It's impossible to truly process what Jeffrey Dahmer did.
That's at least part of the reason why the serial killer who dismembered 17 boys and young men between 1978 and 1991 has been revisited so many times over the past 30 years, including in the 2012 film Dahmer, starring Jeremy Renner as the unassuming-looking destroyer of so many lives.
A reminder that the obsession with true crime didn't start with Netflix or podcasts, evil-among-us stories have been fueling content—scripted and otherwise—for decades. Though the rebirth of the genre as high-brow, polished and award-winning is a little newer.
The Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan-created DAHMER—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (in case there was any confusion as to what the show is about) became one of Netflix's most-watched original series of all time and it's nominated for 13 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for star Evan Peters. The 36-year-old also won a Golden Globe (a whole year ago, because the since-resolved SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes delayed the 2023 Emmys, now being handed out Jan. 15) for his performance.
Call it the height of morbid fascination.
"The interest in true crime, I'm not so quick to say it's all very prurient and awful," Anne E. Schwartz, author of Monster: The True Story of the Jeffrey Dahmer Murders and the reporter who broke the story for the Milwaukee Journal in 1991, told E! News in a 2022 interview. "I think we're trying to figure out why."
She attributed some of the enduring interest in Dahmer, as well as his nearly instant infamy after he was caught, to the fact that nothing about him set off alarm bells, while hindsight sees all.
"There is nothing about his background," Schwartz said, "until we go back and really cherry-pick everything we can, that makes us go, 'Oh, here's the foreshadowing.'"
Cherry-picking is what Monster does—and, as the author pointed out, it's easy now to pinpoint every glaring red flag and missed opportunity to catch him. (Schwartz was not involved with the making of the Murphy series; her publisher retitled her book Monster for its 2021 reissue.)
"We do like to play the blame game, because it always has to be somebody's fault," Schwartz said. "And if we look into these cases long enough, we'll find it."
The fact that most of Dahmer's victims were Black and he preyed on members of Milwaukee's marginalized queer community is often cited by critics of the investigation as the main reason why police didn't suspect they had a serial killer in their midst sooner. (That characterization has been roundly denied by those involved with the case.)
Still, even events viewed through a hyperaware 21st-century lens upset some who would prefer that Dahmer's crimes be laid to rest for good.
Why has Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story sparked controversy?
Objections to the dramatization of a traumatic true story are not unusual, with scripted retellings of cases ranging from the O.J. Simpson trial to the Manson Family killing spree to the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey having had their share of repulsed detractors.
But the Monster backlash felt particularly heated, with Rita Isbell, whose brother Errol Lindsey was murdered by Dahmer in 1991, calling the series "harsh and careless." Alleging that Netflix just wanted to "get paid," Isbell told Insider that Monster recreated her reading of a victim impact statement at Dahmer's 1992 trial without giving her so much as a heads-up.
"I feel like Netflix should've asked if we mind or how we felt about making it," she said. "They didn't ask me anything. They just did it."
The show has also upset members of Milwaukee's Black queer community, some of whom were living in the city when Dahmer was cruising the local nightlife for victims, starting in 1987. He didn't stop until his arrest on the night of July 22, 1991, when 32-year-old Tracy Edwards managed to escape from soon-to-be-infamous unit 213 at the Oxford Apartments and flag down two police officers.
"Ryan Murphy has just been so amazing for the community," Eric Wynn, 59, who used to perform in drag shows at a club Dahmer frequented and knew victim Tony Hughes, told NBC News. "And then to turn around and just slap us like this for profit and sensationalism—I was so disappointed."
B.J. Daniels, a Milwaukee-based drag performer, told WISN, "I know a lot of my friends, and a lot of people who lived through this period, will not be watching it. They will not be putting money into somebody's pocket that is literally disturbing the graves of victims."
Murphy—whose American Horror Story: Hotel featured a host of serial killers, including Dahmer (Seth Gabel)—didn't comment immediately on the backlash, but at an Oct. 27, 2022, promotional panel for the show he countered that they did try to contact victims' family members.
"It's something that we researched for a very long time," said Murphy, who received the Carol Burnett Award honoring his diverse body of work at the 2023 Golden Globes. "And we—over the course of the three, three and a half years when we were really writing it, working on it—we reached out to around 20 of the victims' families and friends trying to get input, trying to talk to people and not a single person responded to us in that process."
