‘Blonde,’ ‘Dahmer’ and turning true crime into entertainment

I’ll watch pretty much anything. As someone who loves pop culture and desperately needs time to recharge, I’ve spent many nights after work sprawled on my tiny gray couch and browsing Netflix.

I watch things for comfort. I watch things to laugh. I even watch things to cry, on days when I need a good weep.

I also like to watch things to learn about people, even when they reduce me to a sleepless lump of paranoia on more than a few late nights. True crime was always on my radar — I indulged in some crime podcasts in the past — and I found myself both fascinated and frightened by it.

When “Blonde” was released last year, and “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” shortly thereafter, my interest was piqued. But after reading reviews and reactions, it became clear that these works were nothing more than pretty pictures of real people suffering, boxed up and called entertainment.

So while I’ll watch pretty much anything, I won’t willingly watch that.

The ethics of these fictionalized true crime stories are more than murky. How did we get here? And how, in efforts that filmmakers claim were made to honor victims, did these stories manage to obliterate any integrity their victims had in the first place?

The impact of highbrow true crime

The true crime boom over the past decade is typically attributed to the hit podcast “Serial.” It was true crime like we’d never seen before: intimate, thoughtful, in-depth and, as Vulture calls it, “highbrow.”

As Vulture points out, this “prestige” true crime genre differs from the sensationalized true crime content of the past. “… the prestige true-crime subgenre has developed its own shorthand, a language to tell its audience they’re consuming something thoughtful, college-educated, public-radio influenced,” Alice Bolins explains.

Prestige true crime is proving to pay off. Between 2020 and 2021, 18 of Netflix’s newest true crime documentaries spent a total of 232 days in Netflix’s top 10, according to The Ringer. The genre is clearly resonating with consumers — according to a survey by YouGovAmerica, half of Americans like true crime and 35% of those surveyed consume true crime content at least once a week.

But where does our fascination with true crime stem from? According to criminal forensic psychologist Paul G. Mattiuzzi, we’re morbidly mesmerized by evil. “In every case, there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved,” Mattiuzzi wrote for Everyday Psychology. “… Was it the act of a ‘normal’ person, or the act of someone criminal or someone deranged?”

As documentaries attempt to solve the puzzle, they focus on, as Vulture explains, “character sketches instead of police procedure.” But highbrow true crime often results in gratuitous character sketches of the murderers, rather than delving into the victims.

In 2019, Netflix released “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” The four-part docuseries strung together “interviews, archival footage and audio recordings made on death row (to) form a searing portrait of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy,” per Netflix.

The docuseries received almost immediate backlash. Lisa Little, friend of Bundy victim Kimberly Leech, told First Coast News, “We wish this could get put to rest. We’re tired of hearing about Bundy.”

“If we’re going to talk about Bundy, I want to focus on the victims, they’re the ones that need to be remembered. He has gotten all of the attention he deserves,” Little said.

The rise of fictionalized true crime accounts

In 2022 our obsession with true crime blossomed into fictionalized portrayals of real cases. This past year saw a bevy of TV shows that fictionalized real-life true crime, including “Under the Banner of Heaven,” about the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter Erica, “The Girl from Plainville,” about the tragically preventable death of Conrad Roy, and “Candy,” centering around Candy Montgomery, who murdered her best friend Betty Gore.

Each show centers on the murderer instead of the victim — Roy and Gore are swept away to the sidelines. And those close to Lafferty said that she was “being used,” per the Deseret News.

“I feel like they betrayed Brenda, and that I wasn’t able to prevent that from happening,” Sharon Wright Weeks, sister of Brenda Lafferty, told the Deseret News. 

This treatment is almost callous. Instead of seeing each victim as a whole person, they’re stripped away, splintered, whittled down to the worst part of their lives. They are not seen as people who are missed, but as a singular act of violence at the hands of another. And by further solidifying people as victims, their voices are made smaller.

In light of the release of “The Girl from Plainville” last year, Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute, told the Independent, “It can be absolutely horrific for a victim to once again have their power taken away by someone else telling the story of what happened to them.”

“One of ways to recover from trauma is to have power over one’s own narrative and when what is essentially a fictionalized version comes out or a version that includes everyone’s but your voice, you’ve basically lost control of the narrative again and that creates that trauma all over again,” Garvin said.

“There’s a tremendous responsibility in working in the true crime genre, in that these are real people, they’re actual human beings, and you can never forget that,” Veith said.

But it seems that filmmakers and actors are aware of the fragility of representing victims who are already gone and can’t share their own stories. Melanie Lynsky, who portrayed Gore in “Candy,” told Variety at the show premiere that she tried to honor Gore, per Deadline.

“It’s tough when you’re playing a real person who’s not alive anymore to tell you how they feel. And I hope that I did okay. I hope that she feels represented,” Lysnkey said. “I don’t know, it’s tough.”

Robin Veith, one of the show creators of “Candy,” spoke of the responsibility that comes with telling true crime stories, according to Deadline. “There’s a tremendous responsibility in working in the true crime genre, in that these are real people, they’re actual human beings, and you can never forget that,” Veith said.

‘Blonde’ and ‘Dahmer’ fail their victims

Our fascination with true crime is what most likely emboldened filmmakers to create “Blonde” and “Dahmer,” both from Netflix.

Each exploits their subjects egregiously, but I found “Blonde” to be one of the most frustrating. Never mind that it’s not even based on Monroe’s actual life (instead it gets its source material from “Blonde,” a novel by Joyce Carol Oates that fictionalizes Monroe’s life).

Monroe is depicted as a tragic figure from the start, doomed to a life of trauma. While Monroe’s life had its fair share of tragedies — and anyone who dies young and violently can be justifiably labeled as a tragic figure — to water her life down to the worst things that happened to her does her a disservice.

