Before we begin, I feel it’s important to leave the standard disclaimer. Assuming you haven’t watched Dahmer Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (which I will henceforth refer to as Monster) and you intend to, you probably shouldn’t read this article. There will be spoilers about various parts of the show as we reflect on the series as a whole.
You have been warned.
CN: In the following paragraphs some hard things are discussed. This series deals with sexual assualt, murder, cannibalism, racism, and molestation. Ableism is also discussed. If you are sensitive to these types of topics you may not want to keep reading.
My first run-in with Monster was due to our FilmDis Study into Disabled Representation on TV. Every year there are two of us that split around 250 shows from the annual TV season and we watch to see how many disabled characters there are and what kind of representation those characters offer. We split the shows, so sometimes we end up with shows we don’t necessarily want to watch, but it’s all in the name of research.
Admittedly, I don’t know that I was planning to watch Monster when I formed my official study list. The thing that got me to watch was more about the response from friends who were watching it or had just finished it before I began. I went in with conflicting reports. I was informed about the use of BASL (Black American Sign Language) and how Ryan Murphy, the creator of Monster, cast authentically when he hired a Black Deaf male to play the part of Anthony “Tony” Hughes. I also heard about the racism and other factors that have made it incredibly hard for many to watch. All of this led me down the path to Netflix and 10-hours of rage-inducing fury, sadness, and shame.
Ryan Murphy has pointed out that this was a way of telling the story of what happened through the victim’s perspective. I would disagree. Dahmer was charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder resulting in 15 life sentences. He had at least 17 murder victims and possibly others. Monster boils down to a string of single-gay-men from the club who are virtually nameless with few exceptions.
That’s the irony in Monster. I can tell you every nuance of Jeffrey Dahmer. We can talk about his bad childhood, his toxic parents, and the innate privilege he had living within a system that propped him up as a white man and allowed him to continue to kill Black and Brown men. I can’t tell you much about the people this was supposed to be about though. I can tell you that most of these Black and Brown men were gay (there was no focus in the series on the few heterosexual men Dahmer killed) and that they were all living in various stages of poverty. That last part I only know because it seems that each man that decides to go with Dahmer, usually under the guise of posing for photographs, is offered between $50 and $100, which they never live to receive.
In 10-hours I learned more about Jeffrey Dahmer and his family, some things factual, and others made up, than I ever knew before. I still only have a brief amount of knowledge about those he chose to murder…and eat. That’s my first problem with Monster. The American fascination with the destruction of a community, often at the hands of a white man, always leads to endless information about the man, and little of the community. Monster tells us over and over again that the world is racist and that’s why Jeffrey was, in part, able to do what he did. However, it doesn’t take the time to leave that message long enough to show us the people from the community affected, that were silenced then and are still, in a way, being silenced now.
There’s also the rampant sensationalism that drives the project. There have been thousands of serial killers throughout time, probably more. Jeffrey Dahmer’s story is sensational all on its own, as much as it is eerily common at the same time. He’s not the first serial killer to target minority communities. He’s not even the first cannibal. Yet, when it comes to modern American serial killers he could very well sit in for the Boogeyman. He’s creepy, terrifying, and again, he eats people. Yet, much of what you see in Monster is fictionalized. The basic events of the story are true..enough…but much is made up, and it constantly left me wondering why? And while that is mentioned, briefly, in a text that most people likely ignore, many people take each scene as gospel, unless they know the truth.
Monster revolves around a few key players, with most victims being incidental characters in their own deaths. It focuses on Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters), his father Lionel (Richard Jenkins), and Dahmer’s neighbor Glenda Cleveland (Neicy Nash). These are your key players. There is only one victim that gets serious screen time and that’s Tony Hughes (Rodney Burford). In “Silenced,” Tony forms a relationship with Dahmer complete with some dating, actual sex, and his eventual death. Tony offers one thing to sensationalize events even more, because Tony is Deaf.
The episode begins with Tony’s birth. We soon learn that Tony is Deaf due to a medication that had been given to him. These are the first scenes that you see, complete with the shock and worry from a young mother who just realized that she’s going to be raising a disabled child. Flashback scenes like that are meant to tug at the heartstrings, if only a little. As a viewer, you’re meant to be an empathetic voyeur, which in this case, means that you should empathize with the pain this mother must be feeling about raising a Deaf child. It’s bothersome because as a viewer, you know that Tony’s presence at all means that he is about to be one of Dahmer’s victims, and yet his loss of life isn’t valid enough on its own.
Great embellishments had to happen to make “Silenced” Tony’s victimous swan song. After the opening scenes with Tony’s diagnosis there are scenes with his family and friends. Sometimes you, as the viewer, are greeted with no sound because you’re getting Tony’s point of view. It’s an out-dated tactic used to teach hearing people about deafness. It doesn’t work here (or anywhere, really) because the sound goes in and out. So, when the filmmakers decide you need to hear something – you hear it – if not – you don’t.
