This review contains spoilers from Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and discussion of murder.
There have been numerous biopics, television specials and documentaries chronicling the true crime horrors of cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the 17 victims he murdered between 1978 and 1991. The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer was the first biopic released in 1993, only two years after the arrest and trials of Dahmer. Jeremy Renner then portrayed Dahmer in 2002’s Dahmer, followed by Raising Jeffrey Dahmer in 2006 which focused primarily on his family life leading up to the murders. 2012’s experimental documentary film The Jeffrey Dahmer Files used archival footage and fictionalized scenarios, and most recently, My Friend Dahmer (2017), which starred Ross Lynch as a young Dahmer, centered on his struggles to fit in at high school.
The newest depiction is Netflix’s 10-episode miniseries Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and was released to the platform on September 21. Dahmer is portrayed by Emmy-winner Evan Peters who is no stranger to playing disturbed, dark characters which can be seen in several seasons of American Horror Story. The series is co-created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan who also created Glee, Scream Queens, The Politician and Hollywood together. It also stars Richard Jenkins, Molly Ringwald, Niecy Nash, Michael Beach, Michael Learned, Penelope Ann Miller and Colby French.
One of the key aspects that makes this new series stand out from previous depictions is the focus on the societal and judicial failures which enabled Dahmer to continue his killings for years. It also shines an important light on the direct impact the murders and trials had on the families of the victims. Though only a few of the 17 victims were focused on in this series, it’s still a different approach compared to the numerous films and docuseries which focus primarily on the gruesome acts of murder themselves and Dahmer’s state of mind.
One name that stands out in this series is Glenda Cleveland – a name not many are familiar with when it comes to Jeffrey Dahmer. Glenda Cleveland was Dahmer’s neighbour in Milwaukee who called police multiple times reporting screams, weird noises and horrible smells constantly coming from Dahmer’s apartment through the vent. Her reports and calls for assistance were repeatedly ignored by both police and the building’s landlord.
One particular chilling event that the series documents is the evening of May 27, 1991. Glenda, played by Niecy Nash (Reno 911!, Claws), finds 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone who managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment and was found drugged, bloody and barely conscious. When the police arrived, they ignored Glenda’s plea for help that this was a child and Dahmer’s victim. Dahmer was able to convince the police that Sinthasomphone was an adult and his boyfriend who simply had too much to drink. The two policemen then guide Sinthasomphone back to Dahmer’s apartment who would later be murdered.
That scene in particular was difficult to watch – not because there was any gore or violence – but rather due to the blatant incompetence from those who are supposed to ‘serve and protect.’ There is no doubt that both race and homophobia played a key role in the cops’ actions (or rather, lack of action). Towards the end of the series, when Dahmer is caught and his trials are underway, there’s a telling scene between Glenda and Reverend Jesse Jackson (played by Nigel Gibbs) where he asks her about her experiences with her previous reports to the police. She breaks down as she explains how she tried her best to get the police to listen to her and save Sinthasomphone that May evening among her other calls for help. In real life, Jackson told the media: “Police chose the word of a killer over an innocent woman.”
Other difficult moments to watch that had nothing to do with violence or gore on screen are with Dahmer’s father played by Richard Jenkins, and his grandmother played by Michael Learned. Jenkins does an incredible job portraying Lionel Dahmer who ignores every red flag his son displayed since a young boy. Picking up road kill and dissecting dead animals with a 6 year-old is not exactly a great father-son bonding activity. After being kicked out of college and the army, Lionel then sends him to live with his grandmother where he begins to bring home young men and murder them in her basement. Again – red flags were ignored and Dahmer was able to get away with so much.
If you are a true crime fan, you are indeed familiar with Dahmer and the heinous crimes he committed. But what you might not be too familiar with are Glenda Cleveland, his victims and their families. This series is not a story about murder and cannibalism, nor is it really about the monster himself, Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s about white privilege, systemic racism and homophobia which led to the murder of 17 innocent young men who were predominantly Black, Asian or Latino.
Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is streaming on Netflix.
Helen Roumeliotis is the Editor-in-Chief at Popternative and currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Mediations at Carleton University. She enjoys writing and learning about how pop culture can be used as tools for education. You can follow her on Instagram @helenroum.
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