“The only way I’ll ever get a television series made about me is if I become a serial killer,” I told my wife sarcastically, as we started watching a new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” a dramatised retelling of the crimes of one of the world’s most infamous (and revolting) mass murderers.
“Do I need to be worried?” she replied.
We’d watched about 40 minutes of the first of 10 episodes, when we both decided we’d had enough.
An African American man had been lured to Dahmer’s dingy Milwaukee flat, where he’d been partially drugged, threatened with an enormous knife and forced to sit on a blood-stained bed, while awaiting his hideous fate. A huge blue, industrial vat sat ominously in the corner of the room and the atmosphere was oppressive, almost unbearable.
“I don’t think I am in the mood to sit through 10 episodes of this,” I remarked, at which point my wife nodded in agreement and we stopped watching and found something distinctly lighter to enjoy with our cups of tea and biscuits. (For the record it was “Julia” about the life of the famous American television chef Julia Child, an excellent show).
And then what did I do a couple of weeks later?
Undecided about what to watch while my wife gobbled up episodes of the Walking Dead – I can’t handle the tension of that show, nor the constant gargling sounds of zombies – I started watched the other Dahmer show, the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes”.
Based around previously unheard taped interviews with Dahmer and Wendy Patrickus, who was his defense attorney, the three part series travelled back and forward in time, cutting from grainy, homemade videos of Dahmer as a sweet, fair-headed child to those grisly scenes at the notorious Milwaukee apartment block as the barrels of human remains were carried down the stairs by crime scene investigators. In between we heard excerpts from the tapes in which Dahmer confesses his crimes and tries, unsuccessfully to explain his actions, and interviews with detectives, psychologists and former friends and neighbours.
There have been plenty more of these shows that have kept me mesmerised. I’ve watched dramatisation of the life of Ted Bundy (starring Zac Efron), a BBC series about London asphyxiator John Christie (played by Tim Roth) and another London killer Denis Nilsen (played to perfection by David Tennant) plus numerous documentary series about Richard Ramirez AKA The Night Stalker, David Berkowitz AKA The Son of Sam and. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.
I’ve also watched another Netflix documentary series about Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), while there’s another documentary series on my “must watch list” about the American serial killer Wayne Gacy ( who terrifyingly dressed up as a clown at children’s parties).
I don’t there is anything particular wrong or unusual about this viewing behaviour – I’m certainly, to calm my family and friends, not trying to pick up any tips. The truth of the matter is that everyone is part fascinating, revolted and intrigued by the “evil that men do” particularly of the psycopathic kind and especially when the monster looks like Dahmer: a normal, even somewhat handsome young man.
With 856 million hours of combined viewing and counting, The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been watched more than 95 million times from start to finish. Only Squid Game (1.65 billion hours) and Stranger Things Season 4 (1.35 billion) have been watched more.
Alongside the success of the dramatised series, the Jeffery Dahmer documentary series has also been a minor hit for Netflix, racking up millions of hours of viewing time.
No doubt Netflix executives must be delighted, though that might be tempered with the disappointment that there can be no second season. However, you can be certain someone at Netflix HQ is working on the next series and accompanying documentary about another sadistic mass murder.
While The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been lauded for its superb acting, disturbing and compelling storyline, and gritty realism, it seems to have emerged for no real purpose except gaudy entertainment. Dahmer was captured in 1992 and murdered in jail by a fellow inmate in 1994. Many would wish his name never be mentioned again.
But rather than forget about him and his reign of terror, Netflix has brought Dahmer’s vicious killing, dismembering and cannibalism spree back to live in vivid colour. In the process, their huge success has created fresh torment for the families of the 17 boys and young men who would have been alive today were it not for his unfathomable compulsions.
The same could be said for the documentary series though at least this provides fresh insights – these tapes have never been heard before – and gives the viewer a sense of the terrible impact his killing spree had on the Milwaukee community and the families of his victims.
(Incredibly, Dahmer could have been stopped after his very first killing – that of hitchhiker Stephen Hicks in 1978 when Dahmer was just 18 – had the police officer who stopped him to perform a drink driving test taken the time to look at what was in the garbage bags on the backseat, instead of believing Dahmer’s story that they contained animal remains).
Not surprisingly, the release of “Dahmer – Monster” has been met with rage, anger and disbelief by the family’s of his victims who were apparently not consulted about the making of the show, and which has reignited the grief they have had to live with for more than 30 years.
“It hurts. I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad. But you have to trust and pray and just keep going day by day,” said Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring male model, who was just 31 when Dahmer killed him.
The show’s writer Ian Brennan (who also wrote the hit musical series Glee) has defended his work as an “objective” portrayal, though professes amazement at its success:
“I think we show a human being. He’s monstrously human and he’s monstrously monstrous and that’s what we wanted to sort of unpack,” Brennan told news website Page Six at its premier
Also coming to its defense has been journalist Nancy Glass, the last person to interview Dahmer.
She perhaps gave the most telling and obvious reasons for the show’s success and many other similar shows”
“I know that that may seem bizarre, but I think it’s more about morbid curiosity than romanticism,” she told the New York Post.
One wonders what Dahmer himself would thought of a 10-episode dramatisation of his life and a three-part documentary series more than 30 years after his capture. Given his manifest inability to control his urges, it would be entirely plausible to think that he’d have “gotten off” on watching it all happen again. One can only but shudder at the thought.
“It was a compulsion. It became a compulsion,” he said in his last interview (watched 35 million times on YouTube).
In these interviews, Dahmer is softly spoken, articulate and appears highly intelligent. He also had a by all accounts happy childhood, and is described by his parents as a loving child, though one who took an interest at an early age in dead things.
Somehow this morphed into an obsession with the male human body, though why he then went on to murder, dismember, eat and preserve parts of his victims, even Dahmer cannot fathom.
Perhaps it this potential in everyone, to come apart at the seams, that drives our own fascination with true crime and violent killers.
No doubt Netflix and the other streaming platforms are well aware of this and have plenty more similar shows up their sleeves.