Yet Another Descent into the Mind of a Serial Killer: Netflix’s ‘The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’


Netflix’s true crime drama debuted September 21- Photo via Rotten tomatoes

Ava DePasquale, Staff Writer, Social Media Manager

The story and lore surrounding one of America’s most notorious serial killers is well known, right down to the horrific details. It begs the question, did this series even need to be made? If there’s one thing that can be said for Netflix’s latest true crime drama depicting the gruesome murders committed by Jeffrey Dahmer, it’s that it is utterly disturbing from beginning to end. Even with its cumbersome title, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, and virtually no anticipation leading up to the series debut, it snuck up on us on September 21 and quickly climbed to the number one spot on Netflix. This drama is evidence of America’s obsession with and nack for breeding serial killers. 


The series clearly aims to shift from the typical true crime modus operandi to focus on the victims, many of whom were black, gay men, or men of color. One of the most devastating cases and miscarriages of justice was a fourteen-year-old Laotian boy, who managed to escape only to be returned to Dahmer by local police just minutes before his brutal murder. Another goal of the series was to shed light on the gross incompetence, homophobia and racism that was rampant in the Milwaukee police department at the time. Many true crime series have succumbed to harsh criticism for glamorizing or hyper-focusing on the killer. This series does not quite avoid that. 


The first half of the series is nearly unwatchable; the odd sexualization of viscera coupled with an obsession with roadkill is unpalatable, to say the least. Undoubtedly, Dahmer was an odd guy, and the series does a stand-up job of depicting this, starting with his troubled childhood. The sepia-toned shots of Dahmer’s dingy apartment and the striking shots of the infamous acid-filled barrel in the corner of his bedroom immediately set a dreadful tone. One can almost smell the odor of rot and decay, a common complaint that seemed to follow Dahmer throughout his life. 


We get five episodes that focus almost exclusively on Dahmer’s life and the development of his disturbed personality. Dahmer, who is masterfully portrayed by American Horror Story’s Evan Peters, is shown shirtless and glistening with sweat on multiple occasions, a sore point for many critics. Although Peters seems to slip effortlessly into the dastardly role, it is hard to disassociate him from his less serious roles in AHS. He and the creator of both series, Ryan Murphy, are no strangers to each other or the twisted genre of horror. It appears that Murphy is looking to branch out into true crime dramas, as his next project, The Watcher, is set to premiere on Netflix October 13.


There is no shortage of horrific material to recount in the first half of the series, including the decapitated head Dahmer decides to keep in the box that once contained his father’s childhood photos and nicknacks. We also see Dahmer scatter the remains of his first murder victim from the roof of his parent’s home as he basks in the falling ashes. This is an egregious dramatization for a series whose aim is to focus on the victims and the inefficient police force who allowed Dahmer’s reign of terror to subsist for far too long.


It isn’t until the second half of the series that we see an abrupt switch in focus towards the victims and the trauma inflicted on them. Episode six, titled Silenced, follows the life of Tony Hughes, a deaf man played with heart-wrenching authenticity by Rodney Burford, who is partially deaf himself. We watch Hughes overcome obstacle after obstacle starting from infancy when his mother discovers he is deaf through his struggles as a black gay man in an underserved neighborhood in Milwaukee. We are submersed in silence as Hughes and his deaf friends sit around a table discussing their dreams and Tony’s plans for the future. Plans that are cut short once Tony is lured into Dahmer’s apartment. A scene where Dahmer and Hughes are playing a board game Dahmer made as a child, complete with animal bones, shows Hughes’ attempt to soothe one of Dahmer’s dark outbursts. In this moment, we are shown Dahmer’s struggle with abandonment, and for a second, it is as if we are asked to sympathize with his troubled inner child, forgetting the monster that he has become. 


Once Dahmer is finally discovered and arrested after countless missed opportunities and pleas for help that were ignored by the Milwaukee police, we meet another pivotal character. Glenda Cleveland is depicted by Niecy Nash, and her abject horror is palpable as she listens to the sounds of the gruesome murders going on in the apartment next door. Glenda’s numerous calls to the police went unanswered; even after Dahmer was caught red-handed, the police refused to acknowledge her in any real sense. We see Glenda absolutely lose herself in grief and trauma in an emotionally raw performance by Nash, as she breaks down and sobs to the first person who is willing to hear her story, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who is portrayed by Nigel Gibbs. 


For the remainder of the series, we get the stories of the traumatized families of Dahmer’s victims, parallel to the depiction of Dahmer’s newfound fame in prison. Occasionally, these themes overlap when Hughes’ grieving mother receives a Jeffrey Dahmer comic book in the mail along with a fan’s letter asking for her autograph. The families’ testimonies in court are striking, and some are verbatim and a mirror image of the actual events. We are forced to sit through the storyline that follows Dahmer as he decides to embrace religion and is “saved.” we watch as he is baptized, and it feels as if we are asked to contemplate forgiveness for one of America’s most depraved killers. 


Dahmer’s devoted father, who is portrayed by Richard Jenkins, grapples with the concept of blame. Jenkins artfully portrays a tormented father who wonders if he is to blame for his son’s transgressions. His pondering reflects a society that is tirelessly intrigued by the inner workings of serial killers, which seems to be a morbid obsession that is predominantly tied to American culture. Instead of staying true to the victims’ stories and their families’ quests for justice we are once again lured into the minds of monsters.