Joe Berlinger maintains he didn’t set out to become the official chronicler of notorious serial killers, but the producer finds himself capping off a “trilogy” of real-life horror via Netflix’s “Conversations With a Killer” series, which – after multipart documentaries devoted to Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy – shifts to “The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes.”
The timing of the latest “Conversations” is hardly a coincidence, coming on the heels of “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” That 10-part dramatization from producer Ryan Murphy and company has been a major viewing attraction according to Netflix, while renewing discussion about the propriety of the media preoccupation with serial killers, and whether the sheer volume of attention somehow glorifies them.
As Buzzfeed noted, “Monster” hasn’t been well received by some relatives of Dahmer’s victims, and the seemingly unquenchable appetite for true crime has raised concerns about the “inevitably reductive discourse on social media that romanticizes and capitalizes on murder.” (Netflix and the producers opted not to make “Monster” available to critics in advance.)
In an interview with CNN, Berlinger said he hasn’t watched “Monster,” in part because he didn’t want to field questions about it. But in addition to his documentary work he has also dabbled in narrative film in this arena, directing “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a 2019 movie that starred Zac Efron as Bundy.
Berlinger bristled at the suggestion that any of these productions might romanticize serial killers, noting that crime has always been a source of fascination. “This is a genre that just invites criticism for whatever reason,” he said, adding, “I was accused of romanticizing Bundy through murder porn, which I found very offensive and completely untrue.”
The primary difference now is the abundance of shelf space to feed the appetite for such material, with more extended docuseries devoted to such topics filling streaming services – many of which have sprung up in just the last three years – and linear networks alike.
“I thought this was an important story to tell,” Berlinger said in regard to “The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes,” noting that Dahmer – unlike Bundy and Gacy – actually exhibited “a modicum of remorse” in the unearthed audiotapes.
Both “Monster” and “Conversations With a Killer” also make an effort to focus in part on Dahmer’s victims, with Berlinger noting that his productions about Gacy and Dahmer “retell these stories through a 2022 lens,” including how homophobia and racial prejudice at the time hampered the investigations.
The fresh material in “Conversations With a Killer” includes recordings of Dahmer and his defense team, primarily a lawyer named Wendy Patrickus, who is among those interviewed – which seems remarkable given the amount of coverage devoted to each of these figures in the past. As for lessons the docuseries in their totality seek to convey, the producer pointed to the fact all three subjects projected misleading images of trustworthiness in their daily lives.
“We want to pretend that serial killers present themselves as evil monsters all the time,” he said, noting that those featured were able to gaslight and fool even those close to them.
Berlinger also contends that a younger generation – his own college-age children among them – is unfamiliar with the details of these stories, or the warnings that they harbor about the possibility of evil hiding in plain view.
“If you walk away from any one of my shows, you see these people for the horrible human beings that they are,” he said. “But it’s a larger attempt to understand where they fit in the human condition.”
“Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes” premieres October 7 on Netflix.