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.

“I’m just gonna make you my zombie”: DAHMER: MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Murphy and Brennan, Netflix, 2022)

This new docudrama (I can’t believe that’s a word) is quite a big deal in the highly respected academic discipline of Cannibal Studies. While many people think of Hannibal Lecter when the subject of cannibalism arises, in terms of contemporary culture (and therefore putting aside the Donner Party for now), Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, is a crucial figure, not least because he really existed, we know a lot about him, and we have a good understanding of what he did. Dahmer typifies the modern cannibal in that he seems so unremarkable; we have seen, and perhaps remarked at, his cool demeanour and the fact that he seemed like just an ordinary, everyday boy next door.

There have been a few Dahmer movies and documentaries, including some interesting interviews with the man himself, arranged in jail, before a fellow prisoner caved his head in with a metal bar. This new one has a pedigree though. First of all because it is presented by Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens, The Politician) and  Ryan Murphy, who signed a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018 and who brought us such enormous and terrifying hits as Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Horror Stories.

Monster – the Jeffrey Dahmer Story runs over ten episodes, released concurrently on September 21, 2022. The length alone (almost nine hours) makes it more comprehensive and immersive than the other treatments. It is also different to most serial killer / cannibal documentaries and films in that it is presented not from Dahmer’s point of view, but from that of those around him – the victims, but also the family and the neighbours (who had to put up with the appalling stench of death that always emanated from his rooms or apartments).

“We had one rule going into this from Ryan, that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.”

The first episode drops us into the main event – Dahmer in his Milwaukee apartment, trolling gay bars and offering young men and boys money to come home with him for a photo session, where he drugs them and attempts to turn them into love zombies by drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid into their brains. When this doesn’t work, he has sex with their corpses, and harvests their meat.

One man escapes and flags down the police, who arrest Dahmer. The series then turns back to his childhood, his parents’ messy divorce, and the isolation which left him free to hatch his murderous plots. Later, we meet some of his victims, and his neighbour Glenda Cleveland who repeatedly tried to notify the police and FBI of what she heard, saw and smelled, but was comprehensively ignored and even threatened for her interventions.

“What do you do in there? The smell, power tools going all hours of the night, I hear screaming coming from your apartment.”

Dahmer, threatened with eviction due to her complaints, offers her a sandwich, saying “I used to be a butcher. I made that just for you.” Glenda refuses to eat it, and we know why – it looks like a chicken sandwich (and probably is).

But our willing suspension of disbelief declares it human meat, which is not kosher in any religious tradition. He tells Glenda to “eat it!”

Most of this documentary is very true to the facts as we know them, but in any re-enactment, there will be gaps to fill in or characters that need to be heard, without filling the cast list with an unmanageable number of people to remember. So the sandwich was apparently a fact, but was not given to Glenda but to another neighbour, Pamela Bass, who thought he was a generous if shy young man, and admitted that she ended up eating it.

Glenda, played superbly by Niecy Nash (from Scream Queens and Claws), is a strong woman caught in one of those nightmares where you know there is horror, but no one will believe you.

She demands to know what is in the sandwich.

“It’s just meat… It’s like a, uh, pulled pork.”

This is a regular theme of cannibal texts: they remind us that humans are animals, and our flesh and organs are made of meat. It’s a popular meme on animal rights social media sites. This one shows the real Dahmer, in case you’ve forgotten what he looked like.

Dahmer was looking for love, but he was not willing to risk losing it, so he tried to conscript his victims as undead zombies or as corpses, skeletons, or just happy meals. He showed affection – he is seen lying with his corpses, holding their hands, preserving their body parts. He loved them in much the same way that farmers often claim to love their cattle, sheep, pigs, etc, just before putting them on the abattoir trucks.

Dahmer is played brilliantly by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men, Mare of Easttown), who looks a lot like Dahmer, but with a touch of the young Malcolm McDowell – imagine Clockwork Orange but with cannibalism. If you want to know what Dahmer might have looked like forty years after his arrest, check out McDowell in Antiviral.

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991, thirteen years during which the police had no clue about his serial murder spree and, some might say, didn’t care much, since most of the victims were people of colour. And this is the heart of this rendition of Dahmer’s story – he was protected by the racism and incompetence of the American justice system. Here was a clean-cut white man, and people of colour disappear without trace all the time, apparently, so the police did not bother him, while the judges treated him as just a naughty boy.  Glenda’s frantic calls were met with apathy or rudeness.

He kept getting away with everything – one of the most extraordinary moments is shown in flashback in episode 2. On May 27, 1991, Glenda Cleveland called the police to Dahmer’s apartment after her daughter, Sandra Smith, and her niece, Nicole Childress, found a bleeding, naked and incoherent boy on the street who was running from Dahmer. Dahmer appeared, white and polite, and told the police that the boy was his 19 years old boyfriend.

He said the boy was drunk and they had been in an argument, and so the cops helped him take the boy back to his apartment, had a quick look around, made homophobic remarks about AIDS, and left the boy there.

The boy was bleeding from a hole drilled in his skull. After the police left, he was dead within the hour. It was later discovered that the boy was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, Dahmer’s 13th victim. Incredibly, Dahmer was actually on parole for an earlier arrest for the molestation of another child, who was one of Konerak’s older brothers.

When Cleveland spotted Konerak’s photo in a missing person alert in the newspaper days later, she realised he was the young boy Dahmer had claimed was his boyfriend. She contacted the police and the FBI yet again, but they didn’t even return her call. Five of Dahmer’s seventeen murders, including that of Konerak, were carried out after Cleveland began contacting police. All but three of Dahmer’s victims were non-white.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a leader in the Civil Rights movement since the time of MLK, got involved in the case despite the urgings of some of his supporters, who didn’t think the movement should be linked to “a gay serial killer who eats people”. But as he says:

“I realised it was not just a gruesome horror show. It’s a metaphor for all the social ills that plague our nation. Bad policing, underserved communities, the low value we assign to our young Black and brown men, especially if they happen to be gay.”

