Trigger Warning: Mentions of distressing subjects such as murder and violence
Editor’s note: content creator, Caysie Ray (@dispatch.ca), shares her opinions on the recent Netflix docu-drama about Jeffrey Dahmer.
Netflix recently released ‘Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’. But with there being over 20 adaptions on Jeffrey Dahmer's story existing in the media already, why add another? Especially at the expense of those directly impacted by the case.
Families of the Milwaukee Monster’s victims have spoken out against the show, with eldest sister of Errol Lindsey, Rita Isbell, stating that ‘it felt like reliving it all over again’.
Isbell was not contacted by Netflix prior to their use of her likeness and exact words of her impact statement. She told the Hollywood Reporter:
“I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
Isbell’s statement to the Hollywood Reporter asks the very question that I had in mind when I began this article - why make this show?
I decided that before I criticised the show, I would watch it myself. However, as I watched, I noticed it had many disgusting and distasteful elements.
While the explosions from family members are completely valid, they are personal to themselves and their family.
The nuclear fallout of Ryan Murphy’s new conquest perpetuates years of romanticisation of serial killers and ‘true crime’, and it is evident from the first frame.
Jeffrey Dahmer is portrayed by Emmy-Award-winning actor Evan Peters. Peters is perhaps best known for his role as Tate Langdon in American Horror Story.
In that role he played an antisocial, schizophrenic, school-shooting, murdering, rapist who is then ‘redeemed’ by saving his girlfriend from the Anti-Christ.
All very unrealistic, but this portrayal predates and sets the foundations for the romanticisation of such characters. A quick Twitter search for ‘Tate Langdon’ brings up horrifying results such as:
‘I would do anything for Tate Langdon I don’t fucking care’ and ‘I want him to carve his name into my skin and lick it up’.
Surely that is harrowing enough, but at least you can always remember that Tate Langdon is not, was not, and never will be real. Jeffrey Dahmer, however, very much is and was…
And yet, if you search about Evan Peters playing this character, you will get similar results about his appearance:
‘Jeffrey Dahmer is hot. I speak my truth!’
There are numerous issues we have to unpack from this. Firstly, the casting of Evan Peters clearly causes Dahmer to be romanticised, make him likeable, and feeds into ‘True Crime stan’ culture.
Of course, casting a well known actor brings viewership and the ‘click-factor’, but this is Ryan Murphy. The man that wrote Glee, American Horror Story, 9-1-1, and The Prom.
He doesn’t need to rely on big names for big views! I mean, look at The Prom, he could write anything he liked and it would become a hit.
This is not to discount Evan Peters’ performance. Peters was absolutely incredible in portraying Dahmer as a creep, in the simplest of terms.
I have a lot of respect for Peters as an actor and I commend his ability to make viewers’ skin crawl at the sight of him and on edge at the sound of his droning voice.
His physicalities and speech patterns are almost identical to that of the actual Dahmer. He has clearly put a great deal of effort into effectively portraying this man on screen.
However, romanticising murderers is a problem we’ve seen before
In another Netflix stunt, conventionally attractive Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’.
This casting choice creates the myth that Ted Bundy was an extremely attractive and charming man himself. He wasn’t.
Police have claimed that Bundy was so difficult to catch due to his ‘chameleon’ appearance - he was unremarkable, he looked like everyone else.
One Reddit user who claims to have met Bundy in real life actually describes him as ‘greasy-haired and unattractive’.
A phenomenon known as ‘hybristophilia’ is often blamed for the notions of attraction to serial killers, which would explain the love-letters and prison-marriages to killers such as Dahmer, Manson and Ramirez, but this clearly refers to obsessive cases.
The danger is that ordinary people are openly admitting their attraction to these individuals. So much so that it is almost becoming normalised.
If we know this is an issue and we are unanimously disgusted and repulsed by it, why do people continue to cast attractive young men as these killers?
Better yet, why fictionalise them at all?
Murphy’s ‘Dahmer’ makes blatant attempts to humanise the killer.
In the first (attempted) killing we see of Tracy Edwards, Jeffrey asks his victim ‘Why’s everyone always wanna leave me?’.
Instantly, we are supposed to be grabbed by this theme of abandonment that is seen again and again:
Dahmer’s absent parents, his mother literally abandoning him, even as far as social isolation due to his sexuality and ‘awkward’ nature.
Dahmer’s actions are consistently validated by Murphy because of this feeling of being ‘other’.
In the second episode, Murphy’s Dahmer expresses his wish to be honest about what he had done:
‘I’m gonna be honest, tell you everything I did. Only makes sense I do everything to put an end to it.’
It is portrayed as though he is heroic for doing this. As if he didn’t consciously and willingly commit these crimes. As if he is doing some kind of favour for telling the truth about the murders he obviously committed...
As if he is human.
Towards the beginning of the second episode, we see a child-version of Dahmer return home from school to discover his mother Joyce's attempted suicide.
Jeffrey calls the ambulance and we meet Dahmer’s father, who appears to dismiss Joyce’s suicide attempt as ‘acting’, creating the impression that he was cold and emotionally unavailable.
Throughout, we see Murphy’s numerous efforts to show external factors laying the foundations for Jeffrey’s acts.
