The true crime drama DAHMER has faced some understandable backlash since its release on Netflix earlier this month. It’s certainly not the first piece of popular media dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer’s’ crimes. One of the most notable interpretations is My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Dahmer’s high school friend, Derf Backderf. It’s intensely eye-opening to see a first-hand account of how the monster grew and to reflect upon the action that could and should have been taken before it reached the magnitude it did. The ultimate cautionary tale, Backderf’s story ends before any of the murders occur. We know what followed, and such has already been documented via various forms of media.
Do we really need yet another depiction of this evil man’s perverse depravity?
In many ways, no. However, this series has a very particular vibe that I think should be discussed. Something that really stood out to me about it was the lack of excess. If you’re tuning in for a visually graphic dose of the macabre, you’re going to be disappointed. While it does contain a sparing use of shock factor, the overall ambience of this show is distinctly quiet. And it’s this meditative atmosphere that makes it truly unsettling.
DAHMER does something different in that it frequently plays upon the perspectives of those surrounding the killer, using the power of implication to perpetuate the pure hideousness of what we already know is happening off-camera. This, I think, is the correct decision on behalf of Director, Ryan Murphy, as it makes these heinous crimes far harder to glamourise. Such being a common issue within true crime retellings, I felt morally conflicted going into this series. However, I do believe that Murphy carried it off well, showing just enough to make your skin crawl but not enough to be gratuitous. Those switching it on just so they can yell ‘ew’ at something ‘gross’ are likely to get bored pretty quickly.
Another thing this series did well that many other true crime shows fall short on was touching on the wider social and political implications of these murders. A great deal of the show is taken up with stories that hone in on the systems that failed both the victims and their families. Jeffrey Dahmer himself is not necessarily at the epicentre here. The show has a broader picture at its core around which the evil of Jeffrey Dahmer simply circulates, taking advantage of broken procedures in some of the most frustrating ways imaginable. The abundance of historical injustice depicted in this show is truly painful.
Another common problem in true crime dramas is an overuse of artistic liberty. However, when fact-checking this series, it becomes abundantly clear that sensationalising this dark chapter of American history was not on Murphy’s agenda. While there are a handful of notable deviations, this is possibly the most accurate depiction of these events yet made, alongside Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer.
I won’t comment on the level of respect this series paid to the victims and their families as I feel such can only be judged by the families themselves. However, I will say that this particular retelling of this deeply harrowing tale is told with the victims at the forefront. This show is not an introspective piece into their murderer but is approached with an ‘outside looking in’ perspective. This makes it stand out within the true crime genre as it makes no effort to humanise Jeffrey Dahmer. It does not try to manipulate the narrative through emotional leverage; it simply says what is. As such, with the primary perspective being of those that surrounded him, sympathy for Jeffrey Dahmer is nigh impossible.
All in all, this series is beyond stomach churning, with The Independent reporting tweets from numerous viewers stating they had to “tap out” early. And I admit, this was something that, a couple of times, I too was tempted to do. But the nauseating feeling the show provides is not via gruesome depictions of macabre killings. The discomfort surrounding this show is primarily psychological. And in case you were in any doubt, this extends beyond the viewership alone. Evan Peters, who has provided one of the most phenomenally unnerving performances in crime drama history, touches upon how taxing this role was on his psyche. In an interview with Netflix, he states, “I was very scared about all the things that he did and diving into that […]. In order to do that, I was going to have to go to really dark places and stay there for an extended period of time.” And yet he commends the quietness of the series, prefacing this statement with “he did do these things, but you don’t need to embellish them, you know? We get it. We don’t need to see it over and over again.”
However, I would advise that prior commentary on the sparing use of gore does not lead you to approach this series with any less caution. This show is deeply upsetting and not for the faint of heart or anyone currently in a fragile mindset regarding its subject matters. Please ensure you are mentally prepared before viewing this material.
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