Why does Netflix’s hit focus more on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood than his victims?

The shirtless man appeared out of nowhere as he ran into the path of a police car, startling the two officers on routine patrol in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

A pair of handcuffs was dangling from his left wrist, but on that hot July night back in 1991, it was the expression of wild fear in the man’s eyes that struck them.

He’d been running through the streets shouting for help. A ‘freak’ had put the handcuffs on him, he told the officers — a freak who had subjected him to a five-hour ordeal, threatened him at knife point, listened to his heart beating and informed him that he was going to eat it.

When the police accompanied their charge, a 32-year-old gay black man named Tracy Edwards, back to the apartment in a rundown area of the city from where he said he’d escaped, they found its occupant — a tall, blond-haired man named Jeffrey Dahmer — looking unperturbed.

Yes, he’d put the handcuffs on Edwards after they’d come back together from a gay bar, the 31-year-old admitted. ‘Just fun and games . . . we’re both homosexuals,’ he reassured the officers.

The police couldn’t help notice a terrible smell in Dahmer’s small but tidy flat. He told them it was pork chops that had gone off. They saw little reason to linger, but first asked for the key to unlock the handcuffs on Tracy Edwards. Dahmer directed one of the officers into his bedroom to retrieve it. Just as he was leaving, the policeman spotted an open drawer in a bedside dresser containing a stack of Polaroid photos.

Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer killed and dismembered no fewer than 17 men and boys, preying mostly on poor, young black men

They appeared to show naked men but, when he looked closer, he saw that some of the bodies were dismembered.

Jeffrey Dahmer had had a close shave once before. One of his previous victims, a 14-year-old boy, had also managed to escape his flat after being drugged and abused, only for police to accept Dahmer’s story that the boy was his boyfriend who’d just had too much to drink. Dahmer was allowed to take him back into his apartment and the boy was never seen again.

This time, however, the game was up for the man who would be dubbed the Milwaukee Monster. As soon as Dahmer saw the officer holding the Polaroids and heard him say ‘These are for real’, he tried to flee but was quickly overpowered.

When one of the officers opened the fridge to find a man’s freshly-severed head on a shelf, Dahmer muttered: ‘For what I did, I should be dead’.

A man who would go down in the history of serial killers as probably the most gut- wrenchingly horrific of them all had finally been caught.

When forensic teams later searched the apartment, they found seven skulls and four heads, of which three were in a freezer and another was in a box at the bottom of the fridge. Above it, shelves contained two human hearts and part of an arm, all wrapped in plastic bags

They also discovered two complete skeletons and two preserved penises, and, inside a 57-gallon barrel, three headless torsos dissolving in acid.

There were also more than a hundred photographs of people taken at various stages of dismemberment, most so disgusting that even the most hardened of detectives couldn’t look at them without feeling faint.

He told police and prosecutors that many of his later murders involved necrophilia, cannibalism and the permanent preservation of body parts of victims because, he claimed, he simply didn’t want these ‘companions’ to ever leave him

Between 1978 and 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer killed and dismembered no fewer than 17 men and boys, preying mostly on poor, young black men. He told police and prosecutors that many of his later murders involved necrophilia, cannibalism and the permanent preservation of body parts of victims because, he claimed, he simply didn’t want these ‘companions’ to ever leave him.

It emerged that Dahmer found his victims by paying men to come back to his flat, often to pose naked for photos. He would then drug and kill them before dismembering them using an electric saw. An acid bath was then used to help dispose of the evidence.

It was perhaps inevitable that, given the obsession of ratings-hungry TV streaming services for ‘true crime’ dramas and documentaries, that the supremely lurid Dahmer story would eventually get its star turn. And so Netflix has brought us Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a new ten-part dramatisation that spares viewers virtually nothing in terms of gratuitous horror.

It was made by the prolific Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy, and Netflix says that more than 700 million hours of the series have so far been streamed — a record surpassed only by the fourth series of sci-fi drama Stranger Things.

And not slow to cash in on the success, Netflix has released a spin-off three-part documentary series based on Dahmer’s interviews with police called Conversations With A Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes.

The staggering popularity of this and other gruesome serial killer documentaries and reconstructions is proof, if it were needed, that our fascination with the violently macabre remains undimmed.

