Conversations with a Killer: THE JEFFREY DAHMER TAPES (Netflix 2022)

It’s definitely Dahmer month, with Netflix releasing this second blockbuster series on October 7, less than three weeks after Ryan Murphy’s ten-part series “Monster”.

The massive interest in Jeffrey Dahmer has been simmering since he was arrested in 1991, but it burst into a conflagration on September 21 2022 with the release of Ryan Murphy’s new documentary MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. This re-enactment, with Evan Peters playing Dahmer, became number one on the Netflix hit parade immediately. According to The New Yorker, as soon as it was released on September 21st, “Dahmer” became far and away the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and its biggest-ever series début, despite receiving little advance marketing. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours watching the program in its first week of release—more than three times as many hours as Netflix’s next most popular series. There’s even a walking tour in Milwaukee in the footsteps of Jeffrey Dahmer.

My earlier blogs on the Dahmer movie with Jeremy Renner as the killer, and the documentaries showing the real Jeffrey Dahmer being interviewed for news shows, are getting hundreds of hits each week (thank you!), in this new era of Dahmer-mania.  Family members of Dahmer’s victims are speaking out against the “Monster” series, saying it forces them to relive the traumatic events and personalises Dahmer, and even complaining about a Kesha song from 2010 which mentioned Dahmer. Nevertheless, Netflix has now released (October 7) a new series of Conversations with a Killer, this time using some previously unreleased tape-recorded interviews of Dahmer himself and his defence team, including his lawyer Wendy Patrickus, during his high-profile case. It was her first case, and she said, “I felt like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.” She spent months talking to Dahmer about each victim, preparing a defence which could only be based on an insanity plea, since there was a mountain of evidence against him, and he had already confessed everything to the police. Wendy’s DAHMER TAPES cover 32 hours of conversations held from July to October 1991. These tapes were never previously released – and are the basis of this three-part series.

This three-part true crime documentary is the third in a series from Academy Award nominee Producer/Director Joe Berlinger, whose earlier “Conversations with…” covered The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) and The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022). Bundy and Gacy were prolific serial killers but, as far as we know, were not cannibals (although an English tabloid suggested Bundy might have had a few mouthfuls).

This is the Netflix summary of the Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes series:

When Milwaukee police entered the apartment of 31-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991, they weren’t prepared for what they’d find. From a freezer full of human heads to decomposing body parts, the discovery amounted to the grisly personal museum of a sadistic killer. Dahmer quickly confessed to sixteen murders in Wisconsin over the span of four years, plus another murder in Ohio — but the most shocking revelation involved acts of necrophilia and cannibalism…. Why was Dahmer, who had been convicted of sexual assault of a minor in 1988, able to avoid suspicion and detection from police as he stalked Milwaukee’s gay scene for victims, many of whom were people of color?

Like the previous movies and documentaries and even the interviews with Dahmer himself and his family, the question that keeps being raised is why he did these things? Earlier texts concentrate on the psychopathy of the man himself, skirting the politics, while Murphy’s series, and this new documentary, spend more time on the ineptitude and racist privilege that seemingly kept delivering him get-out-of-jail-free cards.

“It [cannibalism] made me feel like they were a permanent part of me.”

This new release sheds much heat but very little new light onto that question. Dahmer has already told interviewers that he just wanted to possess the young men and boys who came to his home under the pretence of taking photos for money, keep them with him, without the complications of building actual reciprocal relationships. He lured them to his apartment, drugged them and then killed them or drilled holes into their skulls and injected muriatic (hydrochloric) acid. He wanted to turn them into zombies, with no will of their own, who would stay with him and be available for sex whenever he wanted. He tells his lawyers all this on the scratchy recordings that assail our ears here. The interviews are accompanied by blurry re-enactments of the prison interviews by actors dressed as Jeff and Wendy, and interspersed with contemporary interviews of the actual journalists, police, lawyers, psychiatrists, friends of the killer and the victims, all noticeably older and still in many cases clearly distressed by their involvement in the case. There are images of his victims, of the saws and drills he used, home movies of him as a (pretty happy and normal) child, as a teen, as a prisoner. There is news footage, from outside the building, of stunned crowds and news reporters doing what they do – repeating the few snippets of information they have, over and over.

