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The Desensitization to Death in Pop Culture

Photo taken by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Last updated on November 15, 2022

With the recent release of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix, a recent outcry has been sparked. The show follows the same route as much of true crime does with a greater focus on the lack of empathy for the victims. Inaccurate portrayals often leave audiences sympathetic to the serial killers involved. Sometimes even being attracted to them. As misplaced as this sounds, there is a reason why criminals are seen as so attractive to the masses. It’s not because of hybristophilia but desensitization to death. Glorification of murderers and a public desensitized through the media combine horrifically.

Desensitization can be both a positive and negative thing. Beneficially, it can help some individuals get over trauma or fears. For example, if one is afraid of the dark, exposure to it may lessen one’s fear. This kind of desensitization is a thoughtful process, unlike the harmful type. Detrimentally, it can go too far in its exposure and make people less empathetic to suffering. An aspect of this is moving on. Grief looks different for everyone. But for those desensitized to death, it often involves moving about a day as if it were the previous one. Done with no deviation from normalcy.

The out-of-control issue

Desensitization is a defense mechanism for humans to protect themselves from the truth. Affecting viewers of serial killer media, true crime enjoyers, and even people who watch the news. The only important distinction is the context. Usually, desensitization to death is unintentional, not at will. Nowadays, it almost seems to be purposeful. People seek out media, giving themselves no choice but to separate themselves from it. This wall allows one to engage without having to be emotionally hurt, viewing at a distance. 

The idea of people growing desensitized to death was not always as pertinent. Only recently has it surfaced after the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone has gone through loss. But even then, hearing about death after death grew tiring and there was nothing to do but move on. This kind of behavior is common in veterans, people from violent neighborhoods, front-line workers, drug users, and people with some form of trauma. Yet, it is becoming more widespread. With true crime podcasts populating pop culture and exploration into serial killers dominate.

As a trauma researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emily Dworkin, suggests true crime allows consumers to experience difficult situations from a distance. Being removed from the full impact on the victim. This makes people able to see true crime as some distant fantasy instead of a reality. And even if people engage in it because of a fear of becoming a victim, there is something about using true crime as a comfort. Most people will never be victims of serial killers or murderers. Yet involving oneself in so much true crime can cause unnecessary fear and paranoia. 

Rather, through overconsumption of true crime and other related media, inaccurate ideas of reality permeate the general public. This is critical since the issues here don’t only surround our ideas of death but also of justice and race. True crime in the media does little to highlight victims that are not white women. Harming with the idea that serial killers are geniuses. When instead they are individuals who can make use of a broken criminal justice system. A system where it isn’t uncommon to victim-blame minorities. Engaging in true crime media is dangerous for its desensitization because it can reinforce dangerous biases about race. 

So what does this all matter?

It primes us to lack proper empathy in the face of death. When hearing of losses both related and unrelated to us, empathy is necessary to better comfort and understand what one might be going through. Uniquely, studies have shown that desensitization can lead to increased violence in individuals. Of course, that doesn’t mean that listening to true crime podcasts will make you as violent as those it discusses. But the more we as a people become desensitized, the more we, and others, will suffer.

The best course of action is to consume less. It isn’t enough to be aware of how desensitization can permeate through us all, but rather to stop engaging in it. For the true crime obsessors out there, that might be difficult, but it is a necessary step to take. Victims are not nameless numbers but are people who have names. People who lived their lives in much the same way we do ourselves. To erase that from them is to let serial killers and murderers win, which is unacceptable.

Facing the weight of death is a lot. The anguish, the pain when knowing that something so delicate as life has been lost. And sometimes it is easier to not pay heed to its weight. To be less sensitive. But it is not okay to do this when romanticization and glorification take hold instead. Not only does desensitization allow individuals to deny the weight of death, it perpetuates false ideas about how society deals with criminals and views victims. 

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