Before Tony meets Dahmer you get a glimpse into his life. He has dinner with two friends that are also gay and Deaf – Rico (Jared DeBusk) and Rufus (Michael Anthony Spady). Each actor is Deaf and it is nice to see a scene where Deaf/disabled people are able to have a moment to themselves in their own space. They talk about everything from how Tony is watching his weight because he wants to be a model to how hearing guys don’t really understand them. It’s a strong moment, but it’s also one that’s filmed primarily for the non-disabled/hearing gaze.
You also see Tony attempting to find a job. This scene, which is a filler, at best, and a failed teaching opportunity at worst, is only meant to show that the world doesn’t treat Deaf/disabled people the same. He applies for a job at a record store, but they are no longer hiring. As he leaves, the manager quips that it’s a music store…duh. He applies elsewhere to the same fate. Luckily, the third time’s the charm and the manager at the third retail location has a Deaf sister, so he knows sign language and is less likely to discriminate apparently. You never see him at work, which makes all of this unnecessary. In fact, it seems like he ends up dead before he even gets a chance to work.
It doesn’t take long for you to learn that Rico has been murdered. The described murder doesn’t fit Dahmer’s previous MOs, but that’s okay because he wasn’t one of Dahmer’s victims. You might logically think that he would have been considering the context, but he wasn’t. Rico and Rufus were composite characters who were made up.Other than a weak sense of foreshadowing, the composite characters have no real purpose. After the death of Rico, you don’t really see Rufus, but that’s likely because you’re getting into the meat of the episode where Tony meets Dahmer.
Tony is the only victim you see Dahmer spend more than a few minutes with. Dahmer tries to work his magic and get Tony back to his place, but when it doesn’t work they end up going out on a date instead. He goes to a photo session with Tony, they go out to eat, and they even have consensual sex. Dahmer starts to drug him, but changes his mind. Later, when Tony has to leave (and promises to return), Dahmer contemplates bludgeoning him with a bloody hammer, but turns from that idea, as well. He lets him leave. Unfortunately, Tony comes back and ends up being eaten on screen for his trouble.
The episode is an exploitative shock fest and it’s not shocking because he did it. We knew he did it. It’s shocking that he did it to a Deaf guy. Not only is this exploitative, it’s ableist. Tony came up against a monster that killed 11 other people at that point. He didn’t die because he was disabled, he died because a serial killer took him out. It had more to do with the fact that he was gay and Black than it had to do with him being disabled.
They singled Tony out, making him the one story that was attempted to be told from the victim’s perspective, because he was disabled. That lone identifier is supposed to make the viewer care more. Of course, Tony wasn’t sensational enough on his own, which is why Rico had to die first, and why the last scene needed to be of Dahmer eating a part of Tony.
The other person-focused episodes take away from the victims, as well. In “Lionel” we listen to Dahmer’s father cry and bemoan the fact that he couldn’t have possibly created a monster like this. It obviously was his mother’s fault. This theory is floated more than once, talking about how Joyce (Penelope Ann Miller) was on a significant amount of medication while pregnant. True as that may be, Monster would be a much better story if it attempted to offer the victim’s perspective and spent less time explaining why Dahmer did what he did and by extension, whose fault it might have been.
Like in real life, Lionel goes on to write a book about how it’s not his fault. There is an exploitative scene of Lionel watching Geraldo where they ignore anything that Tracy Edwards (the victim who got away and it led to Dahmer’s arrest) says, but they focus on the anonymous friend of Dahmer’s who says that Lionel molested him. This is what apparently spurs him to write a book, but not before an underutilized Molly Ringwald (playing second wife, Shari Dahmer) lets him know that she knows he’s a good dad, because his other kid is “normal.”
Lionel would eventually be sued by two of the families (not all of them like the series implies), which would lead to his unsuccessful book to be largely ignored. That fact apparently bothers Lionel because he doesn’t miss a chance to talk about how it should have been a movie, but those lawsuits held him back. He understood that it looked like he was trying to profit off the victims, but honestly, he was just trying to get a little fame for himself and make sure that people knew he was a good dad. Unfortunately, if you’ve watched the series up to the point of Lionel’s episode you’re well aware that he was not only a shit father, he isn’t that great of a man either.
Lionel even tries to use Ed Gein as an example of how Jeffrey can plead insanity and spend his life in a hospital, as opposed to prison, which wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone according to him. Jeffrey believes he is sane though. Dahmer’s actual mental health diagnosis’ are never brought up, which I’m thankful for because the mental health community suffers enough when filmmakers try to draw a straight line from mental illness to murder and depravity.
Glenda Cleveland also receives her own episode. Interestingly, Glenda is both a real person and a composite character – she is born of two actual women, Cleveland, and Dahmer’s actual real-life next door neighbors (a couple), Pamela and Vernell Bass. Cleveland lived in the adjacent building from Dahmer, though she did call the cops on him more than once and he would have been stopped much sooner had they listened to her. The Bass family is erased entirely. As such, the entire series of events with Cleveland smelling the dead bodies through the vent and complaining to anyone who would listen, is just done for dramatic effect. Bass never stated that she could smell the bodies in her home.