It emerged that Dahmer found his victims by paying men to come back to his flat, often to pose naked for photos. He would then drug and kill them before dismembering them using an electric saw. An acid bath was then used to help dispose of the evidence

Studies show that we react and learn more from our negative experiences than our positive ones, and psychologists say that TV drama series like Monster perform what amounts to a public service by giving us information on the dangers to avoid and flee.

And yet there are some who have been deeply offended by it. Not only those critics who have dismissed it as ‘true-crime porn’, which basks in the gruesomeness of what happened without offering any meaningful message, but some of the families of Dahmer’s victims who have complained bitterly about the drama.

They say they were never consulted by the show’s creators over whether they were happy for such excruciating memories to be raked over for the entertainment of Netflix subscribers. Some also say that the series has compounded that offence by misrepresenting the truth.

Rita Isbell’s 19-year-old brother Errol Lindsey met a particularly grisly end at Dahmer’s hands. He was drugged by the deranged loner before having hydrochloric acid poured into a hole drilled into his skull in a failed attempt to turn him into a ‘zombified sex slave’.

Rita gave an impassioned pre-sentencing statement at the killer’s trial — during which she called Dahmer ‘Satan’ — that is recreated in Monster. She says the programme makers never tried to contact her despite portraying her as emotionally broken.

‘It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then,’ she said. ‘I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it . . . They just did it.’ She called the drama series ‘harsh and careless’.

Eric Perry, Lindsey’s cousin, said the new series was ‘re-traumatising’ his family, adding: ‘And for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?’ Shirley Hughes, whose son Tony was also murdered by Dahmer, questioned how the series ever came to be made. ‘I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff like that out there.’

While Netflix wasn’t legally required to consult victims’ families as the events portrayed in the series are a matter of public record, it is curious — given this backlash — that Monster’s creators insist their main priority had been to tell this version of the Dahmer story through the eyes of the victims.

Hollywood can’t keep away from the horrifying case: Jeremy Renner starred in the 2002 film Dahmer, while the 2017 production My Friend Dahmer featured a former Disney star, Ross Lynch, as the killer.

None of the previous dramatisations, however, caused anything like the upset of Monster. This despite the fact that the producers claim they went to great lengths to avoid concentrating on the man himself.

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Indeed, actor Evan Peters said in a promotional video for the series: ‘We had one rule going into this from Ryan [Murphy], that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.’

The staggering popularity of this and other gruesome serial killer documentaries and reconstructions is proof, if it were needed, that our fascination with the violently macabre remains undimmed

Given that the series dwells heavily on his strange and troubled childhood before moving on to his killing spree, it is a claim that’s difficult to sustain.

And there is a particularly pointed irony in claims the programme-makers ignored the families of Dahmer’s victims, given that the police were accused of doing precisely the same with his victims — neglecting investigations into the disappearance of men who were mainly poor, black and gay and thus allowing Dahmer to keep committing his unspeakable crimes.

Experts have tried for decades to understand what drove Dahmer, and Monster is no exception. How much was it nature, his innate wickedness, or nurture — the effect of being the child of a broken marriage and a pair of very odd parents — that turned Dahmer into a deranged butcher? ‘I do think I was born like this,’ says Dahmer at one point in Monster.

Although he was the product of a solidly middle-class Milwaukee home — his father was a chemist, his mother a teletype machine instructor — the normality was only superficial. His warring parents were continually fighting and his mother, Joyce, was a depressive hypochondriac who attempted suicide at least once. She demanded most of the attention in the Dahmer household and his father, Lionel was aloof, so Dahmer was emotionally neglected by both of them

Dahmer, who was born in 1960, was four when he had a double hernia operation after which, according to his father, he was never the same. Jeffrey certainly thought he was changed, later telling a clinical psychologist he believed he had been castrated, a view that may have led to an obsession with dismembering body parts, including genitalia.

Studies show that we react and learn more from our negative experiences than our positive ones, and psychologists say that TV drama series like Monster perform what amounts to a public service by giving us information on the dangers to avoid and flee

After the operation, said his family, a happy little child became a shy and withdrawn boy who developed an unhealthy interest in dead animals — an interest his father encouraged by helping him dissect and preserve them, even showing him how to dissolve chicken bones in bleach.

