Fandom’s unhealthy obsession with real-life serial killers

Fandom-esque is a biweekly blog about the fandoms of the pop culture sphere and their latest ongoings in TV, film and more.

By Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

There are five movies about the life of the American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. There are even more TV documentaries about him, and on Sept. 21 Netflix released “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a limited series with Evan Peters in the titular role.

The series goes in-depth on Dahmer’s life, his motives and the brutal crimes he committed against 17 victims.

The victims’ family weren’t notified about the show’s production. Instead they stumble across shows about Dahmer as they’re released, and in 2022 on apps like TikTok, they can come across fancams.

Fancams for Jeffrey Dahmer.

A fancam is a video compilation of a celebrity put together by a fan. There are fancams about quite literally everyone — Ariana Grande, Daenerys Targaryen and a horrifying amount about serial killers.

Now I’m not here to be the morality police for fandoms, that never ends well — and I don’t want any Dahmer girlies in my DMs. But I think the way that fans interact with real-life criminals is something that should be examined.

I understand being drawn to a fictional character. Often the darker, more twisted people capture our attention. Should we egg a person’s house because he likes Freddy Krueger? No. One of the most prolific genres on TV are criminal procedurals, shows like “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order: SVU” and “NCIS” — all of which focus on investigators trying to catch heinous criminals.

Fandoms for shows like “Hannibal,” a fandom I adore, center on fictional characters that literally cannibalize people. The fanfiction and art for that show require trigger warnings more often than not. It’s a horror show, and it’s fully aware of the fact, but it’s all made up. There’s no real person who’s been victimized by Hannibal Lecter who has to tip-toe around the internet afraid of coming across aesthetic videos of Mads Mikkelsen’s bloody fork.

When the new Dahmer Netflix show was released, a relative of one of Dahmer’s victims — mostly black men and young boys, I’ll have you know — went to Twitter to express her distress about the show’s popularity.

She went on to say that shows like these are often very traumatizing to the families of the victims, especially since actors are recruited to play versions of the victims or victims’ families.

Why do these shows keep getting made? As I hinted at before, true crime and related media is a goldmine for Hollywood. A 2021 study by Parrot Analytics found that true crime is the most in-demand topic in documentaries for the year. The podcast industry has also benefited from true crime popularity, and in 2020 according to one survey, it was the third most in-demand genre for listeners on apps like Spotify or Apple Music.

Some people might say that the fancams are a byproduct of fans’ obsession with the actors playing the roles. When Zac Efron played Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” there was a rise in fancams for the show, similar to the new Dahmer show.

But there are actual fancams of Dahmer and Bundy and every killer in between, and when criticized for making these many fans will often defend the actions of these men, or sympathize with them. It’s a parasocial relationship gone too far.

Sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the term “para-social relationship” in the 1950s long before its use in social media. The term is meant to describe how mass media users act like they’re in a typical social relationship with a celebrity that they’ve never met.

Clearly it’s not a new concept, but apps like Twitter or TikTok, or more intimate gathering spaces like Discord, escalate the problem.

When you have a parasocial relationship with a celebrity, it’s very easy to forget how little you know about the person you’re obsessing over. It’s one thing to set up a meet and greet with Harry Styles and spew trivia questions his way, it’s another to edit together mugshots of Dahmer into a 30-second video filtered with rainbow lighting and a BTS song playing in the background.

A lot of people even take a step further and write fanfic about him, which is called “real-person fiction” or RPF for short.

Personally, I’m not a fan of RPF. That’s a real person you’re writing fiction about, and in many circumstances in a sexual context without their consent. I’m especially against sending these kinds of fanfic to the people themselves.

Now imagine your family member was brutally murdered by a serial killer like Dahmer, and there are people on the internet who send you DMs full of fanfiction and “cute” little videos about how sexy Dahmer actually was, that his life was so hard and he doesn’t deserve nearly all the bad press he gets.

Every time a show like this comes out, the victims are yet again re-traumatized.

Hollywood won’t stop making these, the shows and the movies make too much damn money, but if they’re not going to stop the least that the showrunners can do is consult the victim’s families on how they should be depicted on screen.

After all, most of these shows are about Dahmer, right? If these stories are to be told, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to explore if the victims want it told from their perspective, especially those from marginalized communities, who rarely get a say in how their grief is processed or what the public does with it.