But there seems to be a lot more that is alluded to but not fully analysed in both of these new Netflix releases. In flashbacks in the Monster series, and in the “conversations”, we see things like Jeff impaling worms on his hooks with his Dad, saying “ouch!” as they pretend to empathise with the animals’ suffering. We see him as a little boy examining a dead marsupial that, his Dad says, must have crept under the house to escape a predator, despite already having its skull crushed, indicating that brainless (zombie) life is feasible; Dad takes him on road trips to find and then dissect road kill. He tells a wide-eyed Jeff of the biology experiments (Dad was a chemist) in which frogs with most of their brain destroyed will still react to pain stimuli. We see him mock a vegetarian girl in biology class who doesn’t want to dissect a piglet, and later find him torturing small animals including neighbourhood dogs and cats, actions which are strikingly common in the personal histories of serial killers. Dahmer tells the lawyer:

“I didn’t seem to have the normal feelings of empathy.”

Insensitivity to animals (human or otherwise) can snowball. Killing and eating the other has always been the ultimate symbol of domination. Humans have probably done it to enemies for millennia, and psychologists tell us that industrial society since the late nineteenth century has undermined the formation of stable identities through technology-based isolation, mass mediated representations of cultural interactions, the conversion of all human relationships into fiscal transactions and the disintegration of communities. Mass-murderers and particularly cannibals like Dahmer, Fish, Meiwes or Sagawa could not have operated so freely in communities where people more intimately knew their fellow citizens’ daily movements and actions.

But such social and cultural changes affect us all, and we are not all cannibals (at least, not at this historical moment). There is more to it; the borderline pathology formed by modern life has to be ignited into violent action by an often (seemingly minor) inciting incident – Meiwes watched pigs being butchered, Sagawa recalled his uncle, who regularly played cannibalism games. Many cannibals, like many murderers, start their abuse with the objectification of other animals, as did Dahmer. Vincenzo Verzeni, who was arrested in 1871 on suspicion of killing up to twenty women, put his sexual obsession with killing and drinking blood down to the pleasure he had experienced wringing the necks of chickens when he was twelve years old. Jeffrey Dahmer had hidden his sexuality from his disapproving family for so long that he no longer wanted the gay sex that was becoming available in the 1980s – he wanted to sate his appetites without having to satisfy his partners. Sleeping pills, easily obtained due to his work as a night-shift operator at a chocolate factory, meant that he could put them to sleep and do whatever he felt like.

“I could just lay around with them, without feeling pressure to do anything they wanted to do. They wouldn’t make any demands on me. I could just enjoy them the way I wanted to.”

The men he chose were in many cases ready to have casual sex, but that was not enough. He wanted permanent relationships, but only he was to benefit. From drugs, he moved to experiments aimed at creating compliant, subservient zombies. Of course, this didn’t work, so he did the next best thing, killing them, keeping their body parts, eating their flesh so they would be a part of him.

Dahmer had learnt to ignore suffering in his fishing expeditions, at his father’s dissection table, and of course in the kitchen, where we all watch pieces of meat being prepared, our childish minds wrestling with the dawning knowledge that these were the same living, breathing, suffering animals we saw on farms, or whose representations we enjoyed in our toy-boxes or television shows.

One psychiatrist has opined that Dahmer struggled with both borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, and therefore suffered “great confusion about what’s real and what isn’t”. There is some evidence that Dahmer couldn’t live with what he’d done, or couldn’t live without doing it any more, offering to admit to a crime he didn’t commit (the murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh) if it would get him the electric chair in Florida.

