“In heaven’s name, why are you walking away? Hang on! To your love!” Soaked in the neon pink and blue lighting of a gay bar, a very drunk Jeffrey Dahmer jerkily dances to Sade, holding his whiskey and Coke high, the light reflecting off his glasses (the most famous killer glasses, rivaled only perhaps by Jim Jones’s sunglasses). This, along with several other Dahmer gay bar-prowling scenes, hooked me immediately to Netflix’s Dahmer–Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story.
It also made me reflect back on my other favorite Ryan Murphy-driven fictionalized true crime series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, in which pathological liar, queer world-maker, and spree killer Andrew Cunanan prowled bars—not for murder victims—but other people who he could convince of his imagined life, as the wealthy scion of a pineapple farmer and other assorted fairytales. Whatever it is about these scenes with Cunanan and Dahmer—the doom, the 80s/90s dance music, the killer partying—they’re like catnip to me. I typically hate the kind of lowest common denominator pap that Ryan Murphy peddles (Jessica Lange’s rendition of Lana’s “Gods and Monsters” and Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is a particular point of contention for me. And I was just horrified to learn there’s a Klaus Nomi-inspired character in the new season of American Horror Story). He typically takes subversive queer culture and twists it for the basest Middle American tastes. But his true crime dramas, particularly the gay true crime dramas, are remarkably different. They themselves are subversive.
Case in point: Dahmer–Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story, which features episodes directed by Doom Generation’s Gregg Araki and David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer Lynch, who seems to share her father’s affinity for ominous lamps. The spare terrifying soundtrack was scored by my beloved Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. That’s really all I need to hear. However, the show has found itself, along with Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, at the center of a social media shitstorm, with viewers debating whether it’s exploiting the victims or deserves to be labeled as LGBTQ on Netflix. Even Lionel Dahmer is supposedly considering suing Netflix for glamorizing his son. So in order to try to untangle the controversies and the show itself, I roped Filthy Dreams contributor and fellow true crime devotee, Alexandria Deters, into a chat about it:
Emily Colucci: Let’s start with the uproar first: A lot of people, on the Internet and off, have questioned exactly why we need more Dahmer content, if the show is yet another example of true crime’s exploitation of the victims and their families’ suffering, and whether we should, in fact, have true crime at all. While I certainly understand how families would be excruciatingly tired of Dahmer romanticism (rightfully so as I recently read an article about Dahmer’s glasses going up for auction (yuck!), I do think, despite its aggravatingly repetitive Dahmer-centric title, Monster is actually the most empathetic to the victims of any true crime fictionalization I’ve seen. How would you respond to the criticism lobbed at the show?
Alexandria Deters: I understand the criticism that has been thrown at the show, which is valid, especially from the families and friends of the victims. It’s the same criticism thrown at any film or television adaptation of true crime, particularly serial killer crimes. But in this case, I agree with you—the victims were depicted respectfully. I do wish, though, that they took a moment to give a glimpse of each of his victims, so that all of their lives could have been given attention, not just a handful and Dahmer. But truthfully, I learned more about the victims and the neighbors than I had in other films about Dahmer, including documentaries! For what the crimes were, I think Monster was done in an honest and less exploitative way, while still being “entertainment.”
In particular, one of the things that I often don’t like about dramatizations of serial killer crimes is that they tend to glorify the killer in some way. That they are somehow “special” and “attractive” (Zac Efron, I’m looking at you!). What I appreciated about this serial adaptation is that they made it very clear that Dahmer was not cool. While there were moments of empathy, I never thought: Wow, that guy! I can see it! He isn’t suave. Case in point: throughout the show, we see Dahmer dancing, weird and drunk by himself and in clubs. Most memorable was that cross-legged sit-on-the-ground hop number.
