DAHMER | Systemic Failures and the Complexity of Our Zeitgeist
A significant part of contemporary television seriality provides insight into how the forms and content of television narratives today are working in a very distinct trend, having to do precisely with what can be identified as a mise-en-scène of the obscene (in this case the term is traced back to one of the origins of the word “obscene” that etymological science proposes. That is, as that which is “off-stage”).
Art and its fictional universes have consistently been shown to have an interdependent relationship with reality. When examined from a more sociological perspective, the content of TV series can be observed as a reflective mirror of the Zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”).
Building on this basic premise, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (or simply DAHMER) – the first season of Monster, Netflix‘s crime anthology series created by the close-knit artistic duo Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan – can tell us much more than just the real-life events behind one of America’s most heinous serial killers.
DAHMER, with the massive wave of debate it has generated, polarizing critics and viewers alike, and with its shocking viewing figures, provides further evidence not only of how reality and fiction contaminate each other but also of how the true crime genre is nowadays one of the most appreciated and popular, despite the ethical concerns that come with such a genre. Finally, the series offers an anthropological perspective on how the psychological processes that true crime dramas trigger in the public are evolving to better reflect the modern world.
The Milwaukee Cannibal
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. DAHMER traces the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters), also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster, in ten episodes. From his childhood and teen years with his parents Lionel (Richard Jenkins) and Joyce (Penelope Ann Miller) to life with his paternal grandmother Catherine (Michael Learned), through the height of his murderous activity while living alone in his apartment, with his neighbor Glenda Cleveland’s (Niecy Nash) unanswered pleas for police assistance, to his capture, trial, and death in prison. Dahmer viciously murdered seventeen young men between 1978 and 1991, most of whom were black, from other ethnic minority backgrounds, and part of the LGBTQ+ community. His murders involved necrophilia, cannibalism, and the concealment and permanent preservation of body parts. He was later sentenced to sixteen life terms, eventually being beaten to death in 1994 by a fellow inmate.
Standing on the side of the victims for the entire narrative and always centering their stories, the show attempts to shed light on institutional failures of police, homophobia, and systemic racism as the root causes of Dahmer’s nonchalant and unpunished conduct, which remained in plain sight for more than a decade. But it does not end there. DAHMER aims to elevate itself and offer a bird’s-eye view of actual events, taking the time to dig into the harsh reality to reflect and ask analytically and methodically whether it could all have ended differently.
Monster and human: beyond binarism
“Babe, I love you so… I want you to know… That I’m gonna miss your love… The minute you walk out that door… So please don’t go.” So says the iconic 1979 love ballad by KC and the Sunshine Band. A plea for love and second chances that the show uses in the trailer and in an episode alongside images of Dahmer’s apartment door closing with the victims inside, thus investing the lyrics with renewed meanings.
This is one of many examples showing how DAHMER operates on multiple levels. It exemplifies how the show strives to reach a more in-depth level in its story and analysis. Indeed, upon closer scrutiny, one of the most intriguing aspects of the series is precisely that it has a rich structure, precisely because it exploits and plays with the “human/monster” binary system and then tries to move beyond that same binarism. And it does so right from its choice of title: Monster.
Along these lines, DAHMER shows the viewer a portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer that on the one hand corroborates the term “monster” by distorting and stressing actual facts. This repeatedly happens throughout the narrative arc, such as in the scene where shirtless Dahmer is tasting human blood in front of the mirror. Here the narration seems to want to reassure the viewer by telling them: “You are on the other side. This is a monster. You are not.”
On the other hand, the way the show feeds the audience Dahmer’s psyche through the dissection of his childhood and relationships seems to push its portrayal toward the term “human”. In this case, diametrically opposed to the above, the narration appears to confess to the viewer: “You are witnessing the story of a man suffering from many ignored diseases—a child with a non-affectionate mother struggling with mental illness. A teenager with an absentee father whose only time he was present was when he taught his spongy-minded son to dissect dead animals. An alcoholic adult man who has never mastered the codes of relating to others and is always surrounded by a persistent terror of abandonment.”
But there is more. Through the focus on exposing systemic racism and homophobia, Jeffrey Dahmer also appears in his other incarnation. A white man, part of a normalized and in many cases privileged category, and a gay man, part of an oppressed and marginalized community.
In the end, DAHMER presents an authentic and varied portrait of its titular character. But one thing is sure. The series always stays at arm’s length and never succumbs to the glorification/mythologizing of Dahmer. If it ever takes the time to investigate the wave of fame that swept over him at the time.
It was a challenge to try to have this person who seemingly was so normal but underneath all of it had this entire world that he was keeping secret from everybody. So, you know, we had one rule going into this from Ryan [Murphy] that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view. As an audience, you’re not really sympathizing with him. You’re not really getting into his plight. You’re more sort of watching it, you know, from the outside. […] The Jeffrey Dahmer story is so much bigger than just him.Evan Peters discusses his character with Netflix
An immersive experience: Silenced
In the overall series, episode six, “Silenced“, undoubtedly stands out above the others. Written by David McMillan and Janet Mock (Pose, Hollywood), and directed by Paris Barclay, it is not only an outstanding example of Black storytelling but also a vivid display of the use of cinematic language. The episode is entirely focused on the character of Tony Hughes (played by actor Rodney Burford, who is partially deaf and a cochlear-implant user), a deaf black man who was murdered by Dahmer in 1991. Besides conspicuously showing how DAHMER strives to always put the victim at the center, this episode skillfully uses the medium to always put Tony and his gaze in the spotlight.
