If you thought that perhaps the general public’s ongoing obsession with TV series that dealt with true crime was on the wane, then the recent astounding success achieved by the latest Netflix show Dahmer will have made you think again.
The new show, which stars Evan Peters (Emmy winner for his role in Mare of Easttown opposite Kate Winslet), attempts to explain the motives behind serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and does so in a very unflinching manner.
On its release, the drama hit heights that Netflix hadn’t reached since season four of Stranger Things and has received praise for its acting, though also a fair amount of criticism for the overall show as a whole.
The show charts the rise of Dahmer as he went on a murder spree between 1978 and 1991, and it’s pretty much old ground in so much as the famous killer has been the subject of a great many shows, both fictional and factual in nature.
While a documentary would use stock video to establish a scene, the fictional account created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan goes for the shock and awe of the gory macabre actions undertaken by Dahmer.
The show’s massive success is, of course, no surprise given the recent successes of similar shows, and it does make one wonder just why we, as an audience in general, derive so much enjoyment from such shows.
A Page In History
As an audience, we have always been interested in historical fiction. Shows take a specific point in time and real key individuals and dramatize the situation either for the purpose of enthralling an audience or simply because a lack of crucial evidence is known.
Therefore our love of true crime follows our interest in actual events and the act of putting us in the middle of a page in history. If produced effectively, one can transport an audience to a specific place and time.
This is particularly evident in shows such as Downton Abbey but perhaps even more so when then the historical reference point is a real individual and one that has gotten our collective blood pumping.
Mindhunter is an excellent example of when this is done expertly. The successful show, which sadly only spanned two seasons, had David Fincher as one of its key producers and followed the true travails of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and showed us the inner working not just of the killers but also the detectives investigating their heinous crimes.
This neatly leads to another critical element that makes true crime so successful and addictive to view.
The Thrill of the Chase
Shows like Mindhuter give us that visceral thrill of the chase, safe and comfortable in the knowledge that the killers in question will be brought to justice; we know this because they are real-life murderers who were, in the case of the Joe Penhall show, caught.
This makes it easier for us to digest these chilling tales because we get the satisfactory sensation of justice by the end of each season.
There are examples of how we get to find out more about cases we thought we knew, or at least we get to see a more nuanced version of events that makes us feel as if we are getting closer to the truth.
Take, for instance, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, a show covering perhaps one of the most prominent real-life crimes ever and does so in a way that delves even deeper and because it’s covering an event that is from the recent past you get the double whammy of offering an audience, who are well aware of the case itself, a glimpse into a nostalgic era.
A Fine Line
Many commentators feel that a crucial reason audiences can’t get enough of shows that cover real-life killers is the sense that we are interested in the ‘dark side’ of those who commit such crimes and often find ourselves wondering what it takes to commit such acts.
Often serial killers can appear to be deadly ordinary, and therefore watching these typical people undergo the change necessary to become cold-blooded killers leaves us questioning the fine line that may separate us from such cold, calculating people, who could very easily be our own neighbours.
Joining the Dots
Good shows that cover the investigation and chase of serial killers will do so in a thrilling but methodical fashion that is often great on TV. We, as an audience, find ourselves joining the dots and getting a fuller picture of how law enforcement agencies conduct their investigations.
This is, of course, something that is the fuel for many successful shows, such as Law and Order, but with shows that cover real criminals, there is the additional aspect of the heightened reality of the situation that makes for very engrossing content.
It’s In Our Nature
By all accounts, according to psychologists, it’s very natural for us to be interested in true crime because it actually serves a valuable purpose. We may, as a society, feel that learning the minute details of such cases could help us, on some level, in a very real sense, should something untoward occur.
Whatever the reasons for our peaked interest in such shows, you can guarantee that every significant streaming service, television network, and production company is thinking of new ways to cover such output, knowing that it’s more than likely to lead to a large, engaged audience.