Emily: The trademark Dahmer moves! You’re right, though. In most other true crime shows, serial killers often appear as, for lack of a better word, cool in some way. Some renegade loner character. For instance, in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Cunanan, played by Darren Criss, comes off almost as a superhero—a self-made sociopathic man—and the show is his origin story. I mean, he was charismatic and fun at parties! Dahmer, as portrayed by Evan Peters, is, well, not that. Admittedly, some viewers seem to see Dahmer as exactly that, though, like one of my favorite comedians and podcasters Tim Dillon, who in last week’s episode, gushed about Dahmer much like I describe Cunanan as a prototypical anti-hero and a “gay coming-of-age story.” And, apparently, people are now tossing their panties at Lionel/daddy Dahmer’s house.
But for me, yelling at Grandma about your stolen sex mannequin is not going to win you popularity contests, Jeffrey! Neither is masturbating over fish guts or an apartment that smells, as Niecy Nash’s Glenda Cleveland perfectly articulates, “like a dead raccoon’s ass.”
My lingering thought about the series was not actually about Dahmer himself but the viscerally wrenching and overwhelmingly sweet portrayal of Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford), the deaf aspiring model who, at least in the show, made friends (and perhaps more) with Dahmer. A fatal error in judgment. On a more macro level, the show was effectively organized around the impact of Dahmer’s actions on the people around him: his parents, his grandmother, his neighbor Glenda, the victims, and their families. I think retelling the story in a way that focuses on these people has value.
Alexandria: I was listening to a podcast discussing Monster and they made a point I never really thought of before, even as an admitted true crime buff who listens, watches, and reads about various types of crimes. The retelling of these crimes is often to try to understand what made the person—the criminal—the way they were. Why did they do it? What can we do now to prevent this from happening again? With some cases, the underlying hope is to produce new leads to either solve the crime or help identify victims who can remain as Jane/John Doe for decades. This is the case with John Wayne Gacy—another serial killer who targeted young men. Five of the 33 known victims still have not been identified (anyone with new info can visit here). By continuing to reshare the case and the crimes, hopefully, the final five victims can be identified.
In regards to Dahmer, justice has *technically* been served and all the victims have (thankfully) been identified. Some argue that because of this, what’s the point of continuing to reshare these horrors? Besides entertainment?
Emily: I’ll be honest, I’m watching it mostly for entertainment and my own ghoulish fascinations. I’m the problem! But I do think, like all history—and this is history—there’s value to be gained in learning. For instance, Dahmer’s story gives a lot to chew on especially in terms of the egregious racist and homophobic-driven inefficiency–to the level of manslaughter in my mind–of the police that allowed these crimes to happen for so long. Dahmer…was not a very good serial killer. It’s only that the cops were just that damn bad!
Of course, the most enraging story is when the cops actually returned a naked and bleeding 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer, who claimed the child was his 19-year-old boyfriend, after Sinthasomphone was found by Glenda Cleveland who alerted the police. But, while this is certainly the most egregious example, the racism and homophobia from the cops didn’t end there. An earlier survivor who was drugged and taken back to Dahmer’s grandmother’s house tried to get the police to do something too, as did several neighbors who complained about the smell. For true crime lovers like us, I think it’s safe to say this is no surprise. The complete uselessness of the police seems to be a recurrent theme in true crime. For example, the Tate-LaBianca murders would have quickly been solved if LA’s numerous police departments had worked together. A whole lot of people knew it was Manson. There are many many more examples, which is again why I think we need true crime. To try to learn from these mistakes (though I suspect there’s no learning with policing, as we see in Dahmer–Monster when the cops who ignored Cleveland are not only reinstated to their positions but given awards).
Do you think the show portrayed the full uselessness of the cops?
Alexandria: Yes and no. They were able to portray for sure how horrible they were and how they continued, on multiple occasions, to not do the right thing, ignore obvious signs, and ignore citizens because of their race. The repeated phone calls by Glenda Cleveland regarding Konerak Sinthasomphone, who we all know now was a CHILD, made my heart break. I couldn’t understand on an emotional level how if someone is calling repeatedly, the police would just disregard them. It’s depressing because while it is better today than in the early 1990s in terms of interactions and reporting to police, this behavior is still all too common, especially for people of color. I think they did show how uncaring, racist, and homophobic cops can be.
