The controversial but tantalizing biopic Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story walks a very fine line between chronicling true events and romanticizing the horrors of cannibalism and murder. Such dark television viewing, however, calls into play a string of ethical and legal implications.
The brutal subgenre of “true crime” that is serial killer biopics is undoubtedly among the best-selling in the modern pop culture landscape. As much as we hate to admit it, we are fascinated by “man’s inhumanity to man”, the horrible, egregious, outrageous acts the human animal is capable of. They are all the more fascinating – and safer, of course – when viewed through an observational lens that provides a degree of separation, like a household streaming service such as Netflix offers, beamed into the comfort of our own loungerooms on a convenient monthly subscription. In the simplest sense, at one level serial killer biopics can be compared to visual “car wrecks”, events and topics that are so horrible you just can’t turn away. A case in point at the moment is the Netflix Series everyone seems to be watching. The controversial but tantalizing biopic Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story walks a very fine line between chronicling true events and romanticizing the horrors of cannibalism and murder. Such dark television viewing, however, calls into play a string of ethical and legal implications.
We are all familiar with the standard film industry slogan: “any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” But in the true crime genre, that disclaimer is not only eschewed but entirely reversed. The result has been a flood of threatened defamation litigation against Netflix and other similar streaming services. In the United States, public Court records and footage from recorded criminal proceedings reside in the public domain, and are legally accessible to the entertainment industry. Companies like Netflix are not even required to consult with or obtain the consent of victims’ families when portraying them in such shows. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, in the wake of shows like The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, many families have been very outspoken, publicly condemning the representation of their loved ones and even themselves. Jeffrey Dahmer’s father is on record as even considering civil action over the glamorization of his son in the context of his offences.
Creators of such content do not even have to be as savvy as one might think to be able to profit off the crimes of another person. Since 2002, the US has had what are euphemistically dubbed the Son of Sam Laws, named after the notorious serial killer David Berkowitz who stalked New York City in the 1970s, and subsequently attempted to profit from his misdeeds by selling the rights to his story. Son of Sam Laws essentially allow for the confiscation of all proceeds of crime, including the sale of rights to a story based on a felony for which a person has been convicted. In Australia, we have similar provisions under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cth), where a ‘Literary Proceeds Order’ allows a Court to order any profits derived by a person from the commercial exploitation of an indictable offence be paid to the Commonwealth. Likewise, in Queensland, as in other state jurisdictions, laws further prevent individuals from profiting from their offences, although a third party who did not commit the offence may do so by telling the story in the public domain, and is free to pocket their profits.
So should we be telling these horrible stories, or shouldn’t we? In the Columbia County Circuit Court in 1995, Judge Daniel George was asked to decide whether, posthumously, Jeffrey Dahmer’s brain should be preserved and studied for the furtherance of psychological science, or cremated to accord with the deceased killer’s wishes, thereby putting his grisly past behind all those who were so sadly affected. The Judge ultimately ruled Dahmer’s demented brain should be destroyed. End of story. Literally.
In a curious way, the case serves as an interesting metaphor for a much broader dilemma. Do we bury these gruesome stories – put their horrors behind us – or do we tell them, so we may learn more about how and why they happen? Serious students of criminology will argue there is great merit in studying the process and psychology of why the worst of us do what they do. But where does the need for serious science end, and base, tawdry voyeurism begin?
Queensland Lawyer, Nyst Legal