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.”
“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.