I wish they gave more information at the end of the show about how much the two officers who ignored Glenda Cleveland’s calls were not affected in any way in their careers (they should have been fired). They both retired! It’s such bullshit. If we are in a time of cancel culture, can we cancel them, please?!
Emily: Canceling them or continuing to demand better policing seems like a better use of everyone’s time rather than howling into the abyss of the Internet at Monster.
That being said, Monster is undoubtedly brutal in parts. That first episode especially stuck with me. The primary action is an utterly relentless extended scene after Dahmer led Tracy Edwards, who would eventually escape, causing Dahmer to be discovered and arrested, into his smelly, stained apartment. That scene–Edwards remarking on the smell, the many locks on Dahmer’s door, Dahmer pulling a knife, Dahmer’s demands to watch The Exorcist III and asking, “Am I weird?”, Edwards crying in fear and trying to navigate an escape, Dahmer leaning against his chest and whispering he was going to eat Edwards’s heart–is pure, primal claustrophobic terror, from beginning to end. It reminded me of a Dennis Cooper novel, as well as The Assassination of Gianni Versace episode in which Cunanan kills David Madson and Jeff Trial. It’s extremely difficult to watch, but I think it subtly sets up the show’s prioritizing of the victims’ stories. I felt (and feared) deeply for Edwards in that scene. There’s no shortage of grisly scenes in the show–and yet I think they all had purpose rather than being just a celebration of carnage. Do you think the most brutal moments of the show were necessary?
Alexandria: Yes, it made me so uncomfortable that at times I even closed my eyes (and covered my ears)! It brought me to this place of horror, but not horror just for the sake of it. These scenes were brutal because what happened was brutal. Anything less would have been softening the truth. If anything, the scenes could have been much, much worse. Recently, Netflix released a multi-part documentary series on Dahmer, Conversations with a Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes. Hearing the full reality of the crimes on that series was absolutely horrifying—I really do not have another word. Watching the docuseries, I found out how disgusting Dahmer’s apartment was. He literally took a shower with a dead body. What the fuck?!
I think the documentary could have been stronger, though. So many details I already learned in other documentaries about Dahmer that this one fell a little flat. I was hoping to have more details about the victims or better yet, where is Dahmer’s brother? I can’t stop wondering where he is and what he is doing. I’m guessing he changed his name, but if they were able to get him in the docuseries, that would have been an achievement.
Did you watch Conversations with a Killer: Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes? Why do you think they chose to create a docuseries as well? Did you learn anything new?
Emily: Always be marketing! I’m sure they knew once we had a taste of Dahmer, we’d need more! And sadly, Netflix was right. I watched it too, though I thought, like most docuseries right now, it was pretty poorly and very obviously quickly done. It’s basically ID Channel-level schlock they’re releasing as docuseries on streaming networks now. The series felt pretty hashed together with a whole lot of lugubrious quotes from people involved with the case. I’ve watched some of Dahmer’s interviews with Stone Philips and he basically gives the same story to Philips as he did to that lawyer. It’s not exactly all that new, with exception of the showering with a deader and his, uh, preferred disposal methods. I don’t know that I needed that info. The only person I thought gave valuable insight was Michael Ross, the friend of many of Dahmer’s victims who added context to the gay scene in Milwaukee at the time.
You mentioned how disgusting Dahmer’s apartment was. While everyone else, quite rightly is fixated on the content, I was obsessing over the interiors in Monster! Everything seemed to be a kind of depressed beige Midwestern bleak. Nicotine-stained yellow walls. That dreary green fish tank in Dahmer’s apartment. And all those low-lit Lynchian lamps! Everything was lit so dark and grim, except some of the bar scenes. I’m thinking particularly of the–yet another extended–montage in which Dahmer dances drunkenly, lifts weights, talks to himself, and watches animal parts sizzle in acid, all to the minimalistic horror of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score. Are you going to redecorate your apartment after this?
