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Monster: The Ryan Murphy Story

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As a true crime fan, I’ve heard all the arguments as to why consuming true crime content is problematic. It exploits the victims, it glorifies and celebrates violence, it cashes in on the real life suffering of the victims and families. There are some criticisms I agree with and some I don’t. And while I’m leery about fictionalized portrayals of serial killers and family anihilators, I wouldn’t automatically discount them as universally exploitative and awful. That, and the fact that Ryan Murphy, who’d created both the excellent American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and American Crime Story: Impeachment, convinced me to give the unweildly-titled Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story a try.

What I saw was okay television and a macabre lack of morals on the part of the series writers and its creators, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan*

The Jeffrey Dahmer case is the first true crime story I followed, mostly because it was impossible not to. I was eleven when the story broke and the news was everywhere. The case held a particular fascination for me at the time; my paternal grandparents lived in Milwuakee when I was very young, and we often visited my uncle there. My ears would perk up to hear “Milwaukee” and “cannibal” in the same sentence, and I devoured every issue of People that made it into our house. I poured over the details and paid particular attention when his name came up on the news (which we usually watched at dinner time). Jeffrey Dahmer became the boogieman in my mind and the minds of my young peers. I don’t think anyone understood at the time that children have open ears and were hearing these terrible things. In a coincidence that burned into my brain, it was revealed that Dahmer murdered victim Oliver Lacy on my eleventh birthday. I obsessed over every visit I’d ever made to Milwaukee, terrified that we’d walked past him on the street, shopped beside him at the store. After overhearing dinner table talk about Konerak Sinthasomphone and his grisly, totally avoidable death, I had recurring nightmares that my ears were coming off and the police wouldn’t help me. Dahmer was the talk of the playground and the lunchroom; I blame the media attention to case for the millennial/gen x obsession with monetizing true crime.

I only learned later in life about the truly insidious nature of Dahmer’s murders. Strip away the drill, the acid, the cannibalism, and what you have left is a white man who very specifically hunted marginalized men, mostly gay Black men, and the systemic racism that allowed that white man to get away with it for thirteen years. Jeffrey Dahmer weilded the weapons, but the Milwaukee police department is the reason those Black men are dead. That same racism is the reason that we don’t often hear about Dahmer’s victims, beyond the fate of their earthly remains. They become a collection of grisly trophies, torsos in barrels, heads in refrigerators, with no real identity in mainstream memory. They’re largely forgotten by a world more comfortable with Black body parts than Black people.

Obviously, the perfect choice to helm a project about such a subject is… Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan.

In an interview with Netflix Queue, series star Evan Peters explained, “We had one rule going into this from Ryan [Murphy] that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.” The article notes that Murphy “consulted with Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, to ensure that the victim’s stories were front and center in the writing and production of the project.” But after all this careful consideration, Murphy and Brennan…

Well, they went ahead and did the opposite.

Our first experience with Peters’s Dhamer is the night his killing spree came to an end. After picking up victim Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown) from a gay bar with flirting and promises of payment for nude photos, Dahmer holds Edwards hostage until Edwards attempts to seduce Dahmer as a distraction. While the scene mines Edwards’s real-life court testimony for touches of authenticity like which VHS movie Dahmer watched during the ordeal and Edwards’s impression of the infamous blue drum, so much of the scene is just wrong. Under oath, Edwards identified as a straight man, who’d had no intention of having sex with Dahmer. They didn’t meet at a gay bar, though Dahmer did meet other victims at bars and bathhouses. Murphy and Brennan (who co-wrote the episode) seemingly took Edwards’s experience and dressed it in the experiences of other victims. With so many fine details taken from Edwards’s testimony (which is available on YouTube, of all places), there is no denying that turning Edwards into an amalgamation of all Dahmers’s victims was a conscious choice that contradicts the writers’ statements about the importance of the victims’ stories.