Murphy also expressed his displeasure at Netflix's decision to quietly remove the "LGBTQ" category tag from Monster after the show's premiere (though they made the rare move of releasing its stellar viewing numbers), telling The New York Times in October 2022, "I didn't like it and I asked why they did that and they said because people were upset because it was an upsetting story. I was, like, 'Well, yeah.' But it was a story of a gay man and more importantly, his gay victims."
As Dahmer, Peters is about as disturbingly spot-on as you would expect of the Murphy series regular. He said that the show also focused on the greater issues that allowed the killer to carry on for as long as he did—even after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy.
"It's called The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, but it's not just him and his backstory," Peters told Netflix Queue. "It's the repercussions; it's how society and our system failed to stop him multiple times because of racism and homophobia. Everybody gets their side of the story told."
To lean into those angles required some artistic license, such as turning Glenda Cleveland—played by Emmy-nominated Niecy Nash-Betts—into the neighbor who knew something was horribly wrong long before Dahmer was arrested. Murphy told the cast, according to Peters, that the story "would never be told from Dahmer's point of view."
Episode six of Monster unfolds from the perspective of the 31-year-old Hughes (Rodney Burford), a deaf, mute, fun-loving aspiring model who actually knew Dahmer for some time before meeting an especially grim fate at his hands on May 24, 1991.
Then there's the overall city of Milwaukee, where people have been historically loath to relive the Dahmer case, not that they've had much of a choice.
"What happens every time you talk about the Jeffrey Dahmer case is we lay bare all of the pieces of the city that people don't necessarily want to talk about," Schwartz, who grew up in Milwaukee, explained. "We don't like to talk about the state of policing, we don't want to talk about whether there is racism in the city, whether there's homophobia in the city. And it is just frankly a nasty story."
Meanwhile, Netflix doubled down on Dahmer with the Oct. 7, 2022, premiere of Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, the third installment of the Joe Berlinger-directed docuseries that previously probed the behavior of serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Framed around never-before-heard recordings of talks Dahmer had in prison with defense lawyer Wendy Patrickus, co-counsel for lead attorney Gerald Boyle, the four-episode series is the more straightforward recap of events—laced with 21st-century-era perspective from men who knew some of the victims, local journalists, including Schwartz, and others who could attest to the cultural climate at the time that made the Dahmer case a multitentacled tragedy of epic proportions.
There will always be those who say enough is enough whenever a story like this is retold, Schwartz said, but "there's also another camp, which is, let's try to understand. Let's learn more about mental disease and defect. Let's take a good look at where we were as a police department, at where we were when it came to investigative techniques, or places where there could have been an intervention—because there could have been an intervention from other parts of our system besides the police."
Why did Jeffrey Dahmer start killing people?
By all accounts, including Dahmer's in Conversations with a Killer, what he was seeking all those years was a person who wouldn't leave him.
He told Patrickus that he'd known since he was about 13 that he was gay, but it wasn't something he was proud of or readily able to share with his conservative family growing up in Bath Township, Ohio. Investigators didn't find a history of mental illness in his family, though there was alcoholism on his mother's side, and Dahmer was admittedly a heavy drinker. Parents Lionel and Joyce split up when he was 15—and when he was 18, his mother moved away and he said he never spoke to her again.
A childhood friend, Eric Tyson, recalled Dahmer collecting animal carcasses they found when they want hiking. Dahmer would cut them open—he recalled taking home the head of a fetal pig he dissected at school—and keep the bones, though he didn't actually kill any animals himself.
He recalled some consensual experiences kissing other guys when he was 14 or 15. But as he got older, he said, he started having fantasies about, not just sex, but having total control over another man.
Who was Jeffrey Dahmer's first victim?
On June 18, 1978, three weeks after he graduated from high school in Ohio, Dahmer picked up 18-year-old hitchhiker Steven Hicks and brought him back to his parents' house.
When Hicks got up to leave, Dahmer "lost all feelings," he recalled in the tapes, and hit Hicks in the head with a barbell and then strangled him with it. Talking to Patrickus in 1991, he said he felt a combination of excitement, control and "curiosity mixed with a lot of fear."
He hid Hicks' body in the crawlspace under the house and dismembered him, disposing of the garbage bags in the woods.
And yes, as seen in Monster, he was pulled over after his car crossed a center divide. He told the officer that he was a bit distraught because his parents were splitting up and he was just throwing away some trash.