Alexandria: Well, funny you should mention it. I was not inspired to redecorate, but for sure clean! Ugh, so gross. Besides being a serial killer, he was living a bachelor life, a very gross bachelor life. In Monster, people often complained about how bad his apartment smelled. Dahmer often gave the excuse that his meat was rotting in the fridge, he was cooking pork, or trying new ways to marinate meat. He also tries to give Glenda Cleveland a “pulled pork” sandwich. As a vegan, I have not been around meat, cooked, or eaten it in quite a while. I have to ask, as one of my meat-eating friends: is meat that gross? Is pulling pork literally gag-worthy? Is the smell of raw or old pork the smell of death?
Emily: Not that I know of, though I rarely cook pork—or much meat at all at home—nor do I eat people or keep deaders around the apartment!
Dahmer was used to collecting dead things though and I’m sure immune to the smell. I think of his childhood shed full of roadkill in yet another fictionalized representation of Dahmer: the film My Friend Dahmer, which traces his high school years based on the graphic novel of the same name. There is some overlap with Monster, including his roadkill obsession, drinking in school, and “Doing a Dahmer,” where he’d perform loud outbursts pretending to be intellectually disabled for laughs. “Doing a Dahmer” is responsible for the most memorable scene in the film that made me cry laughing, in which Dahmer abuses an entire mall full of people in this fashion, only in slo-mo set to tragic music. With Anne Heche (RIP) playing Dahmer’s mother in a full-throated overwrought camp fashion, My Friend Dahmer seemed, to me at least, almost like a John Waters movie. Of course, that means I liked it! Yet it certainly downplayed the abject horror of his serial killing since we only got a glimpse of it towards the end of the film. Monster more effectively created a link between Dahmer’s childhood and teenage behavior with what he would eventually become. Even the scene in which child Dahmer pours motor oil into a jar of tadpoles, which is, then, juxtaposed with his attempted lobotomies in the same episode. Do you think Dahmer’s younger years were portrayed well in the show?
Alexandria: I think it was portrayed really well—honest, uncomfortable. At times, I felt some sympathy, but nothing was depicted in a way that would be used as an argument or excuse for his horrendous crimes. Do I think taxidermy is weird? Personally, yes. Dead animals? No thanks. But if you like taxidermy and you have a parent that tries to channel your odd interest into something non-destructive, that seems like an understanding parent to me. If anything, the show reveals that Dahmer’s parents did care about him in their imperfect way, like all parents. Was his mom selfish and a little off? Of course, but a lot of people have parents like that. The fact that he has a younger brother that, for all we know, is living a lovely life shows that Dahmer was just born wrong. I personally believe some people are just born evil, are psychopaths, and have no empathy for others. They are completely narcissistic and their wants trump everyone else’s. When Dahmer stole the tadpoles back he gave to his teacher when he was about 8 and then watched them slowly die after pouring motor oil into their jar…I wanted to throw up. Just no conscience. Do you believe Dahmer was born evil?
Emily: I do. While clearly there were abandonment issues and neglect, it wasn’t anything that other people haven’t lived through and NOT become a zombie-making serial killer. I think of other serial killers like Richard Ramirez who had an abusive family and also was close to his cousin, a Vietnam vet who showed him grotesque photos of raped and murdered Vietnamese women and shot his wife in front of Richard. Not excusing Ramirez’s crimes, but I can see how someone would become warped in the face of this, with the addition of probably existing tendencies towards lack of empathy. But, Jeffrey, even he seems confused about his actions in interviews. It just seems like he was born that way.
On the subject of born this way, Netflix originally tagged Monster under its LGBTQ label. This, of course, bunched the panties of a whole lot of fuming Twitter warriors and Netflix subsequently removed it. To me, you can’t pick and choose representation! Dahmer cruising through gay bars and boogieing to Enigma cannot be anything else other than queer. Big question: Is Monster LGBTQ?
