Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Milwaukee, 1960 – Portage, 1994) caused such an impact on American public opinion, his crimes were so heinous, that long before Dahmer (Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story) –the series created by Ryan Murphy for Netflix that does not leave the list of featured content on the platform a month after its premiere in September–, fiction had already noticed it.
Just months after Dahmer was arrested and accused of the murder of 17 men (with whom he later practiced necrophilia and cannibalism), the Los Angeles-based Iranian author Reza Abdoh premiered in 1991 the work The Law of Remains. ), which spoke of a murderer named Jeffrey, obviously inspired by Dahmer. In 1993, the first film about his life, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer, was released, a documentary about his trial was broadcast on television and the cannibal himself was interviewed on the CBS program Inside Edition (Dahmer was a gold mine for criminologists and fans of the dark for his willingness to speak without frills, justification or pity about his crimes or himself). In 1995, a year after dying in prison at the hands of an inmate, the thriller Copycat elevated him as one of the great monsters of the 20th century in the US. The protagonist, Sigourney Weaver, named him along with Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or the Boston Strangler in the middle of an investigation. Time did not need to put a halo of fascination and rest over him: Dahmer was a myth of evil from the very moment his name appeared in the media.
More than 30 years later, the fascination with Dahmer has been revived by a series divided among some enthusiastic critics (“everything is practically unbearable in Dahmer, because the viewer is both inside and outside the head of the murderer, as in the Capote’s classic [In cold blood], but going further, much further”, wrote Laura Fernández) and the understandable furious reactions of, at least, the sister of one of the victims, who considers that her enormous pain it has been converted into entertainment, aesthetics and spectacle.
In the middle of that dichotomy are, as always, the spectators. And many of them have approached Dahmer like someone who approaches The Paper House or The Squid Game: seeing a simple phenomenon and, on Halloween, the possibility of a great costume.
“There are several factors that influence the fascination that this type of serial killers have on the public,” explains Luis Borrás Roca, a psychiatrist specializing in Legal and Forensic Medicine and author of the book Spanish Serial Killers (JM Bosch, 2002). “The main reason is the fear of death, the idea that we ourselves can be a victim of someone similar. We feel identified with his victims and that leads us to try to understand the motives of his aggressor”. The specialist also points out that Dahmer’s case is especially rare: a sadistic, fetishist, necrophiliac and cannibalistic serial killer, and it is also a case very close in time. “Jack the Ripper, for example, was someone of a similar sadism, but we see him today as someone far away in time.”
Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer in a sequence from the Ryan Murphy series.
In the American media these days there is a warning about how inappropriate it is to dress up as Jeffrey Dahmer on Halloween. “Not the killer costume you should be wearing this Halloween,” exhorts a New York Post piece. Instagram users who posed dressed as Dahmer at different Halloween parties that are already celebrated in the United States have deleted their photos after the rain of criticism. Others, such as an American influencer, have complained that the platform deleted them, predictably after several complaints from other users. “I’m uploading the photo disguised as Dahmer again because the previous one was deleted,” he complained. “This costume has cost me a lot to suffer censorship.” She did not care: Instagram deleted her again. The complaints are especially notable and painful on the part of the families of the victims. Shirley Hughes, The mother of Tony Hughes, who died at the hands of Dahmer at the age of 17, has been one of the most vocal. “It’s already traumatic to see a hit series made about the killer, but much more so that people dress like him.”
Some big corporations are doing damage control. eBay, for example, has begun removing clothing or accessories sold as a “Jeffrey Dahmer costume,” in compliance with company policy (“Ads that promote, perpetuate, or glorify hate, violence or discrimination”, informs the company in its legal section on what it considers offensive material). But do not forget that Dahmer seemed (like so many other criminals) a normal guy: it is impossible to stop the sale of shirts, pants or glasses that remind him of him. It is very easy to find “Jeffrey Dahmer glasses” on the internet: although they are not allowed to be sold as such, the reference is present in reviews and comments of the product and leads any search engine to it.
“Grief is a very deep feeling,” Borrás argues, “but when the murderer becomes a kind of hero to that mourning, the family also feels humiliated, I daresay mistreated. Duels require, above all, calm. And such disturbing and public acts make it impossible”.