The Dahmer legend continues to grow, despite it being over thirty years since his arrest. How unique is his story? The police investigators called for a manifest of missing persons, trying to establish the identities of the remains found in Dahmer’s apartment. In episode 2, the detective says they were getting 300 calls every day from people looking for their lost loved ones, and wondering if they had ended up in Dahmer’s abattoir. Where do all these missing people go? Is it possible that there are more successful cannibals out there, busily eating the evidence, not raising the suspicions of their neighbours, and not getting caught?

In a world where humans routinely and legally do to other sentient beings what Dahmer did to his victims, it may be that the cannibal is just less tolerant of ambiguity, and when taught that the ‘other’ can be casually and ruthlessly collected, kept captive, killed and eaten, he (or occasionally she) just takes that to its logical conclusion. Interestingly, PETA is already getting feedback about that.

This documentary does not offer any revelations to those of us who already know a lot (too much?) about this case. But it lays it all out in sequence, explained by those who were involved – the police, the journalists, the doctors, and most of all Dahmer himself on the tapes. His voice is that of a witness, trying to explain what he does not understand. He killed and ate people not because he was some uncanny monster, but for the same reason anyone eats anything: because he wanted to, and he could. The jury in his case were adamant that Dahmer was sane.

What does it mean, to say that a person is sane, and how is a jury of non-experts to decide that? In episode 2, the forensic psychiatrist for the Defence, Fred Berlin, says:

“If a man who is preoccupied with having sex with corpses, if a man who is drilling holes in the heads of human beings to try to keep them alive in a zombie-like state doesn’t have a psychiatric disorder, then I don’t know what we mean by psychiatric disease. How many people does someone have to eat in Milwaukee before they think you have a mental disease?

Dahmer comes across as the picture of the civilised male subject, fully initiated into the symbolic order. As the Milwaukee journalist who was first to report the case, Jeff Fleming, put it:

“The danger could be someone who looks just like your next door neighbour. He passed on the street as a very normal person. He didn’t look scary.”

Dahmer’s comment:

“My desires were bestial, obviously.”

Or were they just, as Nietzsche said, “Human, all too human”? In the book Enemies, a Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer says:

“…in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.”

But what we see in factory farms is not the hatred and the wish to exterminate that motivated the Nazis. Animal agriculture corporations often tell us that they “love” their animals, just as Dahmer loved his men and boys, and wanted to enjoy them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in our behaviour to animals, all men are Dahmer.

Cannibal comedy: THE IT CROWD (2007)

The IT Crowd is a British comedy series about a couple of socially inept geeks who are employed as computer support in a fancy corporation. They are Moss – Richard Ayoade (Travel Man) and Roy – Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Girls), and their manager Jen – Katherine Parkinson (Doc Martin, Humans). It is a hilarious study of the absurdity of ‘normal’ interrelationships, portrayed through the eyes of the social outsiders. Moss and Roy are great with computers, but clueless with humans.

In Season 2 Episode 3, they realise their dependence on each other’s company has made them seem like ‘an old married couple’, so Moss decides to get out and see other people. He signs up for what he believes is a course of German cooking. But the cook is Johann (Philip Rham, who played a Death Eater in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Moss goes to see Johann, who is based on the Rotenburg Cannibal Armin Meiwes, who is hoping to cook him.

Johann has placed an ad saying “I want to cook with you.” This is roughly parallel to Armin Meiwes, who was a German computer technician and “vorephile” (a person with a sexual fetish for eating, or being eaten by, another human). He advertised in 2001 on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. The only reply that seemed sincere was from a man named Jürgen Brandes, whom he killed (or at least assisted to suicide) and then ate over several months. Like Meiwes, Johann wants a volunteer – he is into homicide, but not murder.

Moss is amused to discover the misunderstanding.

Johann is very disappointed, because he really wants a volunteer. This is exactly what happened with Armin Meiwes, who had interviewed several men before finally finding one who was actually willing to be killed and eaten. In one of the great lines from any cannibal show, Moss reflects

Roy is impressed with the story Moss tells at work next day.