Indeed, “Silenced” runs largely with no sound or only faint, indistinct background noise. Tony and his family and friends speak in sign language and, in many scenes, the pace slows down to let Tony write his thoughts in the tiny notebook he keeps on hand to communicate with the other characters (and the viewer). This allows the viewers to have an immersive and close-up view of the character. They get even closer to his daily life, put themselves in his shoes, and enter his inner world through his lens.
We tried to elevate and we tried to embrace Tony. We tried to give him a voice. We tried as best we could to make him resonate with viewers. And that seemed to have happened. I’m really proud of what we did, not just for Tony, but also for the deaf community. That was my mantra. We want to make these victims not disappear.Director Paris Barclay discusses episode 6 of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, with Variety
Silence gives room to the dark, hellish, sorrowful, and haunting atmospheres provided by the score composed and performed by Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Starting with the eerie “whale cries” which the show even incorporates into the narrative (Dahmer listens to them in his cell to catch sleep). These peculiar sounds become a veritable leitmotif guiding Dahmer’s slow walk and almost phlegmatic way of speaking. But also a kind of ritual that musically expresses the attempt to want to descend into the unexplored and dark depths of the human.
Everything seems to take on a labyrinthine, ghostly atmosphere (Oily Tadpoles) filled with anxiety. From the vocal parts to the piano (New Job, No More Free Rides), to the violin (Death And Baptism), to the synth and flute: everything seems to want to stretch and tighten that hallway leading to the exit from the monster’s apartment. And if the squeezed, claustrophobic, almost breath-choking rhythms of Tourniquet Knot intensify the getaway, the slow progress of the End Credits closes the circle forever hiding the demon underground.
Nick [Cave] and I just sit in a room and start playing […] We create a kind of meditative space where the sound directs the choices made. We improvise a lot – seeking the accidents that happen serendipitously when you place the results with the image.Warren Ellis in an interview with Variety
Projection and exorcism
«Even in movies, like Star Wars, you know, I always like the bad guys more, you know?»
«Well, so did I. Those characters are written better.»From the dialogue between Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters) and Chaplain Adams (Chris Greene), Episode 10: “God of Forgiveness, God of Vengeance“
French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, in his seminal 1962 sociological anthropology essay on the collective imaginary and popular culture (“L’esprit du temps. Essai sur la culture de masse“, Paris, Grasset-Fasquelle) introduced the concepts of “projection” and “identification”: two psychic transference that ensure aesthetic participation in imaginary universes.
According to Morin, then, the imaginary universe comes to life for the viewer who, in turn, projects themselves into the characters and/or situations and identifies with them. Through projection, the viewers project out of themselves, free themselves, and push away all that lurks in the depths of the self. In this respect, projection can assume the nature of exorcism. To exorcise the evil, the terror, what is harmful and dark in oneself, one’s anxieties, fears, unfulfilled needs, and so forth.
Following this thread, trying to unravel the tangle that is DAHMER, there is arguably also one broader reason for the show’s success. Indeed, when analyzed in this light, DAHMER can be observed as a veritable sounding board of contemporary viewers’ shadows: their inner angst, terrors, and anxieties. Through the series, viewers can exorcise malaise, fear, danger, and anxieties about themselves, their neighbors, and the world we inhabit.
In conclusion, going back to the introduction, the public that DAHMER has attracted in a short time can thereby be understood as demonstrative of the emergence of more complex, multifaceted, and even conscious storytelling that allows us to reflect on the present of the Western world and the spirit of our time – and to trigger new processes of identification and projection.
Perhaps, as Jarryd Bartle, researcher, consultant, and associate professor of criminal justice at RMIT University, suggests in an article by Hugh Montgomery for the BBC:
There’s an instinctive morbid curiosity driving people to watch such a show that is timeless. “It has been a well-documented feature of humans throughout history,” [Bartle] says. “And I do think some of the criticisms that I’ve seen of the Dahmer series are very quick to view that as necessarily a corruptive or bad impulse, but I view it as a natural [one]…”
[…] Equally, a viewer may condemn a piece of work as unethical, but that may not necessarily stop them watching it all the same – such is the fickle nature of human behaviour.“Monster: Jeffrey Dahmer: Did TV go too far in 2022?” by Hugh Montgomery, BBC
There are no answers, only questions
Without a shadow of a doubt, when it comes to true crime dramas, a large segment of the public always prefers to avoid dramatizations of such criminals, leaving their deeds in the past as a sign of dutiful respect.
Indeed, since its release, DAHMER has been at the center of many heated debates (including within the crew). Even the families of Dahmer’s victims have responded, blaming and criticizing Netflix for resurrecting a figure who should have been cast aside, capitalizing on the trauma that impacted their lives and continuing to shine the spotlight on a serial killer who, even today, haunts popular culture.
I didn’t watch the whole show. I don’t need to watch it. I lived it. I know exactly what happened.Rita Isbell, sister of Errol Lindsey, one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims, discusses the show in an essay published by Insider
Of course, no one is in a position to answer all this pain. And this makes it all the more difficult to discuss and explore an equally controversial series.
One thing is for sure: DAHMER raises many questions about what we watch and who we are. And for the most part, they are uncomfortable questions. After all, the task of art has always been to raise questions rather than answers.
More monsters to come
Initially conceived as a limited series, Netflix announced that it has expanded the Monster franchise with two more seasons, making it an anthology series.
At the 80th Golden Globe Awards, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story received four nominations: Best Limited or Anthology Series, Best Actor for Evan Peters, Best Supporting Actress for Niecy Nash, and Best Supporting Actor for Richard Jenkins.
Evan Peters won the award for Best Actor. During his acceptance speech, he declared: “Last and most importantly, I want to thank everyone out there who watched this show. It was a difficult one to make, a difficult one to watch. But I sincerely hope some good came out of it.”