Immediately after follows an extremely orchestrated scene in which Lionel and Joyce have an argument that is a prime example of this blame-shifting. It goes as follows:
Joyce: ‘You don’t spend any time with him!’
Lionel: ‘What about you, Joyce? With your drugs and cryin’ your eyes out every day?
Minutes later, we see his mother pull a knife on his father.
These ‘pills’ refer to a series of medications Joyce Dahmer (nee Flint) was taking during her pregnancy with Jeffrey.
The real Lionel Dahmer, in his novel detailing his son's crimes, wrote that Joyce suffered from ‘bouts of vertigo, extreme nausea, and a strange physical rigidness doctors couldn’t explain’.
As a result, Joyce was prescribed heavy doses of Phenobarbital and morphine. Phenobarbital is still prescribed today, and despite speculation from Lionel Dahmer, has never been scientifically linked to psychopathy, sociopathy, or murderous tendency in children or adults.
On a more realistic note, we do see where Dahmer’s knowledge of dissection and human anatomy stems from when he and his father are depicted dismembering, studying, and taxiderming roadkill.
This is a frequent motif throughout the series that plays into the ‘what if’ surrounding the killer.
We shift to a later time in his life where Dahmer is forced to move in with his grandmother.
He works for a butcher during this time, and is encouraged to mingle with other people, meet a ‘nice, Christian girl’ and settle down.
Tying into these themes of abandonment and a desire for permanence, Dahmer steals a mannequin from a clothing store and sleeps with it.
The act is so pathetic, and a clear cry for help and companionship that you almost can’t help but feel sorry for him - at this point, Dahmer had not killed anyone yet.
Murphy appears to have a psychopathic ambition to make the viewer root for Dahmer
When Konerak Sinthasomphone managed to escape from Dahmer’s apartment, capturing the attention of neighbour Glenda and arousing police presence, the soundtrack builds a suspense that seems less to taunt Dahmer and demonstrate these near misses, but to make the viewer want Dahmer to get away with it.
This cannot go unlinked to the likeability of Evan Peters, and it is worth recognising that Murphy obviously needs a hook, but to attempt to make people root for a killer? That’s low. Beyond low.
The aforementioned Glenda Cleveland wasn’t really Glenda Cleveland at all. Murphy merges the real Glenda - an across-street neighbour of Dahmer, and Pamela Bass who lived a few doors down and is seen to contact the police about Dahmer’s behaviour, and indeed Konerak.
This is first in a line of shocking dramatisations that demonstrate that Murphy’s true intent was not to showcase the massacres of the Milwaukee Monster, or give a voice to his victims, but to create a piece of horror fiction.
The scene where Dahmer gulps a bag of donated blood? Never happened. In reality, Dahmer did taste a small vial of blood but spat it out, disgusted.
Officers Balcerzak and Gabrish who attended Glenda’s call of concern regarding Konerak, did not actually receive the ‘Officer of the Year’ awards after being reinstated.
This was simply for shock value, and doesn’t even add anything to the story. In fact, Sinthasomphone’s family were not actually present at the hearing of their case against Dahmer for the sexual assault of their older son, Somsack, because they weren’t aware it was taking place.
If this show was about telling the stories of the victims, that would have been included.
But it's not, so it wasn't.
In fact, deaf victim Tony Hughes and Dahmer did not have a romantic relationship prior to Hughes’ murder.
In the show, Dahmer and Hughes meet in a gay club (alike his other victims) and begin a romantic relationship, with Dahmer going to great lengths to communicate with Hughes and seeming to show actual emotion and love.
We see that Hughes goes missing just after the return of the ‘don’t leave me’ motif, breaking his promise that he’d see the killer again soon.
The show gives the impression that Dahmer killed Tony later on account of breaking this promise, which again serves to humanise him as a ‘poor little boy’ who ‘just wanted company’.
The show skips over Hughes’ actual killing, and a moment’s lack of attention could have you believe that Tony’s disappearance was another factor pushing Dahmer further into his murder spree.
In reality, Dahmer killed Hughes the night they met, although some claim that the pair knew each other for two years prior.
A minute detail that actually holds major significance is the fact that Dahmer never actually wore his infamous aviators in court.
This was because he didn’t want to see the faces of his victims’ families. He didn't want to see the reality of his actions and consequences.
But what is the consequence of all this?
Consuming media that shifts blame here, there, and everywhere only allows us to consume repackaged recounts of murder.
I guarantee nobody would be sat, popcorn in lap, suspenseful as an actual murder unfolds before their eyes - you’d be horrified.
You should be horrified.
So why do we sit and watch it?
Because your favourite actor is in it? It’s entertaining? - It is supposed to be and it is manufactured to be, and if that isn’t the most dystopian and disgusting thing you can think of then there must be something wrong.
Creating and consuming True Crime media fictionalises and forgives actual actions in a way that desensitises us to the most heinous and inhuman of crimes.
The men and child that Dahmer murdered were not his only victims. Their families live on to be retraumatised by Murphy’s creation.
By watching and re-watching, praising, even making viral TikTok audios from the show, we are lining Murphy's pockets - not a penny is going to the victims.
To answer the question at the beginning of the article, why make this show? The answer, my friends, is very simple.
So when you next sit down to watch Netflix, when you settle in for the next instalment of ‘DAHMER’, remember that you are lucky - because for you, it isn’t real.