In one scene, Cleveland finally gets the building super to listen to her and she gets the ball rolling for Dahmer to be evicted (he ends up getting arrested first). To smooth things over, he offers her a sandwich. A meat sandwich. This never happened to Cleveland, but Bass did mention that Dahmer had offered people in the building sandwiches and believes she may have eaten someone. Obviously, this is a shocking scene, but unless we’re counting Cleveland as a victim, it doesn’t show us anything for or about the victims. Monster is just a repeated attempt to show us who Dahmer was and to try to assign meaning for what he did. There is no meaning – none that would matter anyway – and the callousness that is shown to the Black, Brown, and LGBTQIA communities is just another way of revictimizing these groups all over again.
That’s the problem that so many recognize with Monster. It’s akin to torture porn. Everyone already knows Dahmer and no one is left with a strong realization of the 17 victims. The families weren’t even told this project was underway. No one asked if their victim impact statements could be read verbatim or if that might cause someone harm. It was a true story that was treated like it was fiction. And the people included in the project might want to believe that it was done in a way to honor the victims, but all it does is ignore the victims and harm those still living that loved them.
It’s a sentiment that my sister Germaine Martin shares. She identifies as a Black non-binary lesbian and she’s also disabled. When I talked to her about Monster, there was a lot she couldn’t wrap her head around, but she did say, “I’m especially concerned with Niecy Nash and the other LGBTQIA Black folks being involved. That really upsets me. That offends me. I don’t understand how she didn’t have a problem with being in a series that makes fun of us and degrades us.”
I can see how she would feel that way. For me, one of the hardest scenes to watch takes place at a wedding. Dahmer is already imprisoned and the Sinthasomphone family has sued and was awarded an $850,000 settlement for the pain and suffering they endured. Dahmer accosted their 13 year old son and was charged with molestation, but the judge did not want to ruin Dahmer’s life so he gave him one year in jail with work release. It’s worth noting at least a couple of the murders Dahmer would commit, happened when he was out to work. Even though Somsack managed to get away, his brother Konerak would later go with Dahmer, because he needed money for his family.
Glenda goes to the celebration and sits with the father, Southone Sinthasomphone (Khetphet Phagnasay) and says that she’s happy for him and that his family deserves what they received after everything that happened. He tells her that he tries to be strong, but he has to wake up every morning knowing that Jeffrey Dahmer is alive and his son isn’t. She tells him to “fake it until he makes it.” It seems like a little shallow thing to remind someone that their newfound wealth is well deserved, even though it had to come at the hands of one son swimming in trauma and the other one dead.
As a viewer, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the choices that were made concerning the cops. There is plenty of racism to be found, from the cops not believing Cleveland to the scene where her daughter is arrested because she breaks the camera of a white man who is taking torture pics for friends in front of Dahmer’s building. We also watch the cops making prank calls to the victim’s families. They even have a scene, where the recently reinstated officers receive an award for their merit, at the same time that Cleveland is getting an award for hers. In reality, the cops were investigated and then fired. They eventually were rehired, but to my knowledge they didn’t win any awards for their work on the Dahmer case. Still, the actual racism endured by everyone involved that is actually shown in the series is depicted as pretty light compared to the real story. It’s hard to comprehend why the filmmakers thought it was better to embellish things when it was already so racist.
At the end Dahmer is murdered, but even that needed a little more glitz than the reality. In real life Dahmer was baptized on the same day that there was an eclipse and John Wayne Gacy was put to death for his crimes. The final episode begins with some good ole’ fashioned torture porn where we see Gacy beat and drown a man to death. Later, Dahmer finds God because he realizes (or the show makes it seem) that he’s more evolved as a person because while Gacy would never admit what he did, Dahmer admitted it from the jump. This leads him back into the arms of God and he is baptized. It’s shown in a macabre montage that interlaces shots of Gacy being executed and the eclipse happening. Again, nary a victim is to be found in these moments. In fact, like the entire series, you don’t see much of anything beyond Dahmer.
And after his death, at the hands of another inmate, who found his inability to atone unforgivable, we are still greeted with more about Dahmer. There’s the fight between his parents deciding whether or not to donate Jeffrey’s brain to be studied. Lionel is against this. After all, he doesn’t want anything coming back to him, and Joyce wants it done, but is denied, so the brain is destroyed.
In the end, Murphy’s Monster cannot even summon the dignity to give each victim their own space on the screen. Instead, we’re greeted with a yearbook montage of tiny pictures filling the screen one by one, and text underneath them that, while nice, is also too small to read well, so it manages to miss the mark. Monster regards the victims as things. Even Tony, who gets his own episode, is nothing more than a prop in his own death. All of these Black and Brown gay men are inconsequential plot devices meant to push the story forward. But that’s the thing, we’ve heard this story before and if it needed to be told again, it needed to be done by the people affected by it.
The true travesty in all of this is that those people were content enough being left alone.