It has also been in the news recently that Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses are up for auction for $150,000. Not really: the glasses are currently owned by crime collector Taylor James. On his website, Cult Collectibles, there is an entire section dedicated to Dahmer with various objects already sold, such as his psychiatric report, the letters he received in prison, the diskette containing the trial documents or his Bible, valued at $6,000. The glasses, the most valuable object, are not directly for sale, but according to James himself, he declared to the tabloid website TMZ that he is open to hearing offers from that amount through the contact email on his website. He, he claims, bought the glasses from a man who worked at Dahmer’s father’s house,
Molly Ringwald as Shari, Jeffrey Dahmer’s stepmother, and Richard Jenkins as Lionel Dahmer, his father, in the series ‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’.©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection / Cordon Press
In any case, the phenomenon seems difficult to control. On TikTok, the murderer is a source of comedy: “What if Jeffrey Dahmer were Argentine?” asks a video with 350,000 likes. “What if Jeffrey Dahmer had a roommate?” asks another who exceeds two million likes. Another: “What if Jeffrey Dahmer hooked up with an Arab?” And another: “What if Eminem went to Jeffrey Dahmer’s house?” YouTuber DuB Bridges, with almost 1.4 million followers, has been the latest to be criticized for posting a parody video in which he lived “like Jeffrey Dahmer” for an entire day. In his next video, called “So I’ve Been Cancelled,” he acknowledges that he didn’t know who Dahmer was until he saw the first episode of the series.
The phenomenon is not exclusively American: in a nightclub in Aix en Provence, on the Côte d’Azur, the Complex club, a Jeffrey Dahmer-themed party is announced for Halloween. From the club they have denounced that the owner has received death threats since the event was publicized. Given that they post screenshots of the criticism on their own Facebook page and respond to it not exactly with contention, they seem delighted with the publicity.
It is not the first time that Dahmer sneaks into the most inoffensive popular culture. In Katy Perry’s song Dark Horse (2013), rapper Juicy J. includes the following lines about a woman: “She’s a beast / I call her Karma / She’ll eat your heart like Jeffrey Dahmer.” The theme was number one in the United States and one of the most successful of the decade. Another seemingly innocuous singer who is ready for radio formula, Kesha, included a reference to Dahmer in her song Cannibal (2010). “Use your finger to stir my tea / By post, I’ll suck your teeth / If you’re too sweet, you’ll disappear / I’ll do Jeffrey Dahmer with you.” The song wasn’t as big a hit as Perry’s (it didn’t make it past ’77 in the US). The controversy, as so often happens, took years to arrive. It wasn’t until the release of Dahmer that many seemed to remember that Dahmer was mentioned in two of their favorite pop songs. A jocular comment on the Dark Horse video reads “guys, did it take you nine years and a Netflix series to figure it out?”. It has 37,000 likes.
None of the six Dark Horse writers have said anything about it yet. Of the four of Cannibal, one: Kesha’s mother, regular co-author of his songs. In a TikTok video, he explains that the reference to Dahmer was suggested by software called Masterwriter, which is advertised as a tool for composers and in which typing a word suggests possible rhymes. “Kesha and the other songwriters were too young to know who Jeffrey Dahmer was,” she stated. “When we were looking for a word to rhyme with goner, the show suggested Jeffrey Dahmer. And I thought: ‘It’s perfect’. There are more examples: Siouxsie and the Banshees have a song about Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. And Jane’s Addiction has one about Ted Bundy (with which Netflix also dared and to whom Zac Efron gave video.
Despite the emphasis Ryan Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan have placed on not glorifying the killer and honoring the victims, despite the way the series makes it clear that an endemically racist and homophobic policing system consistently ignored the signs that might have led to to arrest the criminal much sooner, Dahmer has taken on a life of its own in the hands of the spectators that makes it problematic: where awareness and reflection should be raised, there seems to be only fascination, a Dahmer revalued as an icon of horrors. And that he is played by Evan Peters, a well-known actor from the Murphy factory and erotic idol for a generation, does not help. As The Take asked in an analysis: “What happens when you do a cinematic portrait of a monster with a beloved actor from High School Musical?” [referring to Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy]. Well, for many unrelated to the real case, but familiar with Murphy’s colorful and baroque work, this becomes another installment in his chronicle of the horrors of contemporary America. Like it was another season of American Horror Story. Another Halloween special. It was special, but not in that way.