Director Joe Berlinger said that 'most [families] did not want to participate' in the Netflix documentary about the serial killer.
Following the debut of the Netflix true-crime scripted series, Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the gruesome murderer is now the subject of Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, the third installment in the ongoing docuseries about notable serial killers from director and executive producer Joe Berlinger.
Ahead of its debut, the longtime true-crime filmmaker spoke to ET about the recent attention surrounding Dahmer and his efforts for the stories recounted in the docuseries to be “responsibly told and sensitive to the victims,” while also acknowledging why the families of those killed did not want to participate here.
While Ryan Murphy’s dramatization of Dahmer’s life and crimes has become the platform’s biggest debut, with audiences logging over 196 million hours in its first week of streaming, it has also drawn backlash from relatives of the victims, who say that they’ve been retraumatized by the limited series and that they weren’t contacted about the project.
When it comes to the three-part documentary, which is largely told through Dahmer’s own words via previously unheard audio recordings and on-camera appearances by his legal team, friends of the victims and various experts, Berlinger’s team had “a massive grid” of everyone they reached out to. And when it came to the families of those murdered, “most did not want to participate,” the director said. “Most either did not respond or declined, and I can understand why.”
“You know, whenever we tell these stories, I feel like we obviously have to tell them responsibly and to honor the victims,” he continued, explaining that Conversations With a Killer “does that by looking at the case through a 2022 lens to kind of give it some social justice reason for being told.”
In this case, that was highlighting key issues that influenced the circumstances surrounding Dahmer’s murders, including homophobia and racial bias at the time, while also spotlighting the female attorney, Wendy Patrickus, who was tasked with recording all of Dahmer’s confessions and not often included in the narratives surrounding the serial killer.
“So, in 2022, with all these issues very much in the forefront, there is a social justice element,” Berlinger said. “So, I hope that the families -- and while I totally respect their decision not to participate and I totally respect their feelings that some projects traumatize them and I certainly don’t expect them to watch the show -- but if they do, I hope they will feel like we treated their loved ones with respect and that there’s been a level of rigor and responsibility in telling these stories in a socially responsible way.”
While Berlinger is no stranger to this genre, having produced everything from the Paradise Lost films to Confronting a Serial Killer to Netflix’s Crime Scene series, he admitted that “it’s always painful” to listen to these tapes and hear people recounting their stories, especially in the case of Dahmer, who he said is “utterly depraved.”
“He’s a horrible, evil person clearly,” Berlinger added, while acknowledging just how popular Dahmer has become in the wake of Murphy’s series and the attention surrounding him that will likely be bolstered by the new docuseries.
“We have to remember that Netflix is serving a global audience and that has changed the game for viewing numbers and, in particular, changed the game for documentaries,” he said. “And so, you know, there is a fascination with these things because we all wonder why people go off the deep end.” And in the case of Dahmer, “how is it that he was able to do these things is endlessly fascinating.”
Not only that, but there’s a whole generation who knows very little about the details surrounding people like Dahmer as well as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, who were featured in the first two installments of Conversations With a Killer.
“Putting out these stories for a new generation that is unaware of who these people are, I think, is an important thing to do from a social justice standpoint because the lessons of [these killers] can’t be repeated enough,” Berlinger said, adding that he wants the younger “generation to be warned about this cautionary tale.”
Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes debuts Oct. 7 on Netflix.