Opinion | If it bleeds, it leads: glamorizing crime in the media and its adverse effects

Elle Standish, Contributing Columnist

Fiction is a way to inspire fantasies in which people tolerate unhealthy and unsafe behaviors from people on the basis of their attractiveness or charisma. In other words, these shows and movies are normalizing — and perhaps even romanticizing — violence.

The fourth season of “You” has found record breaking success, captivating audience members around the world. The show, according to Netflix, follows a “dangerously charming, intensely obsessive young man” who “goes to extreme measures to insert himself into the lives of those he is transfixed by.”

I have nothing against a classic binge-watch, but if we’re watching true crime, shouldn’t it be somewhat true? Shows like “You” are critiqued for giving sex appeal to criminals because this can inspire unhealthy fantasies, like murder, stalking and gaslighting, in viewers. 

Conversely, the argument can be made that casting attractive people is a good call, because it reminds us that we shouldn’t overlook red flags in people just because they’re charming. 

Take the strange fetishization of Sebastian Stan as a cannibal in the Hulu original movie “Fresh,” for example. In a 2022 article, Yahoo News writer Nick Romano called Stan a “sexy psycho” who is trying to “satiate his unusual appetites.” 

Douglas Klutz, an instructor in the UA Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said he believes that the creative industry capitalizes on public fascination with serial killers and violent crimes.

“These true crime specials lead to a skewed conception of the types of crime being committed and their actual frequency of occurrence, and, in turn, how those crimes feature in these popular media portrayals actually work their way through the criminal justice system,” Klutz said. 

The sensationalization of brutal crime and serial killings in pop culture cost the public valuable information on the reality of the matter. According to a 2022 Marshall Project study, nearly 80% of Americans believe crime went up in the country, despite crime rates stagnating. 

Specifically, viewers are not only beginning to view crime fantasy as plausible, but as a common occurrence. Additionally, glamorizing criminals in shows and movies is very harmful to your mental health. 

In a 2021 Vice article, forensic psychologist Jessica Micono said that true crime causes a constant state of alert, hypervigilance and paranoia that ultimately lead to increased stress.

“That increased stress can subsequently lead to stress-related illnesses, things like cardiovascular disease or hypertension,” Micono said.

Casting attractive people to play real serial killers renews public fascination with horrendous acts that have haunted families and communities. While films like “Fresh” and shows like “You” are entirely fictional, shows on real serial killers are especially heinous and haunting.

Storylines that sympathize with real serial killers do an injustice to victims’ families and also romanticize senseless violence and domestic abuse. 

The families of Jeffrey Dahmer’s young victims certainly agree. Netflix’s wildly popular 2022 show “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” was met with backlash for its graphic portrayal and sensationalization of Dahmer and his infamous killings of 15 men and two children

Rita Isbell’s brother was Errol Lindsey. He was murdered by Dahmer in 1991 when he was 19 years old. 

In an essay for Insider magazine, Isbell expressed her distaste with Netflix. “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed,” said Isbell. 

The former Milwaukee attorney, Thomas M. Jacobson, who represented eight of Dahmer’s victims’ families, fought to prevent Netflix from profiting off of the show’s success. 

In an interview with TheWrap, Jacobson said that the painful memory of Dahmer in Milwaukee is only reawakening chaos and mayhem in the community. In response to these criticisms, Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, wants to build a victim memorial. 

“The only meaningful Dahmer victim family action on Murphy’s part would be a monetary consideration from the Netflix profits for their exploitation and continuing trauma,” Jacobson said. 

Additionally, the glamorization of crime in media tends to romanticize instances of domestic and sexual abuse, such as “The People v. OJ Simpson” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

These films showcase conventionally attractive actors as criminals, and are often the main source of information that the general public has with the justice system. 

“A large body of research has established that viewing crime-based media broadly increases fear of crime,” said Matthew Dolliver, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “This is particularly interesting because we also know that, according to a number of sources, including the Uniform Crime Reporting and National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime, in particular, has been in steady decline over the past several years.” 

Public understanding of crime and psychopathy is inherently skewed because of this media phenomenon. Dolliver said this phenomenon has seeped into all forms of media. 

“My research found that viewing true crime and ‘reality’ based crime media, like local news, is associated with a misperception of what crime rates actually look like and a false belief that crime is on the rise,” Dolliver said. 

Members of the public, who generally have a basic or glorified understanding of the criminal justice system, are asked to serve on juries relating to criminal cases or to vote on matters impacting criminal justice policies. 

Thrillers are certainly entertaining, and the genre has produced some ground-breaking classics, but it is important that viewers take haste in realizing how grossly exaggerated and skewed they can be.

Consuming media should be an enjoyable experience, but it should not come at the cost of public knowledge. Young people are the audience at play, and it is critical that we separate fiction from reality, falsehoods from truth, and ultimately, good from bad.