Sensationalised and irresponsible or a chilling, cautionary tale? Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story review
Warning: this article contains upsetting content and spoilers
Horror has been a profound subject for artists for centuries. Hieronymus Bosch, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander McQueen, and, of course, Ryan Murphy are just some of those who have been fascinated and inspired by raw brutality and death, and whose magna opera glorify sheer darkness and terror.
Danse Macabre was a medieval artistic genre that personified death, and the Bible does not lack for brutal murder stories either. Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891), which Richard Strauss later adapted to opera (Op. 54), famously ends with the notorious scene of the protagonist holding and kissing the cut-off head of John the Baptist.
These shocking creations give us a sense of adrenalin-heightening thrill and we are captivated by them; but there are horrors in the world that are beyond our comprehension and make us re-evaluate the real meanings of fear and abomination.
When it comes to true crime, there is a chain of moral questions to consider. What is the (re)creators’ intention? Is it ever justifiable to profit from tragedies? Is it a form of dark tourism and a thrilling show to watch, or, rather, a piece of art that should be told as a cautionary tale for it not to happen ever again?
Are we even allowed to enjoy a series of this kind, or should such stories remain in the documentary genre until they cease to be living histories? Where is the line between documentary and fiction? How much filling is allowed to be added? How do the romanticisation and glamorisation through artistic means add to our comprehension and reception of what really happened when there was no background music, camera angles, and flashback cut scenes – only screams, blood, and death?
Unfortunately, the well-known story of Jeffrey Dahmer, a.k.a. “the Milwaukee Cannibal”, is very much real. Not only is it a spine-chilling source of nightmares, but a heartbreaking chronicle of child neglect, betrayal, and stolen lives. It is about the butterfly effect in society and the eternal nature-or-nurture debate, whether monsters are born or made.
Dahmer was a paedophilic and necrophilic serial killer, who drugged, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and occasionally ate his male victims. Figuratively speaking, he was the Big Bad Wolf. Documentaries, films, series, books, comics, and theatre shows have told his macabre tale in many different ways. Therefore, it was not an easy task to present the Dahmer case in a way that it had not been told before.
Between binge-watching Netflix’s latest limited series and writing these words, I took a look at what other reviewers made of Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022). The Telegraph for instance, said it was “unwatchable”, “tedious”, and “appalling”. Variety wrote that Monster “simply can’t rise to its own ambition”.
However, most of these critics treated the story as a quasi-fictional, bloody script that is too “gruesome” to watch in our age of padded mental well-being. Therefore, their emotional (and, indeed, physical) response to the shocking scenes blinded their judgment, thus failing to see the horrific beauty in Murphy’s interpretation of the unspeakable.
Only through the arts can we turn something so fundamentally ugly into anything worthy. When writing, acting, music, videography, and design come together, they have the potential to create something that penetrates the soul. But finding the right balance between post-Hitchcockian horror entertainment and traumatic emotional drama undoubtedly requires a high level of mastery, especially when aiming to appeal to a wide range of audiences.
The creators of Monster managed to do both successfully, hence the show became number one on Netflix within the first 24 hours. One of the main features that differentiate Monster from its predecessors is its storytelling. Most importantly, the victims’ stories. As Peters put it, “it’s not just [Dahmer] and his backstory. It’s the repercussions; it’s how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times, because of racism and homophobia. (…) The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is so much bigger than just him.”
Contextualisation, therefore, was paramount for the creators. The show jumps back-and-forth in space and time, starting with the successful escape of the last victim, Tracy Edwards, and Dahmer’s subsequent arrest. What happened before and after that night is presented to us in ten episodes held together by the overarching narrative of Dahmer’s personal life. By seeing multiple sides of the story, we get a holistic context necessary for closure.
If we only watched it through Dahmer’s lens, it would give us a ‘misunderstood villain’ origin story that would disrespect his victims. On the other hand, if we only saw him from the victims’ point of view, it would frame Dahmer as an all-powerful supernatural power whose legend would live on. The writers of Monsters realised that it’s important to look at Dahmer as a human being, for it will take away his power. In return, it turns our fear into pity.
In that sense, the writers and directors failed to accomplish their goal. According to Peters, there was “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 sympathising with him. You’re not really getting into his plight, you’re more sort of watching it from the outside.”
While learning about Dahmer’s personal life helps us understand why and how he became the deeply troubled young man who was let down by his family and the system that failed to recognise the early red flags, it certainly shouldn’t make us sympathetic. However, it is difficult not to sympathise with a neglected child that is not looked after properly.
We are not simple spectators but witnesses. What’s worse, we know how it all ends, and we cannot stop it from happening.
Evan Peters’ superb characterisation does evoke a certain level of empathy in us: after all, not only was Dahmer a personification of horror, but someone’s beloved son, too. The viewers thus experience a high level of cognitive dissonance throughout the episodes, even when we see the devastating and unhealable psychological and emotional damage Dahmer caused to the families and friends of the victims whose “dreams he had robbed” (episode 8 ‘Lionel’).
Even when he shows no remorse or guilt but, instead, enjoys his fan letters and the attention he had never experienced before, we deep down understand what it means to long for love and recognition. His prison baptism, one of the high points of the series, ultimately proved that he did not want redemption but to be loved by “the Heavenly Father”.
Peters deserves all the praise for his outstanding performance. One can only hope that he received adequate psychological help during the preparation and the filming. As he said: “I’ve read so much, I’ve watched so much. I’ve seen so much, and at a certain point, you’ve got to say, ‘All right, that’s enough.’”
Regardless of one’s level of sensitivity, I would be cautious of watching Monster alone before bed because it is an emotionally challenging one, to say the least. Not necessarily because of its graphic scenes (which we have been desensitised to by the horror genre anyway) but because we know that what we see did actually happen. We are not simple spectators but witnesses. What’s worse, we know how it all ends, and we cannot stop it from happening.
Our emotions are substantially different from when we watch fictional horror. Instead of being hyped-up, we feel weak and powerless. To make it even more unbearable, the show creates a multi-sensory experience through vivid descriptions of the odour of decomposing flesh, playing with lights and colours, the sound of screams through the vent, and the close-ups of Dahmer’s hands touching bodies and organs. The silver lining is that we are spared from having to watch his worst-of-the-worst moments.
Instead of sensationalising his horrid acts like in a Tarantino film (e.g. turning a young boy into a living zombie by drilling holes into his head and pouring hot water and acid into his brain), most of such moments are either suggested, or we only see the end results: lifeless bodies, broken bones, spilt blood, shiny organs, mutilated limbs, bleached skulls.
There is danger and injustice out there whether we like it or not. Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Luis Garavito, Karl Denke, and a long list of serial killers have made it clear that not everybody can be trusted. It was only two years ago that 19-year old Megan Newton was raped and murdered in her Stoke-on-Trent flat. Spiking still happens in clubs all over the world. As the George Floyd case proved it, fighting police brutality and systematic racism still has a long way to go, even decades after the Dahmer case.
The truth is the officers rather trusted Dahmer, a white male with a criminal record, than a black man with no criminal record who asked for their help. They chose to believe Dahmer when he claimed a naked, fourteen-year-old Asian boy with a bleeding skull, incapable of talking, was his adult boyfriend, over his black neighbours or to deal with any “gay stuff”. The voices of minorities are still being ignored all over the world, whether ethnic or sexual, just like when the police ignored the phone calls of Dahmer’s neighbour because of her sex and race.
Monster honours Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims by telling us their stories whilst reminding us that people become, and are not born, monsters. The psychological damages of homophobia, self-hate, and loneliness change people for the worst.
Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (18+) is now available on Netflix. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.