Despite Murphy’s insistence that the story is never told from Dahmer’s point of view, the series is mostly told from Dahmer’s point of view. Murphy is one of those creators who seems to believe that if he states something about his work, it is objectively true. For example, he would probably not come straight out and say, “This series was always intended as a vehicle for Evan Peters to play a murderer again,” but let’s not kid ourselves. I’m not sure I ever believed that Dahmer would be told from the victims’ point of view. If that had ever been the case, we would have seen bigger names in those roles. I’m sure they would have put Sarah Paulson in some kind of prosthetic suit. And we would have seen the victims in the trailers, not barely-on-screen Molly Ringwald. For all that the production allegedly strove to center the victims, we see an awful lot of Peters alone on screen. Here’s Dahmer’s fantasy about a jogger. Here’s Dahmer, upset and rejected at seeing his photo has been removed from the yearbook. Here’s Dahmer afraid of his parents fighting, struggling with his homosexuality, his alcoholism, his murderous compulsions. The script begs you to understand what led to making him a monster and to consider the wounded little boy inside of him.

That’s not to say that Peters does a bad job. He fights an uphill battle against the sympathetic treatment Dahmer gets from the script and he did succeed in making me think, “So?” every time he remarked on his loneliness and unhappiness. And his Wisconsin accent is perfect; too many people overdo Midwest accents until they sound like an Arizona-based community theater production of Escanaba in da Moonlight. But his performance isn’t enough to overshadow the way this show insults the victims and survivors in an effort to make the audience empathize with the man who victimized them. I cannot fathom the callous disregard required to make the absurd and frankly cruel narrative choice to portray Dahmer victim Tony Hughes in a touching romantic relationship with his killer. Hughes, a non-speaking Deaf man, is shown falling for Dahmer, who bashfully attempts to learn sign language to woo his new crush. In fact, Dahmer himself said he’d never met Hughes before he killed him, though witnesses contradicted that statement. Still, there’s no evidence that any romance occurred between them; why on Earth would someone try to spin one? For God’s sake, we’re talking about Jeffrey Dahmer here.

If there was one good thing to come out of this series, it would be the story of Glenda Cleveland, played by Niecy Nash-Betts.** Note, I said “if.” Because just like with Tracy Edwards, Murphy and Brennan decided to take the harrowing, true story of people involved in the Dahmer tragedy and squish them into one for added drama. Glenda Cleveland’s story gets told-ish, merged with that of Pamela Bass, who was actually Dahmer’s next door neighbor and who had been offered and possibly consumed human remains in sandwiches. Cleveland’s story is already horrifying; she knew Dahmer was killing and was repeatedly ignored by law enforcement. She tried to rescue one of his victims, only to be brushed off by the homophobic police officers who returned Konerak Sinthasomphone to Dahmer’s apartment. Bass’s story is also terrifying on its own: she confronted Dahmer about his suspicious behavior and the odors coming from his apartment and lived just footsteps from some of the most notorious murders of the twentieth century while they were occurring. Yes, it’s common practice to cut and combine historical characters for the sake of the narrative, but it’s yet another choice antithetical to Murphy’s stated goal of focusing on the victims instead of Dahmer. If it were a matter of time limitations, surely one of the multiple scenes of Dahmer lifting weights or bonding with his dad could have been cut.

What’s particularly galling about Murphy’s claim regarding concern for the victims is that neither of the show’s creators reached out to surviving loved ones. Instead, Murphy consulted a civil rights organization for advice on presenting fictionalized versions of history while living witnesses were still available. If he’d consulted the families, maybe he would have realized how many of them would be traumatized all over again. Maybe it would have caused the production to truly shift focus, to stay true to the lives of the men and boys who were slaughtered, rather than once again reducing them to their body parts. Maybe they would have decided to leave certain moments on the cutting room floor or out of the script entirely, based on the wishes of the people who are entitled to share them or keep them, because they lived them. Maybe someone would have realized that while the story of racial injustice that led to violence and rape in the gay community and the murder of men and boys of color is deeply important, the creators of fucking Glee, for Christ’s sake, are not qualified to tell them. Certainly, not while the only people qualified to tell them are still alive and actively protesting the series.

Dahmer isn’t bad television. Sometimes the writing gets clunky and expository in a deeply Sorkinesque way, every now and then some of the shots feel indulgent, but at least it doesn’t smack you in the face with quirky exploitation like The Thing About Pam. It’s on the good end of the Murphy scale, largely due to the phenomenal acting. And it will appeal to viewers who love podcasts about murder that begin with jokes and giggling and “Have we got an awesome one today, guys.” But fans of the show must stop kidding themselves that what they’re watching is an important tribute to forgotten victims. If any one scene refutes that concept entirely, it’s the one in which a teen Dahmer is pulled over for drunk driving. The camera focuses on the approaching officer, the nervous tension as Dahmer wonders whether he’ll be caught for his crimes and his relief when he’s let go with a warning. This is a part of eighteen-year-old Stephen Hicks’s story, allegedly told from his point of view.

