True Crime Tuesdays: Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
Helen Archer | On 11, Oct 2022
Ryan Murphy is no stranger to true crime. Arguably his best work was based on the trial of OJ Simpson, while The Assassination of Gianni Versace looked at Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan. But Murphy is just as well known for the ongoing American Horror Story anthology, which roots many of its storylines in historical murders, albeit viewed through a distancing, somewhat ironic horror lens.
Co-created by long-time collaborator Ian Brennan, the 10-part series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is very much a Ryan Murphy piece, traversing a well-trodden path over many of his ongoing themes. Evan Peters – one of Murphy’s preferred actors, who has played many a monstrous role within the Murphy-verse – takes on the role of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 17 men and boys – preying on a largely Black, largely gay community – over a period of 13 years, before he was caught in 1991.
The series itself is a tale of two halves. The unbearably tense first episode details the experience of one of Dahmer’s would-be victims, Tracy Edwards (Shaun J Brown), as he finds himself locked in Dahmer’s apartment, quickly realising that there’s something very, very wrong. This leads to episodes that detail some of Dahmer’s childhood, including the dissection of roadkill with his father, his first forays into killing, and his modus operandi. Yet attempts to “understand” the man fail – he is, and remains, unknowable, a black void, played flatly and unflashily by Peters. It seems pointless to attempt to understand him, even as his father (Richard Jenkins) clumsily tries.
These early episodes also introduce us to his neighbour, Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash), first seen watching news footage of the LA police beating Rodney King, disturbed by the alarming noises from the next door apartment, and the smell coming through her air vent. Her frustration at not being listened to by the police, even her protestations as they return 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone to his murderer after he escapes, reflects the way in which Dahmer chose his victims – and even the mainly-Black area where he resided – with care, in order to prey on the marginalised, taking advantage of society’s ever-present racism and homophobia. Nash delivers a powerful performance, but the composite nature of her character – she did exist, yet is meshed with other neighbours to form a cohesive whole – could be seen as problematic to those expecting a “real” dramatisation of events.
If the first half of the series examines the making of a monster, the second is given over to the effect this monster had on the lives of those who had the misfortune of coming into his orbit. The turning point is a desperately sad episode featuring Rodney Burford as Tony Hughes, a deaf man who befriended Dahmer. He is fleshed out as a sweetly optimistic character, making his almost-inevitable demise all the more stomach-churning, and his mother Shirley’s (Karen Malina White) devastation all the more haunting.
Yet sometimes characters can seem like cyphers, mouthpieces – their lines inspired not so much by character progression as by the broader themes the writers feel they should be exploring. Towards the end, it almost feels as though Murphy is fending off criticism before it even arises, as Dahmer receives fan mail, money, and personalised comic books in prison. “You’ll never die. You’re like Michael Myers or Freddie Kreuger now,” reads one letter, speaking to the celebrification of serial killers.
Whenever a film or TV series is made about a serial killer, it receives accusations of sensationalism. Some of these critiques can arguably tell us more about the people making them than they do of the work itself. Yet the fact that much of Murphy’s work has focused on the monstrous for entertainment could be said to undermine any serious commentary on the nature of “celebrity” killers. Perhaps Murphy lacks the weight to take on a story not just so dark, but so real, in the recent past, with such a ripple effect of sorrow. Yet it works the other way, too – the fact that it is based on very real, reasonably recent murders makes the series all the more powerful and nightmare-inducing.
Monster is obviously a dark, disturbing work. The disgust at Dahmer’s depravity, the visceral sense of the smell wafting through the air vents and the gut-wrenching sequences full of tension rather than gore are shot through with a sense of the victims, the communities, and the horror he inflicted. It’s a tough watch, to put it mildly. But should it be anything other?