In “Blonde,” Monroe is at the mercy of the whims of every casting director, director and producer she works with. But in reality, Monroe played a big hand in crafting her career, according to Vanity Fair.


Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde.”

Monroe was troubled, yes, but also smart, calculated and ambitious. But for whatever reason, “Blonde” chooses to see Monroe as a casualty — both to her absent father and every man she turns to.

“Dahmer,” which won Evan Peters a Golden Globe award earlier this week for his portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer, also does a disservice to its victims. The series is unnecessary and heart-wrenching — seeing Dahmer’s victims innocently and willingly go with him, watching the terrible moment when they realize they’re in danger, seems so cruel.

In the span of 10 episodes, “Dahmer” is stubbornly, ruthlessly set upon painting a picture of a serial killer. But why should we empathize with a killer? While show creator Ryan Murphy chooses to give more context around a few of Dahmer’s victims, the show remains mostly centered on Dahmer himself.

While “Dahmer” chooses to focus on the perpetrator and “Blonde” focuses on the victim, they both fall under the same trap: the inability to see their subjects beyond the confines of their own tragedies.

While “Dahmer” chooses to focus on the perpetrator and “Blonde” focuses on the victim, they both fall under the same trap: the inability to see their subjects beyond the confines of their own tragedies.

By immortalizing people as victims in film, they will be eternally linked to their abusers. Monroe will always be defined by the abusive men around her. Tony Hughes, Errol Lindsey and others will always be remembered as victims of Dahmer.

Doesn’t this extend their pain? The cruel irony of works of fiction that aim to honor victims is that they trap them in an endless cycle of suffering. Reworking their stories for the screen, focusing on their trauma, forces their memories to reenact their worst moments even after they’ve died. Sure, it’s only in memory. But what are people if not memories after they die?

Who gets to tell victims’ stories?

After “Dahmer” was released, it was quickly criticized by the families of the victims depicted in the show. Rita Isbell, sister of Dahmer victim Lindsey, recounted her experience with the show in a personal essay for Insider. She explained that watching her portrayal in the series “felt like reliving it all over again.”

“It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then,” Isbell said.

Isbell criticized the series — how it fails to benefit or support the victim’s families, calling it “harsh and careless.” She said, “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.” 

Murphy, the creator of “Dahmer,” insists that the show was always for the victims. “We weren’t really interested in Dahmer the monster,” Murphy said, per Deadline.

“It was (about) who was complicit in making the monster. There were many, many different things involved in that. It was a complicated human story … it tackled systemic racism, homophobia. We were always thinking of the victims,” he said.


Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer in “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”

“Blonde” was received with mixed reviews, but most critics panned the film. “Given all the indignities and horrors that Marilyn Monroe endured during her 36 years, it is a relief that she didn’t have to suffer through the vulgarities of ‘Blonde,’ the latest necrophiliac entertainment to exploit her,” Manohla Dargis wrote for The New York Times.

Director Andrew Dominik defended “Blonde,” saying that viewers simply wanted to see Monroe as “an empowered woman,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “And if you’re not showing them that, it upsets them.”

Dominik addressed the accusations of the film exploiting Monroe, saying “Which is kind of strange, because she’s dead. The movie doesn’t make any difference in one way or another.”

“What they really mean is that the film exploited their memory of her, their image of her, which is fair enough,” Dominik said. “But that’s the whole idea of the movie. It’s trying to take the iconography of her life and put it into service of something else, it’s trying to take things that you’re familiar with, and turning the meaning inside out. But that’s what they don’t want to see.”

Associate professor of American studies Jason Ruiz, whose expertise is in streaming services, spoke to Newsweek about the controversy around “Blonde” and “Dahmer.”

“It’s an interesting moment in media right now because viewers seem to have an insatiable appetite for true crime, and movies and series that can claim to be ‘based on a true story’ at the same time that some are uncomfortable about the exploitation of violence and trauma on a platform such as Netflix,” Ruiz said.

“The conversation around ‘Blonde’ and ‘Monster’ raises serious questions about who gets to tell which ‘true’ stories — and who should profit from the telling,” Ruiz said.

“The conversation around ‘Blonde’ and ‘Monster’ raises serious questions about who gets to tell which ‘true’ stories — and who should profit from the telling,” Ruiz said.

While we might feel entitled to know every detail of a horrible act, it’s not up to us how we remember those lost. It might not even be up to filmmakers to portray their stories. It’s for families and friends to cultivate the details of how they went about their lives — and to tell these stories as they see fit.

This minutiae, tiny portraits of loved ones, are some of what’s left for the families and friends of Dahmer’s victims to remember. How they took their coffee each morning. The smell of their favorite cologne. The absurd thickness of their glasses. All the small, big, frustrating and lovable things that made them into a complete, imperfect and valued human being.

Steven Hicks, 18, was remembered by his father as a “deeply caring person,” per USA Today. He recounted a story where he took his son on a hunting trip, where Hicks shot a rabbit and “was as proud as he could be, and then he bawled his eyes out.″

Steven Tuomi, 28, was known as artistic by his classmates. “I was in art class with him and he made a beautiful lead stained-glass lamp that I can still remember,” Priscilla Marley Chynoweth told USA Today. ”It was just beautiful. I remember he could do just about anything artistic.”

Eddie Smith, 28, was an aspiring professional model. His sister teasingly called him “the Sheikh” because he would wear a “turban-like wrap around his head,” per USA Today.

When in court, Smith’s brother J.W. Smith read statements from members of his family. “Ed was raised in a Christian home where he learned how to be a loving, trusting, respectful human being,” he read for his mother, Josephine Helen.

“Eddie inherited all the blessings that a family structure had to offer,” Smith said. “The greatest of those blessings was love.”

By Indana