He spends the scene in several garbage bags in Dahmer’s backseat.


*”[…] fantastic television with a macabre lack of morals” can also be applied to Murphy and Brennan’s earlier collaboration, Glee.

**She deserves a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her performance, as well as medical treatment for injuries sustained in her carrying of this series.

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7 Comments

  1. As someone who grew up in Milwaukee around the time that Dahmer got caught, I have zero interest reliving the experience. Like, I was ten when he got caught, and I remember vivid details about the stories because it was inescapable at the time. It was in the papers, on the news, just everywhere… it was the thing of my childhood nightmares.

    …the thought of watching the series about him just makes me feel gross.

    September 27, 2022
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  2. Avery Knight
    Avery Knight

    I learned about this show by seeing a tweet from a family member of one of the victims saying that none of the families had been contacted or compensated, and that they were being retraumatized so that somebody could profit off of a horrific story that has already been told dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. It’s one thing to try to understand how a person could do what Dahmer did; it is entirely another to center the killer’s feelings over the humanity and suffering of his victims. This show was not needed and has done so much harm. Despicable.

    September 28, 2022
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  3. Katie Roman
    Katie Roman

    Since watching this, I’ve been thinking I’d like to write a book about who the victims were. Talk to their families and the lives they led, how friends remember them, a biography without mentioning Dahmer and how he cut their lives short. I’m just not a strong enough writer for such an undertaking. I hope someone does, like that book The Five by Hallie Rubenhold about the victims of Jack the Ripper without dealing as much with their violent ends or really dealing with Jack the Ripper. Dahmer’s victims deserve at least that.

    September 30, 2022
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  4. Me
    Me

    I’m a big true crime fan; I follow a few Youtubers that do true crime and I watch shows on Discovery, ID and History channels as well as occasionally visiting websites and blogs, but I’ve never really cared for serial killer stories. I already know they are awful, no need to learn the why. For the most prolific and infamous, even without trying, I probably already know their crimes. It’s odd that as someone interested in true crime I have very little interest in serial killers.
    @ Katie, that’s a very good idea. I’m always more interested in the victim’s stories and the aftermath of their stories than the serial killer. A book or a series like that would be infinitely more interesting than the victimizer’s story.

    September 30, 2022
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  5. Dayna
    Dayna

    As someone into true crime, I had heard about the show but had decided to give it a pass as it didn’t look like it focused much on the victims. Glad to hear I’m not missing anything.

    I would say, there is a multi-part documentary on Bundy that is done via interviews with his at the time girlfriend, her daughter and interviews of surviving victims/victim’s family that is really good on Amazon Prime. It focuses on the women that were affected by Bundy but doesn’t focus on him.

    September 30, 2022
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  6. Ink
    Ink

    This is everything I’d hope to be able to say about this series based on the suspicions gleaned from its… everything… but more eloquently than I could hope to say it and without actually having to support this garbage with my own viewing numbers. Honestly I kind of feel like any time a real life serial killer is portrayed by an actor that should be an opportunity for an unknown to make a name for themselves. There’s something that feels so grimy about the question “who would play you in a movie?” being answered with famous actors with franchises and household name recognition and Oscars for some of the worst people alive. I guess it’s one thing when you’re really, truly committing to turning the scattered reality into a cohesive narrative that requires someone you know can carry a series, like in American Crime Story, MAYBE, but generally? I just hate the idea of murderers (including those we KNOW have/had tremendous egos and would LOVE the attention and compliment) having their egos stroked by being played by a David Tennant or Charlize Theron.

    October 5, 2022
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  7. Rory
    Rory

    I feel like I spend a lot of time defending my interest in true crime and my desire to start a podcast. It’s mostly some form of “we’re not all like that,” ya know? We don’t all want to fuck serial killers and make Jeffrey Dahmer fancams on TikTok.

    The exploitative nature of most fictionalized portrayals is why I avoid them and typically stick with books and documentaries. I haven’t watched this series for that reason. Good to know that I am not missing much.

    November 27, 2022
    |Reply

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