Jen demands to know why Moss didn’t call the police, because

Moss is right; surprisingly it’s only illegal if it is done without consent in most jurisdictions. The legal problems arise with the slaughter before the eating. Then Roy decides he wants to consent, just so he can watch a pirated movie on Johann’s big-screen TV.

It’s a hilarious episode, particularly if you are an aficionado of cannibal studies. When the cops arrive, it’s not to arrest the cannibal, but to nab Roy and Moss for video piracy.

Cannibalism is usually classified as horror, but is often recategorised to comedy. The serial killers like Dahmer and Chikatilo are rarely considered humorous, although the light-hearted TV series Rake started off with its own interpretation of the Meiwes case. But the ‘savage’ with the grass skirt and the bone through his nose has been fair game for comedians since the earliest movies like Be My King (1928) and Windbag the Sailor (1936) as well as cartoons like Jungle Jitters and television shows like Gilligan’s Island. Cartoons are full of ‘savage’ cannibals, despite anthropologists having long since relinquished the colonial belief that all colonised peoples are people-eaters.

http://bizarrocomic.blogspot.com.au/2010_09_01_archive.html

Cannibalism is useful as a humorous allegory for the limit of civil behaviour. When comedian Jon Stewart was asked by Late Show host Stephen Colbert to say something nice about President Donald Trump, he hesitated and eventually blurted “Donald Trump – is not – a cannibal”.

Colbert followed this up a year later suggesting Trump eats human flesh, but only “it’s very well done with some ketchup”. Essayist Katha Pollitt wrote in the subsequent election year that getting rid of Trump was so important that she would “vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them”, a reference to the Sicilian tyrant Falaride who, Ateneo reported, “boiled babies and ate them” and even ate his own children, according to Aristotle. Cannibalism is an ideal hook for humour, because it is the extreme example of carnivorous virility and often encapsulates abuse of power.

What we find outrageous and therefore humorous about the Armin Meiwes case is not his appetite for human flesh, but the fact that his victim volunteered and even encouraged him to fulfil the agreement. But isn’t that what we all do when we cede our power to corrupt or inept leaders? Perhaps we are laughing at ourselves.

Cannibal movies for your Halloween enjoyment (or any time, really)

Remember when the scariest thing on the screen was cannibalism? Ah, the good old days…

The link above covers some of the many cannibal movies I have reviewed. All of them have in common that they ask the most important question of 21st century ethics (IMHO):

Also, how do cannibals maintain social distancing?

The first cannibal film was made in Australia? “The Devil’s Playground” (Bindley, 1928)

We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.

Chief2
Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).

Image result for tarzan johnny weissmuller
Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.

This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):

Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.

Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in
black-face!

Painted savages

The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!

“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”

“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”

The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.

Attacking the grog shop
The cannibals attack the grog shop!

Hero
The noble hero

The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.

Navy
The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny

Bull-whip
Bull whips Naneena!

Bull whipped
Naneena whips Bull!

But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?

At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!

Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – the devil’s playground”.

 

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The American Nightmare: “Dahmer” (Jacobson, 2002)

DVD cover

Dahmer is a 2002 American semi-biographical film starring Jeremy Renner as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who drugged and killed at least 17 men and boys, and ate parts of some of them, giving him the title in the popular press after his arrest of “The Milwaukee Cannibal. Dahmer (the man, not the movie) became perhaps the best-known modern real-life cannibal, not because he killed or ate more people than, for example, Andre Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, but perhaps because he did it in the belly of the beast, the consumer society of the USA.

The film shows two timelines; the story starts with a couple of days in the life of Dahmer before his arrest; the flashbacks show the evolution of his murderous career.