"Those are the kinds of things that make the story difficult for me," Schwartz said, referring to that frustrating scene and the finger-pointing it's provoked. "The fact that Dahmer slipped through the fingers of law enforcement—my goodness, he was a serial killer. It's why serial killers go so long without getting caught, because they're master manipulators."
Hicks' family wouldn't know what happened to him for 13 years.
How did Jeffrey Dahmer become a serial killer?
So Dahmer was already a murderer when he moved to Milwaukee in 1981 to live with his grandmother at her house in the suburb of West Allis. But he meekly blended in, getting a nightshift job as a mixer at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory and stealing a mannequin from a department store to lie with at home.
As far as authorities know, he didn't kill again until 1987, when he met Steven Tuomi, 25, on the night of Nov. 21 and they rented a room at the Ambassador Hotel. Dahmer later told investigators he had been drinking a lot and blacked out, so he didn't remember what happened.
But when he woke up, Tuomi was dead, so Dahmer went out and bought a trunk to transport the body out of the hotel. He said that the cab driver who drove him back to his grandma's house even joked that he must have had a dead body in there since it was so heavy.
What happened after the murder of Steven Tuomi?
"I wanted more," Dahmer calmly told Patrickus, mentioning his "warped sex drive" and fruitless quest for fulfillment with a chillingly flat affect. "I was always searching for something more."
On Jan. 17, 1988, he killed James Doxtator, 14, and then Richard Guerrero, 22, on March 27, 1988—both at his grandmother's house. Some people—such as Tuomi—willingly went with him for the promise of a hook-up, but he lured others, such as Doxtator, by promising $50 if he could photograph them.
And he did take pictures—horrific, graphic Polaroids, some of which were neatly organized in an album when police finally caught up with him in 1991.
Seeking total control in his unhinged manner, he drugged his victims and strangled them while they were unconscious. He'd sexually violate the corpses and then cut them into pieces, saving numerous skulls, bones, organs and pieces of tissue along the way.
According to Schwartz's book, there was a whole head in the refrigerator when he was arrested, plus heads in a deep freezer, a skeleton dangling from the showerhead, assorted skulls on a kitchen shelf, hands in a stockpot, genitalia floating in jars and, in the corner of the bedroom, a big blue vat of...something.
"Just to look at the barrel and know what was inside made me nauseated," Schwartz wrote.
All of which meant that his victims, to the outside world, simply disappeared. This is what happened to Anthony Sears, 24, in March 1989; Raymond Smith, 32, in May 1990; Eddie Smith, 28, in June 1990; Ernest Miller, 22, in September 1990; David Thomas, 22, three weeks after Miller; and Curtis Straughter, 17, in February 1991.
Then, according to authorities and the killer himself, he wondered if there was a way he could get someone to stay without killing him. Starting with 19-year-old Errol Lindsey in April 1991, Dahmer drilled a small hole in the young man's head while he was unconscious, and injected what he said was muriatic acid into his brain.
Lindsey woke up, according to Dahmer, but he re-drugged and strangled him.
Why does the murder of Konerak Sinthasomphone stand out from the others?
In the early morning hours of May 27, 1991, Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped from Dahmer's apartment while the killer went out to buy beer, but was escorted back by police.
The 14-year-old was unable to communicate, both from being drugged and from having a hole drilled in his head, and despite objections from two young women outside the apartment building who insisted the boy was in trouble, police believed Dahmer when he told them Sinthasomphone was his boyfriend and they'd just had an argument.
Glenda Cleveland, who lived nearby but not in the same building, was the mother of one of those girls and she called 911 to report that a boy was being abused. She ended up calling police multiple times.
"He was let down as low as he could get," she told a reporter after Dahmer's arrest in a 1991 interview. "And that was to his grave. You can't get much lower than that."
Cleveland's daughter, Sandra Smith, who had tried to intervene that night, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel when her mother died in 2011, "I try not to think about it because it should have been different. A lot of things could have been prevented. I try not to dwell on that."
Portrayed in Monster as the most reprehensible decision made by law enforcement in this case, reporters countered in the Berlinger docuseries that the two officers, John A. Balcerzak and Joseph T. Gabrish, probably thought they were being magnanimously tolerant of a lifestyle they knew nothing about.
There's a recording played in Conversations With a Killer of the officers joking afterward to the dispatcher about what they'd just witnessed, one saying, "My partner's gonna get deloused at the station."
