“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.

Issei Sagawa: THE CANNIBAL THAT WALKED FREE (Toby Dye, 2007)

The Cannibal that Walked Free (AKA Cannibal Superstar) is a British documentary produced by Visual Voodoo for Channel Five which explores the case of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. It uses dialogues with police and psychiatrists and, most intriguingly, extensive interviews with the cannibal himself.

Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over two days.

The mellow voice of the narrator, Struan Rodger (Chariots of Fire), announces:

“This man murdered and ate a woman in Paris… he has never stood trial. Today he walks the Tokyo streets a free man, a free man with an ongoing appetite for human flesh.”

Around midnight on June 13 1981, 32 year old the Japanese exchange student, Issei Sagawa, emerged from his apartment at 10 Rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement of Paris with two large suitcases, hailed a taxi and travelled the short distance to the Bois de Boulogne. His hopes that the park would be empty at night were in vain, and several witnesses saw this 4’9” (145cm) smartly dressed Asian man trying to drag two large suitcases to the lake. Worn out (and probably full of meat), Sagawa fell asleep on a bench and woke to find an old man opening one of the cases. When the old man began to scream, Sagawa walked calmly away.

The police found that someone had removed flesh from parts of the body. During the autopsy, they discovered there had been post mortem sexual intercourse – necrophilia.

Within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator, they found a large quantity of human flesh.

On the table was a plate with pieces of cooked human flesh, condiments and mustard.

The case was reported globally with the press expressing horror and disbelief. Patrick Duval, Author Le Japonais Cannibal interviewed Sagawa for several hours.

Sagawa said that the feelings began when he was very young: “I was very weak, very ugly, like a small monkey.” He described as an important memory from his childhood a game in which his uncle would play a ravenous cannibal, out to gobble up Issei and his brother.

As he grew up, he felt unable to attract the kind of women that he desired:

“Object of my desire is definitely the white girl, beautiful blonde hair, blue eyes.”

Jean-Pierre Van Geirt – a journalist from Paris Match, said “Sagawa was deeply in love with Renée, and his love was so mad that he thought the most he could love her was to eat her.”

Sagawa had invited the young student to his apartment to discuss literature. He said he asked Renée to read a German language poem he had chosen, a poem about cannibalism, and that she was unaware that he was standing behind her, holding a rifle. He shot her in the back of the neck.

“I had decided before that the first bite would be the buttocks. I was able to cut through the skin, I’m a fool so I didn’t have a clue about human body structure. I thought that red flesh would appear straight away but it wasn’t like that, and this layer that was like sweet corn just carried on for ages, however deep I cut through. I couldn’t reach with my knife so I ripped out the flesh with my fingers and put it in my mouth. After I had sex with her, I tried to kiss her I said out loud I love you, in French. And I felt a huge shiver.

He had a tape recording of the murder and a camera with which had recorded the stages of what he did to Renée after her death; police found both in his apartment after his arrest. He had also saved a good deal of her flesh in his fridge, before packing up her remains in two suitcases.

Just 34 months after his confession, Sagawa would be a free man.  Found to be insane and unfit to stand trial in France, his father employed an influential French lawyer who argued successfully that it was unfair for the French taxpayer to pay for indefinite confinement in a mental hospital, and that he should be sent back to Japan to be cured. Accordingly, less than three years after his confession, Sagawa was put on a plane and sent back to Japan. The only condition was that he could never come back to France. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.

The interviewers tracked down his psychiatric report: it said

“He was hung up by his height, not self-assured, over-sensitive and most of all emotionally cold and self-satisfied when he talked about the murder. Someone who is capable of feeling guilty wouldn’t commit such an act. You have to be completely devoid of some human emotions. Among which is the sharing of the universal taboo of cannibalism.”

The interviewer visited Sagawa’s Tokyo apartment where he lives under a false name and found him enjoying Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the second movement, popularised in the film Clockwork Orange. He claims that he wept for the victim’s family and for his family, who were devastated – his father lost his high-powered job, his mother attempted suicide.

Despite his alleged distress, in the mid-1980s he wrote a book “In the Fog”, against the express wishes of both his and Renée’s family. It is the story of his crime, written from his perspective. It sold out. He wrote a further 19 books about his crime, became a columnist in magazines, joined a symposium at a Japanese university and appeared in two stage shows, finally appearing in torture porn, including recreations of his crime, using tall, Western actresses.

Under his false name, he told the interviewer, he meets up with Western sex workers.

“My final desire is just the same – when I see all the beautiful girls’ legs, I want to eat. So I’m not cured at all.
But now, I’m not interested in at all the white women. I hate them. I found that Japanese women are the most beautiful in the world.”

Sagawa now feels the urge to cannibalise young Japanese women.

At the programme’s request, Sagawa agreed to attend his first psychiatric assessment in over ten years. In the documentary, he tells the Criminal Psychiatrist, Dr Susumu Oda:

“My libido and appetite are connected. This is very important. For instance, you see the beautiful girls on the train in summer, and you see their legs, don’t you. I think they look delicious.”

He says that he masturbates to make his feelings disappear.

Oda reported:

“A child suckles on his mother’s breast. A child survives eating breasts. So it is not that strange that a child would want to eat something he loves.”

Sagawa was small, weak and spoiled, so he never learnt to suppress those desires.

“Deep down, he doesn’t regret what he has done. He has a tendency to slowly turn the other person into an object. I think this is very dangerous.”  

The doctor’s conclusion:

Freud maintained that there are two “pregenital” forms of sexual organisation in very young children not yet predominantly motivated by their genital zones. The first of these he called “oral-sadistic” or “cannibalistic”, in which sexual activity is not separated from ingestion (the second was “sadistic-anal”), and he suggested that these were “harking back to early animal forms of life”. In this “cannibalistic” stage, “the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Sagawa wanted to eat his ideal woman, and he made a particular point of eating her breasts.

“Too Much Blood”, a song on the Rolling Stones‘ 1983 album Undercover, is about Sagawa and violence in the media. His crime also inspired the Stranglers‘ 1981 song “La Folie”. The Noise Black Metal band Gnaw Their Tongues released an EP titled Issei Sagawa in 2006.

The documentary is available in full on Youtube at the time of writing. The link is at the top of this blog.

A more recent look at Sagawa is the 2017 documentary Caniba.

Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.