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Dahmer, Black Bird: Into the heart of darkness with two American shows

Two shows based on American true crime hammer in our continuing obsession with the genre — and with serial killers

Apple TV+'s Black Bird focuses on a less well-known true crime/serial killer story 
Apple TV+'s Black Bird focuses on a less well-known true crime/serial killer story  (

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One of the most harrowing scenes in Black Bird, a limited series that released on Apple TV+ in July this year, is watching a man listen to a serial killer talk about how he committed one of the murders he was convicted for. This man’s conviction is up for appeal, and due to a lack of physical evidence — he was too good at hiding the bodies — he may walk free, ready to kill again, and the FBI has convinced another convict to charm him into telling him where the bodies are. James Keene, the ‘good guy’ in this scenario, does succeed in making friends with the lonely Larry Hall, and finally, one day, Hall opens up and tells him — no, boasts to him — about how he committed this particular murder of a young girl. Keene listens, pretending admiration and interest, with a peculiar expression of fake awe and real distaste (Taron Egerton, who plays Keene, delivers this beautifully) on his face.

Later, in his cell, we see him shaking with the impact of what he has heard, weeping as he stuffs his fist into his mouth so that his next-door neighbour, Hall, can’t hear him. The impact on the viewer is similar. It appears that no matter how many serial killer stories we hear, they still have the ability to shock.

Also read: Bad Sisters review: A most delicious dark comedy

Black Bird is based on an autobiographical novel written by the real-life Keene in 2010, about being convicted of drug trafficking and remanded to a low-security facility, and the deal he is offered by the FBI: transfer to a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, extract vital information from convicted serial killer Larry Hall, and gain a total reprieve.

Around 40% of the entire true crime genre — which includes documentaries, podcasts and fictionalised accounts — deal with serial killers. True crime has been having a seemingly everlasting run of popularity, and two dramas released this year — one good, the other perhaps unnecessary — continue the craze to 2022.

Netflix’s Monster: the Jeffery Dahmer Story is only the latest in the rather large number of books, films and TV shows (there are over 15 documentaries and fictionalised accounts alone) inspired by Dahmer, who murdered 17 men and boys — mostly people of colour — between 1978 and 1991 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and people are asking if we really needed another one. Though well-made — it is far more more unsettling and disturbing than Black Bird; the first episode is particularly difficult to watch — Monster retells a story that has almost passed into American lore, and viewers, especially from the African American community (from which Dahmer chose most of his victims) have criticised Netflix for a cynical exploitation of trauma.

Although the show does a good job of depicting how systemic racism helped Dahmer get away with his gruesome crimes — he wasn’t especially clever about them, the cops just never looked too closely into the disappearance of Black men — it feeds a certain romanticization of serial killers like Dahmer, i.e. good-looking white men. A number of young women on TikTok and other platforms have said that they ‘stan’ Dahmer, and have made romantic edits using scenes from the show — a fate that has thus far eluded Larry Hall, though it’s debatable whether that’s because of his relative obscurity or his un-stanable persona.

Clearly, true crime dramas about real-life serial killers aren’t good for us, though we can’t seem to stop watching.



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