True crime has never been so popular, but it also has a dark side. A new Netflix series about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been criticized for playing the truth. The line between entertaining and respecting victims is thin, Belgian true crime experts confirm.
“I’m not telling anyone what to watch or not, but if you’re really interested in the victims, my family and I are angry.” In a message on his Twitter account, Eric Perry argues against the new Netflix hit at the end of September Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The series tells the true story of an American murderer who murdered 13 men between 1978 and 1991.
One of his victims is Errol Lindsey, Perry’s cousin. He died in a horrific manner that is portrayed quite frankly in the series. Perry finds it unheard of for his family trauma to be recuperated in an exciting series and joins a long line of outraged relatives of victims. They believe that the makers of the series deviate from the facts too often and regret that they were not contacted beforehand.
Their anger is widely picked up by the press, but actually they don’t have to surprise them. In recent years, the broad interest in true crime has increased rapidly. In addition to the classic documentaries about famous killers like Charles Manson or Ted Bundy, fans of the genre can enjoy countless fiction series and a wide variety of podcasts. The makers offer enthusiasts a temporary trip to a sinister world that appeals to the imagination, although victims and relatives often have difficulty with this because the escapade of the masses is their daily reality.
Chris De Vleeschauwer (60) can identify with the frustrations expressed by the relatives of Dahmer’s victims. In 1996 his brother Peter, a gendarmerie, was kidnapped and killed. The perpetrator was never caught and that opened the door to speculation. The story was not only talked about in the local village pub for years, but also in the mass media.
A few years ago, the popular podcast The People’s Jury in an episode about the murder of De Vleeschauwer. In the episodes, the hosts often discuss their own lives, after which they go through murder cases and speculate about a possible culprit. The light-hearted tone is typical of The People’s Jury and contributes to the podcast’s success, although it’s questionable whether it’s appropriate to sip bubbles while discussing the greatest tragedy of a person’s life.
“It is indeed very non-committal, you can hardly call it investigative journalism,” says De Vleeschauwer. “I didn’t discover the episode about my brother until two years later and found it superficial and beside the point. They read newspaper articles and made their own interpretations, but because of that they confused things with each other.” The man absolutely does not target the podcast, but is mainly disappointed because the popularity of true crime does not mean that makers dig deeper and rarely bring new things to light.
Yet true crime can also do more than entertain or move. In the United States, the podcast spent serial such extensive attention to the murder of Hae Min Lee, after which the case was re-examined and the charges against her friend Adnan Syed dropped. He was allowed to leave prison after 23 years.
Closer to home, director Stijn Coninx notices that fact-based fiction sometimes also helps to draw attention to unresolved issues. In 2018 he brought Do not shoot out, a film about the Gang of Nivelles. At that time, the investigation was at a standstill and new investigators were appointed after the release. This does not mean that all victims and their relatives were immediately enthusiastic about the plans for a film.
“You always have to make a decision. For example, I would never make a film about Dutroux, unless victims or relatives really begged for it,” says Coninx. In case of Do not shoot the question arose for a fiction project by David Van de Steen, who lost his parents in 1985 during a robbery that the Gang carried out in the Delhaize in Aalst. Coninx, in collaboration with the city, organized an information moment to explain his plans and also spoke extensively with those involved. This won him the trust of many people, although that does not mean that it made it easier to shoot the film.
Anyone who works with a true story also risks legal repercussions if something is not portrayed completely accurately or just too explicitly. As a result, Coninx received constant legal advice. “In addition, there is the risk of real violence. I know someone who wrote a book about the Gang and is afraid to publish it because he experienced an attempt on his life before. The fear is justified.”
In this way, true crime is not only a reason for moral discussions about the boundary between entertainment and respect, but also a reason to talk about artistic freedom. While the relatives of Dahmer’s victims respond respectfully, there is no guarantee that makers of other true crime stories will not face lawsuits or violence. “That’s why fiction is such an interesting genre, because by definition it’s untrue. Although you can look for a gray zone within that medium where you get inspiration from true facts.”