Meanwhile, if they had peeked into the bedroom when they accompanied the killer and victim back to the apartment, they would have seen Hughes' body still lying there.
After Dahmer's arrest, Balcerzak and Gabrish were fired, but successfully appealed and were reinstated three years later, with a recommendation from a judge that they each receive $55,000 back pay.
But somehow, this part of the story actually gets more bizarre.
Police did catch up with Dahmer long before he was ultimately put away. He pleaded guilty in January 1989 to second-degree sexual assault and enticing a child for immoral purposes after drugging a 14-year-old Laotian boy (a "Eurasian kid," Dahmer remembered him) in September 1988. The teen, whose name wasn't public, managed to get away and when he got home, still groggy, his parents called the police.
Prosecutors wanted Dahmer locked up for six years, according to E. Michael McCann, who served as district attorney of Milwaukee County from 1969 until 2007. The judge instead sentenced him to one year of work release. He killed Tony Sears before he had to report for sentencing.
The boy who survived was Sinthasomphone's brother.
How was Jeffrey Dahmer eventually caught?
After losing his job at the chocolate factory, Dahmer went on a spree in the summer of 1991, killing Matt Turner, 20, on June 30, Jeremiah Weinberger, 23, on July 5, Oliver Lacy, 24, on July 15 and Joseph Bradehoft, 25, on July 19.
On the night of July 21, he met Tracy Edwards, who accepted an invitation to a party back at Dahmer's apartment. Dahmer got a pair of handcuffs around one of Edwards' wrists, but Edwards managed to resist the other bracelet and accompanied Dahmer into the bedroom, saying he'd pose for him. A videotape of The Exorcist III was playing, Edwards told investigators, and Dahmer got distracted and started chanting to himself.
Edwards took the opportunity to run like hell. Milwaukee Police Officers Rolf Mueller, 39, and Robert Rauth, 41, were parked nearby and ended up being the first members of law enforcement to see what was going on in that apartment.
"I'd never seen a scene like that, so quiet, when you walk up and there are that many people standing outside and that many people not speaking," Schwartz, who was the first reporter at the apartment after getting a tip from a source in the middle of the night, told E!. "So it was clear that people were shocked by whatever was going on."
The first she heard from an officer was that the suspect in question had been saving body parts. "I'm thinking, Is this somebody who works in a morgue?" she recalled. "What is this?"
Edwards told the Associated Press days later, "He seemed so normal. He turned from Mr. Right to Mr....It was like I was confronting Satan himself."
What happened to Jeffrey Dahmer?
Dahmer readily confessed to 11 murders and investigators subsequently linked him to six more, including the 1978 slaying of Hicks in Ohio, for which he was charged separately (and ultimately pleaded guilty).
"Why don't you just shoot me now for what I did?" now-retired Milwaukee Police Det. Dennis Murphy recalled Dahmer saying in the docuseries.
He was eventually charged with two counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of first-degree intentional homicide in Wisconsin. (The killing of Tuomi was left unprosecuted due to Dahmer insisting he didn't remember doing it.) He pleaded guilty but insane, prompting an outcry of derision from the victims' families.
"Jeffrey Dahmer knows what he's doing," Eddie Smith's sister Carolyn told the AP. "He's insulting our intelligence by saying he was insane." Shirley Hughes, Tony Hughes' mother, called the plea "horrible."
A jury didn't buy it, either, and Dahmer was sentenced to life in prison on Feb. 18, 1992.
"I didn't ever want freedom. Frankly I wanted death for myself," he said in addressing the court for the first time. "This was a case to tell the world that I did what I did not for reasons of hate. I hated no one. I knew I was sick or evil, or both. Now I believe I was sick."
Dahmer spent his first year in prison in protective isolation, but was eventually let into the general population. On Nov. 28, 1994, fellow inmate Christopher Scaver, who was also serving a life sentence for murder, beat a then-34-year-old Dahmer to death with a broomstick.
"This is the last sad chapter in a very sad life," McCann, the prosecutor who put Dahmer away, said afterward. "Tragically, his parents will have to experience the same loss the families of his victims have experienced."
The district attorney added, "I hope there will be no economic returns or celebration as a folk hero for the man that killed Jeffrey Dahmer. God forbid, but I would not be surprised if it happened."
Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Conversations With a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes are streaming on Netflix.
(Originally published Oct. 7, 2022, at 10: 22 a.m. PT)