen men/boys between 1978 and 1991. From that point on, the world has been FASCINATED by him. And who could blame us? What compels a person to commit such atrocities? How can one human stalk another human like prey and then...eat them? We want to understand. We LONG to know how that kind of person ticks, and to a point, that's a healthy curiosity.
In an NBC News article by Danielle Page entitled, "The Science Behind Why We Can't Look Away From Tragedy, she stated, "We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives. Looking at disasters stimulates our empathy and we are programmed as humans to be empathetic — it is a key psychosocial condition that makes us social human beings." This study suggests that we, as humans, actually benefit from learning about/viewing tragic things. It helps us cope with the world around us and allows us to process our own tragedies in a healthier way, which also transforms us into more compassionate beings.
But what happens when that fascination becomes unhealthy? And I'm not talking about an attempt to replicate serial killers, although obviously, that's a danger to some. Instead, I'm addressing the constant need to take in tragic stories and information. What happens when healthy curiosity turns into an obsession?
From 1992 to next week (October 7th, 2022) there will have been 23 documentaries, stage plays, television shows, or feature films dedicated to the life and murders of Jeffrey Dahmer. That's not counting the numerous books and podcasts that have explored the haunting figure and his malevolence. Now I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a little oversaturated here. In a culture where we have 9 Spiderman films, 11 Batman feature films, and reboot after reboot of different takes on the same characters (which I'm not necessarily knocking, I have enjoyed most of them), it isn't too surprising that we also have this wide variety of true-crime available to us. Now, again, I'm not starting a "Ban The True-Crime" movement or anything, I'll leave that to the oh-so-annoying "Moms For America" tribe that simply just makes us all want to double down instead of think twice. What I am simply bringing to the table here is, maybe we should give it a rest on Dahmer for a while.
I take this stance, not to squelch the information or curiosity that naturally comes from such a fascinating figure, but because 23 films/docs/shows/plays are enough at this point, folks. At what point are we no longer just fascinated, but glorifying him and his actions by enjoying it as some sick form of entertainment? A friend of mine on social media stated, "True crime shows have become the modern-day guillotines - where people would get their kicks out of watching the suffering, fear, and death of other real people...We have become tourists of tragedy. God help us." And I believe he's absolutely right. Thankfully, we aren't all gathering around an ACTUAL guillotine or sitting in a coliseum watching people get hacked to pieces or burned at the stake, but this trend seems to be a watered-down version of the same spirit.
Now a good critique of my words so far would be, "Well what about the horror genre and its multiple slasher sequels or body horror movies? Isn't that the same thing?" And while that is a great point, I would argue that fictional mythic slasher figures aren't the same thing as real, flesh and blood people who have stalked, murdered, and eaten other humans. However, there is something to be said here. Take the SAW movies for example. The first couple were arguably some of the best thriller mysteries in the genre, but for many, after that, it dropped the story aspect and became more about torture porn. I would argue that the same fascination driving one to constantly consume true crime stories is the fascination that drives one to consume that type of subgenre within the horror community. Once again, let me nuance this with the fact that I enjoy some of these horror movies as well and there's nothing wrong with watching something with a healthy fascination as long as that fascination is not an addiction to tragedy. I would also argue that it has everything to do with the motive of the person watching. For one, I watch Hellraiser, not for the torture aspect, but because I'm fascinated with practical effects and make-up (especially in the horror genre; Tom Savini is a genius btw) Plus the story of Hellraiser and Hellraiser II is genuinely VERY good and it shows how diabolical the Cenobites (the embodiment of evil) actually are, which again going back to what was stated earlier, there is a very healthy side to viewing that and applying it to our own lives.
But even loving the thrills, stories, and mythic characters of the horror genre isn't the same thing as being addicted to tragedy, which is the entire point of this article. The problem isn't when we make movies or tv shows about serial killers or monsters, it's when we can't get enough of the tragedy. When you find yourself craving to hear another story about how a family got chopped up or longing for a new Dahmer movie or documentary even though there are 23 others to already choose from, you may want to self-reflect a little and ask yourself if you've entered into an unhealthy fascination with tragedy.
Lastly, I want to address the burning question of "Why does it matter?" So what if you're fascinated with the tragic in an unhealthy way? It's not like you're going to go out and become a serial killer or a monster, right? Mostly that is correct. Most will not go commit these awful crimes, however some will, but we'll get to that in a moment. For the more conventional reader, the danger in this mindset is that one will become desensitized to humanity. Every generation will push the envelope in this way, but that doesn't mean it's an unhealthy thing. I'm mostly meaning the desensitization of the human spirit. While a healthy amount of fascination with the tragic can cause empathy and compassion, an unhealthy amount can cause callousness, bitterness, and numbness toward humanity and its surroundings in general. And corporate Hollywood doesn't care which one you are. If people flock to it, there's money to be made and in their case, we're already dealing with callousness, bitterness, and numbness; only caused by greed and lust for power instead of an addiction to tragedy.
Finally, there will be some who long to see their names in infamy, like Dahmer's is. They are not well and are aspiring killers who have seen his name in lights for generations and know that people would be speaking their names in fear and wonder for generations as well if they aspire to be like him. Now, sure, those urges will still be there for them, but how much more amplified will those urges become if our society glorifies figures like Dahmer simply out of an unhealthy fascination? In this, we're breeding and grooming an environment tailor-made for psychopaths.
I say all of this stress how important it is that we guard our souls. Horror and true crime can be fascinating and fun, but if we don't keep ourselves in check and allow our desires to overrun us, then we will suffer major consequences personally and as a community. So by all means, let's have fun, let's be curious, and learn from the darkness in a safe way by viewing it through a movie or show, but let's keep a balance between tragedy and hope so we can grow in empathy and compassion, not hopeless callousness.