The atrocious crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer caused such an impact on the American public opinion, that long before Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the hit series created by Ryan Murphy for Netflix, fiction had already put its eyes on him.
In 1991, just months after Dahmer was arrested and charged with the murder of 17 men (with whom he practiced necrophilia and cannibalism afterwards), the Los Angeles-based Iranian author Reza Abdoh premiered the play The Law of Remains, which presented a murderer named Jeffrey who was clearly based on Dahmer. Then, in 1993, the first film about his life (The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer) was released, a documentary about his trial was broadcast on television and the cannibal himself was interviewed on the CBS show Inside Edition. In 1995, a year after dying in prison at the hands of an inmate, the thriller Copycat exalted him as one of the great American monsters of the 20th century. There was no need for time to surround his name in a halo of fascination: Dahmer was a myth of evil from the very first moment his name appeared in the media.
More than 30 years later the fascination with Dahmer is back, thanks to a series that has earned glowing reviews as well as the understandably furious reactions of, at least, the sister of one of the victims, who complains that her immense pain has been turned into entertainment. And in the middle of that polarization, as always, are the viewers, many of which see the whole affair as someone would see a show like American Horror Story or Squid Game: a simple phenomenon and, on Halloween, a great costume idea.
“Several factors influence the fascination that this kind of serial killer causes among people,” explains Luis Borrás Roca, a psychiatrist specializing in Legal and Forensic Medicine. “The main reason is fear of death, the idea that we ourselves could be victims of someone like that. We relate to the victims, and that makes us try to understand the motives of the attacker.” The specialist also points out that Dahmer’s case is particularly unusual: a sadistic, fetishist, necrophiliac and cannibalistic serial killer, which did not happen that long ago. “Jack the Ripper, for example, was similarly sadistic, but today we see him as someone far away in time.”
These days, the American media is warning that it is inappropriate to dress up as Jeffrey Dahmer on Halloween. “It’s not the killer costume you should be wearing this Halloween,” cautions a piece from the New York Post. After a flood of criticism, many Instagram users who posed as Dahmer at Halloween parties that have already been held have deleted their photos. Others have been removed by the platform itself, after reports from users. The complaints from the families of the victims are especially notable. Shirley Hughes, mother of Tony Hughes, who died at the hands of Dahmer when he was 17, has been one of the most vocal: “It’s already super triggering to see a hit Netflix series about the serial killer, much less folks dressing like the killer.”
Some big corporations are already doing damage control, eBay, for example, is removing the clothing or accessories that are sold as Jeffrey Dahmer costumes, in compliance with their policy (“Listings that promote or glorify hatred, violence, or discrimination aren’t allowed,” states the company). Of course, like so many other criminals, Dahmer looked like a regular guy, and it is impossible to stop the sale of shirts, pants or glasses that evoke him. It is very easy to find “Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses” online: even though they cannot be sold as such, the reference is present in reviews and comments of the product, and will lead any search engine to it.
“Mourning is a very deep feeling,” Borrás argues. “But when on top of that the murderer becomes a kind of hero, the family also feels humiliated. I would even say abused. Mourning requires, above all, peace, and such disturbing and public acts make it impossible.”
The phenomenon seems hard to control. On TikTok, the murderer is a source of comedy: “What if Jeffrey Dahmer was from Argentina?” wonders a video with 350,000 likes. Another one with more than two million likes contemplates how it would be if he had a roommate. One more ponders what would happen if Jeffrey Dahmer hooked up with an Arab. Yet another: “If Eminem went to Jeffrey Dahmer’s house.” YouTuber DuB Family, who has almost 1.4 million followers, was criticized recently for posting a parody video in which he lived “like Jeffrey Dahmer” for an entire day. In his next video, titled “So I Got Cancelled,” he admits that he didn’t even know who Dahmer was until he saw the first episode of the series.
The phenomenon is not limited to the United States: in the Complex club, a nightclub in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, a Jeffrey Dahmer-themed Halloween party was announced. The owner has since received death threats.
It is not the first time that Dahmer sneaks into popular culture. In Katy Perry’s song Dark Horse (2013), rapper Juicy J. sings the following lines: “She’s a beast, I call her Karma / She eats your heart out like Jeffrey Dahmer.” It was number one in the United States, and one of the most successful songs of the decade. Another seemingly innocuous singer, Kesha, included a reference to Dahmer in her song Cannibal (2010). “Use your finger to stir my tea / And for dessert, I’ll suck your teeth / Be too sweet, and you’ll be a goner / I’ll pull a Jeffrey Dahmer.”
None of the six writers of Dark Horse have said anything about it so far. As for Cannibal, one of the four writers has offered an explanation: Kesha’s mother. In a TikTok video, she explains that the reference to Dahmer was suggested by a computer program called Masterwriter that is advertised as a tool for composers; one writes a word, and it suggests possible rhymes. “Kesha and the other writers were too young to even know who Jeffrey Dahmer was,” she explained. “We were looking for a rhyme for ‘goner,’” and the program suggested “Jeffrey Dahmer.” There are more examples: Siouxsie and The Banshees have a song about Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, and Jane’s Addiction has one about Ted Bundy.
Despite the emphasis that Ryan Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan placed on not glorifying the killer and honoring the victims, and despite the way the series makes it clear that an endemically racist and homophobic police system consistently ignored the signs that might have led to the arrest of the criminal much sooner, Dahmer has taken on a life of his own in the hands of the viewers. This is problematic: where awareness and reflection should be raised, there seems to be only fascination, Dahmer has been turned into a horror icon. And the fact that he is played by Evan Peters, a well-known actor from Murphy’s troupe and a generation’s erotic idol, does not help.
For many who knew nothing about the actual case, but who are familiar with Murphy’s work, this is just another chapter in his chronicle of the horrors of contemporary America. As if it was another season of American Horror Story. Just another Halloween special.