Among the deplorable array of serial killers the United States has produced, the name Jeffrey Dahmer occupies a singular slot in our collective imagination. The number of victims, seventeen, in itself already earns him a prominent position in the history of infamy, but the fact that he was a cannibal and necrophiliac who conserved his hapless victims’ body parts and when questioned by prosecutors and journalists responded with glacial chilliness, turned him into an icon whose exploits have fascinated more than one generation.

Since he was arrested in the early 90’s, there have been umpteen retellings of his biography; five feature films and fifteen television programs. Despite all this, Netflix reckoned there were still a few angles to Dahmer’s character worth exploring and commissioned Ryan Murphy to offer his vision of the man who would eventually earn the name The Butcher of Milwaukee. The result is Dahmer, a harrowing and gritty series, where getting audiences hooked talking about this sinister celebrity is leveraged to blow the whistle on a system that allowed him to operate for so long, leaving such a horrific trail of death and destruction in his wake, when he could have been caught much earlier.

Murphy has always had a fascination with pieces that don’t fit and for the unchaste, something evidenced by American Horror Story and some of the freaks he portrays, but also in American Crime Story, when he takes viewers along to accompany Gianni Versace’s killer to demonstrate just how much homophobia weighed heavily on the environment of that crime. This is what also happens in Dahmer: the public ends with the conviction that sexual and racial prejudice acted as inhibitors for  police investigating the numerous indications that pointed to that young blond male with an absent look in his eyes as potentially being a shady individual with homicide on his mind.

But the riskiest maneuver the series creator assumes is to try to explain the reason for Dahmer’s deplorable acts and behavior. And, of course, the danger is that showcasing a series of social and family factors might end up looking like an apology, an attempt to evade individual responsibility and paint Dahmer as merely a by-product of the system. Controversy does surround the series as some of the victims’ families have voiced their discontent with how both the murderer and his victims are portrayed. But the overriding tone is not one of apology or justification through revealing the killer’s inner hell, but that of the indictment of the police and of judicial passivity, which plays in  favor of the victims. Even if it is insinuated that Dahmer, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder among other conditions, was also a victim of a hostile environment, either with being bullied at school, the inability to fit in, or the deep feeling of abandonment that starts with his own relationship with his mother.

‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’. Netflix.

The show relies more on psychological rather than visual gruesomeness to explain this and thankfully, doesn’t expose us to a veritable bloodbath to depict the procedures Dahmer subjected his victims’ bodies to, although there are plenty of moments the more sensitive among us will find difficult to stomach. But the highpoint of the show is how it manages to load the scenes – usually long – with such nail-biting tension, maybe as a way to depict Dahmer’s fierce struggle against his most destructive impulses on screen. The episode dedicated to Anthony Hughes, a deaf boy Dahmer had a relationship with, makes an especially brilliant use of sound, muffled when the balance of the scene decants towards the young man walking to his death. The sensory impact is powerful and transmits instant anguish.

The show’s full title is actually Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and the fact that they speak in terms of ‘monster’ suggests that Murphy sensed he would be criticized for taking advantage of the killer’s infamy. Those who have been less benevolent with the series were not too far off the money, as the character’s fame has skyrocketed so much as a result, that his iconic glasses were recently trading for a whopping $150,000 on the macabre memorabilia market. But apprehensions aside, the Netflix series is a truly well-crafted product, with its own distinctive discourse. Of course, as is usually the case, audiences shouldn’t have too high a bar when it comes to historical rigor – there are plenty of  documentaries about the case out there for that – as the series favors a coherent, concentrated story,  with its own individual perspective.

‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’. Netflix.

Ethical debates aside, there is one fact almost everyone can agree on, and that’s the platform’s great success in casting Evan Peters in the lead role, better known for playing the blow-in detective in Mare of Easttown, a performance that earned him an Emmy. Accompanied by veterans including Richard Jenkins and Molly Ringwald, the family scenes are one of the mainstays of this series, which offers a pessimistic look at society’s ability to turn its back on those who are in obvious need of help, or in need of protection from themselves.

Àlex Gutiérrez
Àlex Gutiérrez. Journalist specialized in the entertainment and media sector. Currently working in the Diari ARA, as head of the Media section and author of the daily column ‘Pareu Màquines’, where he reviews the daily press. On radio, Àlex has been a contributor on ‘El Matí de Catalunya Ràdio’ and the ‘Irradiador’, on iCatFM. Àlex also lectures at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra. His visionary powers are clearly evidenced by his impressive collection of several thousand CDs, something perfectly useless in an age that seems to celebrate the death of physical media.