As the film begins, there are pools of – not blood – chocolate! Jeffrey Dahmer works in a candy factory in metropolitan Milwaukee. Enduring crippling shyness, partly due to his overbearing and intolerant father, he slips into alcohol abuse, drugs, and murder. In his flashbacks, he frequents gay clubs, but can only have sex with young men who have been rendered unconscious by mixing barbiturates into their drinks. Leaving a string of unconscious and sodomised men in the hourly rent rooms, he is caught by the barman, beaten and thrown out. The lesson he seems to draw: everything’s easier at home.

dahmerDahmer’s M.O. was to lure young men to his home, drug them with pills crushed into their rum and Coke, and then conduct experiments involving drilling holes in his their heads and pouring in acid, trying to create living zombies, partners who would never leave him. Cannibalism was a further attempt to achieve the same ends – rather than keeping their bodies with him, he hoped to keep their bodies inside him. Incorporation as love.

Although the script recreates actual events, the names of the victims were changed out of respect for the families. Some time is spent on the case of Khamtay, who is drugged and has a hole drilled in his head and acid injected into his brain. This really happened, except the young man was really a 14-year-old boy named Konerak Sinthasomphone. Like Khamtay in the film, he wandered out of the apartment while Dahmer was out buying booze, and was picked up by the police. When Dahmer came around the corner, he persuaded the police that the boy was his drunken boy-friend, and they helpfully delivered the child back to the apartment, where he was subsequently killed.

dahmer-knife

Dahmer received mixed reviews. It currently holds a 68% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Entertainment Weekly said “It lets you brush up against the humanity of a psycho, without making him any less psycho.” Most reviews, even those that did not like the film, praised the performance of Jeremy Renner. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow said that she cast Renner in The Hurt Locker because of his performance in Dahmer.

Chocolate, pooled, shaped and incorporated, is a continuing image throughout the film. Chocolate typifies our consumer fetishism: it is purely pleasurable (I keep hearing that the dark version is good for us, but my dentist disagrees). People love chocolate. The hypnotic pull of continuous, voracious and escalating consumption drives our society. When commodities run out, or try to escape, then incorporation, Dahmer argues, is the only solution. He cannot give up his nightly hunting sessions, even when he makes an emotional connection to a victim, any more than the rest of us can give up chocolate. Rejecting his family’s intolerant religiosity, he argues that he is not weird: “What’s weird is when you go to church and they make you eat Christ’s body and drink his blood”.

hqdefault
The band Macabre released an album in 2000 called “Dahmer”

There is remarkably little gore in the film and surprisingly no mention of what made Dahmer so famous: his cannibalism. The violence is mainly in Dahmer’s words. He projects his own pain onto his intended victims. His last intended victim, Rodney (whose name in real life was Tracy Edwards), offers real affection and the possibility of a loving relationship to Dahmer, who projects his own pain back onto this gentle young man.

“You’re pissed at everyone because you’re gay. Everyone laughs at you. Shits on you.”

Yet Rodney returns opposite, loving words: “You’re beautiful. You’re tall, you’re strong, but gentle. I always dreamed about somebody – just like that.” But Dahmer cannot accept love (also there is the problem of the corpse of Khamtay in his bedroom). He responds to Rodney: “I am a pervert. I am an exhibitionist. I am a masturbator. And a killer. Like you”.

Dahmer is the incarnation of Bataille’s “accursed share” – the segment of production that must and will be spent on sex, destruction, sacrifice.

The victim is a surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.

Yet there is no power in hidden destruction; power for the giver is in the obligation of the receiver to reciprocate. So Dahmer is driven by the need to be caught. Not because he wants to be stopped, but so that he can be celebrated. Rodney escapes, after Dahmer cannot go through with his attempt to strangle him. The real-life victim, Tracy, led the police back to Dahmer’s lair, where they found much more than they expected.

The real Jeffrey Dahmer was not celebrated either, although he did receive several offers of marriage while awaiting trial (from women who, like his father, seemed to have no understanding of his sexual preferences). In 1992, he was handed a 937 year sentence, subsequently became a born again Christian in prison, and then in 1994 had his head caved in by a fellow prisoner with a metal bar.

The killer told a prison guard “God told me to do it”.

Dahmer - made of meat
The real Jeffrey Dahmer, in a popular vegan meme

 

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