Alexandria: YES. I am sorry to burst people’s bubbles, but LGBTQ people can be criminals, even serial killers! I understand why people are upset—many people still think LGBTQ people are perverts and innately prone to crime. But Dahmer was a serial killer and he just happens to be gay. His sexuality is integral to his crimes. This is not a criminal who did crimes like carjacking or tax fraud, which has nothing to do with his sexual preference. He was gay and a psychopath who hated himself. He was also completely a necrophiliac—I think it was about possession and stillness for him.
I will say, though, the music was pretty awesome that they chose for the gay club scenes. It certainly captured the time and to be honest, it made me want to dance (sometimes). If Netflix came out with a special Dahmer soundtrack, would you buy it? What song do you think would be the runaway hit?
Emily: Well, there is a soundtrack of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score for the show and yes, I have added that to my 36-hour-long Nick Cave playlist. But in terms of the songs, I think the runaway hit has to be the sex mannequin anthem: KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go.” I actually recently saw KC and The Sunshine Band open for The B-52s and they played that song! It’s a good thing too because I was ready to shout out repeated requests: “Do the Dahmer song!”
Speaking of Nick and Warren, as a super-fan, I believe I know exactly what scene Ryan Murphy sent Nick to convince him to contribute to the show: the intermixed montage of Dahmer’s prison baptism and John Wayne Gacy’s execution by lethal injection, all set under an eclipse. The death penalty, murder, old-time prison religion, absolution, a solar event–Man, it’s like an old-school Bad Seeds song! It is true that the baptism, execution, and eclipse all happened on the same day yet it does feel curious that they included Gacy in the show toward the final episodes.
What do you think Gacy represents within Dahmer’s story? Are you as inspired by prison baptism as I am?
Alexandria: That baptismal dress was something special, to say the least! Very… saintly (HA!). Gacy is another person who murdered and is considered a “gay” killer, but the way they responded after being caught, the nature of the crimes, and the sentencing were vastly different. To be honest, I am not sure what he represents other than watching him die while Dahmer is being “reborn.” Maybe it is the debate about the death penalty. In one of the final episodes, Glenda Cleveland is at lunch at work when a colleague mentions the Gacy execution coming up and remarks to herself how he deserves to be put to death–that he is the worst of the worst. Cleveland snaps (rightfully so), that no, the worst of the worse is her NEIGHBOR aka Dahmer. Unlike Gacy, though, Dahmer is not sentenced to death (the death penalty is not used in Wisconsin). Just like with the recent Parkland trial, which concluded this month with a sentence of life in prison rather than death: if criminal LIKE THAT doesn’t deserve death, who does? I think for certain crimes that are unrefuted and it is unquestionable without a doubt who the perpetrator of that crime(s) is, death can be an appropriate sentence. What do you think?
Emily: I’m not very passionate about the death penalty as an issue, but I’ll be honest, at the point where Dahmer was beaten to death in prison, I was basically jumping for joy. Not only due to his murders and general disgustingness, but he was so goddamn annoying in prison! It’s one thing to be a grotesque serial killer who eats people and fucks the dead, but it’s another to be that much of a nuisance, putting food on other inmates’ chairs, making loud comments about meat being similar to human meat, bragging about deranged fan letters. Irritating. It was time for him to GO. Were you as thrilled as I was by Christopher Scarver taking things into his own hands?
Alexandria: YES YES YES! I didn’t cheer, but I felt at least some justice was done. He was being such an asshole in prison, acting like he was a celebrity. He loved it! He did not deserve to have any sort of happiness. That sounds harsh, but his life did not add anything to our world. He confessed and he explained the best he could why he did what he did, but he didn’t have real remorse. I personally wish he was sentenced to death, like John Wayne Gacy. Maybe Gacy’s appearance means they’re setting up for a Gacy series. If that is the case, would you watch a Gacy show?
Emily: Of course, I’d watch that. And would be excited about the 1970s clown-themed soundtrack. My song choice? Grace Jones’s version of “Send in the Clowns.”