The young Dahmer, who had few friends, once decapitated a dog’s carcass and nailed its skull to a tree. Some might have raised the alarm but his parents, going through a messy divorce, did not.

According to Brian Masters, the British author of a biography of Dahmer and an expert on serial killers, the feelings of abandonment, neglect and loneliness that grew inside the secretive outsider — and which he himself acknowledged — were crucial in explaining his descent into madness and his murderous determination that visitors to his home stayed for good.

Dahmer would later tell police that he had been lost in fantasies since he was a child.

At school, where he tried to win friends by doing stupid pranks such as pretending to have cerebral palsy during lessons, he started to drink heavily — even in class. On reaching puberty, he realised he was gay but didn’t tell his parents.

He claimed his first victim when he was 18, a few weeks after his parents divorced and his mother left with his younger half-brother. The individual concerned was a hitchhiker called Steven Hicks, who Dahmer lured to his home with the promise of beer. When Hicks asked to be driven to the concert he had been heading for, Dahmer hit him on the head with a dumbbell before strangling him.

And yet there are some who have been deeply offended by it. Not only those critics who have dismissed it as ‘true-crime porn’, which basks in the gruesomeness of what happened without offering any meaningful message, but some of the families of Dahmer’s victims who have complained bitterly about the drama

He then dismembered Hicks’ body and crushed his bones with a sledgehammer, scattering what was left in the woods.

Dahmer enrolled at Ohio State University, hoping to major in business, but thanks largely to his excessive drinking, he dropped out after just three months.

At his father’s urging, he joined the army, where he lasted two years before being thrown out for alcohol and drug abuse. He moved in with his grandmother, but was forced to leave when she could no longer stand his bringing home men he met in a gay bar.

After finding a dull but at least steady job as a mixer at a local chocolate factory, Dahmer was able to rent his own flat and was free to kill.

By early 1989 he had murdered three more men. He was repeatedly arrested for lewd behaviour — once serving a year in prison for fondling a 13-year-old boy he’d drugged — but never attracted the attention of homicide detectives. But then many who encountered the good-looking Dahmer were struck by how ‘normal’ he appeared — shy but friendly, polite and intelligent.

Alcohol, however, made him extremely aggressive and moody — a transformation that people who witnessed it compared to Jekyll and Hyde in its severity.

Brian Masters believed that Dahmer didn’t — as was widely assumed — drug his victims so he could kill them more easily, but because he wanted to be able to gaze at and touch their bodies without their resisting.

Masters believed that for Dahmer, whose childhood obsession had been the corpses of dead animals, a dead body was ‘an object of beauty, even of veneration’.

They say they were never consulted by the show’s creators over whether they were happy for such excruciating memories to be raked over for the entertainment of Netflix subscribers. Some also say that the series has compounded that offence by misrepresenting the truth

Dahmer later admitted using inflatable sex dolls and ‘. . . trained myself to view people as objects of pleasure instead of people’.

Indeed, Masters believed that Dahmer wanted his dead victims as sex aids — dismembering them to leave just the torso, which he’d take to bed with him or prop up next to him in the bath.

Another of Masters’ subjects, the Scottish gay serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 young men between 1978 and 1983 and would dispose of their bodies by dismembering them, once told the author that he didn’t believe Jeffrey Dahmer ate his victims and that his cannibalism claims were ‘a kind of wishful thinking’.

Nilsen also speculated that Dahmer’s decision to murder his gay victims was linked to his refusal to fully acknowledge his homosexuality and that, when he was finally arrested, he would have felt ‘an immediate sense of relief that it was all over’.

According to Masters, Dahmer felt ‘abject remorse’ for his terrible crimes and co-operated fully with investigators.

The writer certainly thought he was clinically mad. But despite being diagnosed with several mental disorders, Dahmer was found to be legally sane at his 1992 trial and convicted of 15 murders. In 1994, he was bludgeoned to death by a fellow inmate in prison.

Can we ever properly understand a man who behaved as atrociously as Jeffrey Dahmer? Despite Netflix’s protestations, this is exactly what Monster seeks to do by putting the spotlight on Dahmer and his upbringing.

In doing do, those who really deserve to be remembered — his victims — are left in the shadows.

Jacky

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