The old profiling stereotypes no longer work, in fact never did. Dahmer was a serial killer who was ignored by the law for thirteen years, because he was white and male. In the Soviet Union at the same time, Andrei Chikatilo was killing and eating parts of over fifty women and children, ignored by the police force, because serial killing was considered impossible in the “workers’ paradise”. But those profiles still endure: a Black man on the street is instantly suspected of criminal intent, a white man, even Jeffrey Dahmer, is largely untouchable. In that sense, society dehumanises the poor, the coloured, the disabled, just as effectively as Dahmer did to his prey.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault observed, the world outside was a scary place filled with monsters up to the seventeeth century, and those monsters were thought to be probably criminals. But in modern times, the criminal is considered likely to be a monster. Ancient monsters were recognisable – usually grotesque and often hybrids of humans and other animals. But the contemporary monster looks, speaks and eats pretty much like the rest of us. Like Jeffrey Dahmer – the boy next door.

“He is pure evil” – the Jeffrey Dahmer interviews

Serial killers and/or cannibals don’t usually give interviews, probably at the insistence of their legal counsel, but after his arrest, and sentenced to 937 years behind bars, Jeffrey Dahmer was willing, even keen, to tell his story to whoever would listen.

Dahmer was arrested in 1991 after a killing spree that started in 1978 and took the lives of seventeen young men and boys. Serial killers are not so rare, particularly in the US, that they get worldwide attention, but Dahmer also readily admitted to eating parts of some of his victims, and the police found body parts in his fridge, apparently ready for the next meal. He quickly became known as “The Milwaukee Cannibal”. The media frenzy was awesome to behold.

In 1993, Dahmer sat down with Nancy Glass for an interview that was aired on Bill O’Reilly’s show Inside Edition. The segment (link below) was called

“INSIDE THE MIND OF JEFFREY DAHMER: SERIAL KILLER’S CHILLING JAILHOUSE INTERVIEW”.

O’Reilly introduced the segment by saying

“He is pure evil, but you’d never know it by looking at him.”

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The tools of true crime interviews are graphics, eerie music and a suitably horrified interviewer. This segment had all three, in spades.

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Dahmer, though, was calm and rational, answering each question fully and, apparently, as honestly as he could. He spoke of his “sexual fantasies of control, power, complete dominance” which became reality, and stated

“It’s a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. When you depersonalise another person and view them as just an object, an object for pleasure instead of a living, breathing human being, it seems to make it easier to do things you shouldn’t do.”

The cannibalism was “a way of making me feel that they were a part of me”.

Nancy Glass concluded that

Jeffrey Dahmer is intelligent and articulate. That is what makes him so frightening.”

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In February 1994, nine months before Dahmer was bashed to death in prison, Stone Phillips recorded an interview with Jeffrey and Lionel Dahmer (his Dad) who had just published a book on his side of the story. Phillips included excerpts from other interviews with Jeffrey’s father and, separately, his mother. This was shown on DATELINE, and later put together with some of the unaired footage into a TV movie (link below) called

“CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER”

Dahmer’s father spoke of Jeffrey’s trauma when he was two or three and suffered a double hernia, which can make the penis seem to disappear into the body.

“You know, the old Freudian castration complex might come to bear here… he was concerned about losing his penis. He asked his mother if he had lost it, if it had been cut off”

Which is what Jeffrey did to some of his victims later, so there just might be something to that.

Lionel added that, when he first saw Jeffrey after the arrest,

“He just looked very innocuous. He looked like an average person who couldn’t possibly do the things that he did”

Dahmer made several interesting admissions to Phillips

  • It was not about race (even though ten of his victims were African American): he said that race didn’t matter – his first two victims were white, the third was American Indian, the fourth and fifth were Hispanic. It was just their looks he was after.
  • The cannibalism “made me feel like they were a permanent part of me”. Also, he was curious as to what it would be like to eat human flesh.
  • He didn’t enjoy the killing. What he wanted was to create “living zombies” by drilling holes in their heads and pouring in muriatic acid or hot water, but it never worked.
  • Why? “I just wanted to have the person under my complete control, not having to consider their wishes, being able to keep them there as long as I wanted”.
  • He became a Christian in jail, because of material sent by his Dad, which (he said) proved that evolution was “a complete lie” which “cheapens life”.

Dahmer refused to blame his parents or education or society for his actions, but was happy to blame his formerly secular viewpoint:

“…if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour, to keep it within acceptable ranges?”

Dostoevsky felt the same way in Brothers Karamazov:

“…if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful even cannibalism.”

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JEFFREY DAHMER: MIND OF A MONSTER

A new documentary was released on May 25, 2020. This is not specifically an interview with Dahmer, although it uses the  transcripts of the lengthy (66 hours) of police interrogations, as well as speaking to cops, journalists, neighbours, his father and even a couple of victims who escaped. 

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

Most importantly, Dahmer was invisible to the society he lived in. Look at the descriptions of him above:

  • intelligent and articulate
  • polite and unnervingly normal
  • innocuous

Dahmer was not the terrifying ‘monster’ or ‘savage’ from beyond the borders of the polis. He looked and sounded just like one of us. His fantasies of control, power, complete dominance and his curiosity and appetite are driving forces of modern, capitalist societies. As, of course, is objectification of people and other animals for pleasure.

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